Feeling Stressed? Step 5: Build Optimism

During Mental Health Awareness Month Kevin Chapman from the Physical Intelligence Institute, who was guest on episode 108 of the Access to Inspiration podcast shares five steps to reduce stress.

In order to build optimism, we need the ability to recognise and transform threatened and reactive states of body and mind and be constructive with them – cultivating a learning mindset. Bounce Positive is a technique that helps us cultivate a learning mindset, process negative events efficiently and apply a learning mindset to everything we do, so that we can develop a robust, realistic optimism – which helps us reboot serotonin, oxytocin and dopamine levels.

How we interpret events affects our outlook. We can learn to generate realistic optimism, a proactive state that creates optimal mental and emotional health. Research indicates that optimists have higher- paid jobs and will persevere for longer on tasks than pessimists; they also have stronger immune systems.

Our history has a strong bearing on how we interpret events. The amygdala, the emotional centre of the brain, is the quickest but least accurate to respond. Close to our memory banks in the hippocampus, it checks every current event against the past, looking first for threats to survival. We have to be able to identify, recognise and refute irrational threatened responses and choose responses that generate realistic optimism.

young student with notebook attending online lesson

Become aware of your self-talk

Our inner voices, formed in our past, prime us in certain ways by telling us stories in our minds that create inner conflict. We need to know who these voices are, where they come from, which we should listen to and how we can integrate them so that we can live peacefully with ourselves.

  • Situation. Think of a situation recently that has made you feel less than optimistic about the future. Identify the specific moment when you felt your chemistry drop and relive the moment in your mind and body. Describe the physical sensations you felt and name the emotions. Place your hand on the area of your body where you felt the impact of the emotions.
  • Self-talk. Write down the negative statements, accusations and assumptions running through your mind, e.g. I will never be able to cope with this quantity of work, I have no resources, I am not good enough to do this, I am incompetent, I will be found out, I should toughen up, my boss thinks I am failing, I am a bad parent, so- and- so is a fool, things always go wrong in the end etc. Notice how harsh and accusatory such assumptions, absolutes, judgements and criticisms can be. (This part of the exercise is not very pleasant, and you may experience some powerful emotions, but it is necessary.)
  • Overcome negativity. Now, move your focus from your amygdala- driven background mind to your pre- frontal cortex – the front of your mind. Consider each statement above in a more objective way. Take deep breaths and keep processing your emotions as they arise.
  • Use robust logic to verify, deny or question each statement. For example, if your self- talk is, ‘I will never be able to cope with this quantity of work’, then examine the use of the word ‘never’. The statement claims to know what will happen in the future. A more helpful statement might be: ‘There is a lot to do and it is important that I take stock and manage expectations – I will set aside time to consider my options.’ This exercise is not about glossing over issues; rather about facing them head- on, and looking at them with objective reality and positive self- regard.

– You may verify a statement such as – ‘The budget has been cut’, or ‘I find x difficult to manage.’ These are accurate statements about the reality.

– A deniable statement might be – ‘I am just no good.’ First of all, it is too absolute. Is there really no good in you? Second, it is too broad. What are you ‘no good’ at exactly? Notice how inaccurate absolute language is and how it blocks our self- respect.

– A questionable statement might be: ‘My boss regrets appointing me.’ This statement is an assumption and it is important to acknowledge that it also is a loaded, absolute statement. ‘Dan is frustrated with me’ is also questionable. He may well be frustrated but perhaps it is about something else entirely. ‘This won’t turn out well’ and ‘I am going to mess this up’ are questionable and deniable statements. Apart from their inherent pessimism, they are framed in the future tense, so how can you know?

  • Acknowledge reality. Once you have a series of statements that you have verified, denied or questioned, accurately describe what the reality of the situation is and what is really true about you. Too often, we quickly jump to irrational conclusions that whir in the background like a rogue programme running in the background of your computer, reducing current processing power. Notice resistance but continue to take your own side. Be fair and balanced in your view of the situation. So, it