Reduce Anxiety by Cultivating Optimism
During my personal 11 year long journey trying to tame my incessantly worrying mind, I found that there is one trait that seems to be a natural repellent to anxiety. I started to notice that optimism and anxiety seem like they can't get along very well.
It's like the uncanny ability to visualize a brighter future somehow makes you immune to the constant onslaught of intrusive worries and nagging fears.
In the past few years, science has shown that optimism, in fact, serves as a mental barrier against irrational fears and anxious thoughts.
How Optimism Shields Your Brain from Anxiety
If you're familiar with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (from here on CBT), then you'll know that it's one of the most successful therapies for treating anxiety disorders. One of the things CBT does is it teaches you how to catch yourself thinking in irrational ways that that feed your anxiety levels.
And one of these irrational ways that the anxious mind tends to perceive the world around it is called "catastrophizing." What it basically means is that your brain tends to think that things are much worse than what they really are.
Let's say that this your first day at your new job and as you walk into the office, you catch two of your new colleagues whispering something and then smiling.
How does this make you feel? What do you think just happened?
Well, you might think that they were laughing at you. That they thought you were doing something weird or awkward.
You might feel that you're being ridiculed. That they already know that you're not a good fit for your position and that you're going to screw up and embarrass yourself very soon. You might think that they somehow secretly found out that you're a terrible pick for the job and they know that you're going to get fired as soon as everyone else finds out, too.
That's the catastrophizing way of thinking about it.
It's completely irrational. First of all, if this was your first day at your new job, then your two colleagues wouldn't know you since they hadn't even met you before. So it's very unlikely that they would be laughing at your perceived "incompetence" - which may again be just another piece of catastrophizing right there.
I don't know if you've noticed, but catastrophizing is awfully similar to pessimism.
And how do you combat pessimism? Of course! By cultivating optimism.
Realistic Optimism Vs. Rampant Unrealistic Optimism
Not all optimism is created equal. I like to think that there is actually two kinds of optimism: realistic and unrealistic optimism. And you want to cultivate only one of them.
Unrealistic optimism is that happy go lucky kind that somehow manages to see the rosy outcome in virtually any situation, no matter how dire or hopeless it actually is. It's rampant and it's hard to believe.
Have you ever met someone who was able to see the silver lining in everything? Even in a car accident?
Friend: "Well, it could have been worse! I mean you could have lost your arm!"
You: "Yeah... I certainly haven't thought of it that way."
Unrealistic optimism is actually not that bad. It is a very powerful mindset that can get you through hard times.
The only problem with it is that, well, it tends to be unrealistic. And so it can be challenging to believe it. And unless you can actually believe it, it's not going to be able to shield you from your anxious thoughts.
So what you really need to go after is good old realistic optimism. Optimistic views that actually make sense and provide a logical explanation for themselves.
This is the kind of optimism that you want to cultivate in your mind.
How to Cultivate Realistic Optimism
I've found that there are two very powerful mindset shifts that you can make that will help you look at the world through more optimistic lenses.
#1 Stop Comparing Yourself To Others All The Time
We spend most of our lives comparing ourselves to others. And not just to others, but to a specific subgroup of others that usually have it better than us in one way or another.
Comparing yourself to smarter people or more successful people is only going to make you disappointed in yourself. Keeping up with the Joneses is only going to fuel your anxiety levels.
If you want to be optimistic, the first thing you need to learn is that you can't be comparing yourself with the best. If you go down that road, you're going to set yourself up for bitter failure.
Let's look at an example. I love running. It's my passion and I run almost every day. And of course I track my performance from workout to workout and take pleasure in noticing the little improvements compared to my own past performance.
I don't compare myself with Usain Bolt when I do my daily running sessions. If I did, I'd be one miserable runner that's for sure. I can never even dream about running as fast as Usain can.
But I don't make that mistake. I don't compare myself with people who may have had better circumstances, more time available to them, or are just simply more talented than me.
No, what I do is I only compare myself to my past self.
My philosophy is to track how much I've grown compared to my own past results. And as long as I see that I'm making progress, I'm a happy man.
It's important to realize that by comparing yourself to giants in your field, you're bound to end up in the second or third place. And that's going to slowly wear down your motivation, your passion and your confidence. And ultimately, your optimism.
Because optimism feeds off of your own personal performance. If you're constantly overshadowed by other players in your field, then your confidence is going to diminish as a result. You'll slowly think that you're simply not as good as them. And after several bitter defeats, you'll simply get fed up with the disappointing results and just give up and walk away.
If I had to race Usain Bolt every single day and have him beat me every single time, I'd quickly lose my passion for running. And I'd probably start thinking that I'm a lousy runner to boot. And if someone were to try to convince me to sign up for a local running competition, I wouldn't even give it a serious thought before saying no and walking away in shame.
On the other other hand, if I take a step back and focus on my own personal progression as a runner, comparing myself to me alone, it's going to give me a lot more confidence in the long run. I'm going to be optimistic about my chances of doing well in a running competition and I may even sign up for a running competition to test myself.
And that's how much of a different the right mindset can make.
So remember, always compare yourself to yourself first.
#2 Give People The Benefit of the Doubt
Let's say that you just got home from work and you found your spouse in a very foul mood. They were clearly irritated and it didn't take them long to blow up on you for some trivial thing you did, or did not do.
So we have a situation where a quarrel is imminent and you're clearly being verbally attacked by another person who is very close to you.
What do you do?
Well, there's really two ways you can go about it.
- You can either roll with it, pick up the fight thinking that your spouse is clearly attacking you as a person. Obviously you're going to defend yourself by dishing out some verbal jabs yourself and trying to intimidate your spouse into submission by yelling back.
- You can realize that her foul mood is at the root of her edginess and it has nothing to do with you whatsoever. Her behavior is not an attack on your ego, it's just a lash out sparked by something that had previously happened. You are in the wrong place at the wrong time. With this in mind, you can take a radically different approach. You can calm her down and try to find out what had irritated her in the first place before you even arrived and go from there.
When our opinion, our beliefs, or our personality is verbally challenged, we tend to automatically assume that the other person is attacking us on a personal level. And so we retaliate with vicious verbal jabs and before we know it, it all escalates into a full-blown quarrel.
We rarely stop to think about why the other person is acting the way they do... even though that would usually help us to resolve any disagreements in a peaceful way much more quickly.
And that's because when it comes to other people, we tend to be awful pessimists.
Whenever someone is acting like an a**hole, we automatically jump to the conclusion that that's because they actually are an a**hole. And not only that, but they're actually unleashing the full potential of their a**holeness on us on purpose and in full awareness of how it's making us feel. And it clearly causes them heaps of pleasure. You can just see it on their faces.
That's catastrophizing at its best. Why?
Just because someone acts like an a**hole, it doesn't mean that they are one. There's a big difference between being a jerk, and for some reason acting like a jerk, right? Circumstances you don't even know about might have pushed someone over the edge into jerk mode. But that doesn't make them a jerk.
And for the most part, being a jerk is not a premeditated act of malice. People don't act insufferable on purpose, it's usually because they've lost their self control because of something that had happened to them earlier that day. They don't want to act like a jerk, but they can't help it in the heat of the moment.
And they they obviously don't know about how them acting like that makes you feel. Usually they only have a vague idea but even then they're mostly clueless.
And no, they probably don't enjoy verbally abusing you. No one likes quarreling with their significant other. In fact, they probably feel bad about it and wish it would over soon.
The art of optimism has so much to do with giving people the benefit of the doubt.
Even if they act like a jerk, or if they're being insufferable, remember that it's almost never about you and they're not enjoying it, either. Chances are, something has probably happened to them earlier that day that they had been keeping bottled up inside. And you were the last straw that broke the camel's back.
If you can start giving people the benefit of the doubt when they're trying to pick a fight with you, you're not only going to be a lot more optimistic but also a much much better partner in general.
Cultivating realistic optimism is going to be a very powerful tool on your journey to tame your anxiety.
And not only that but optimism is cool. It's a very charismatic personality trait and it's a great leadership quality, too. You definitely want to make practicing optimism a top priority from now on.
Here's a quick exercise to help you practice. From now on, whenever you notice that you're obsessing over a potentially negative future outcome, be it an exam, a job interview, or a family trip, do this. Grab a pen and a piece of paper and write down 3 optimistic outcomes you can think of for each one of your worries.
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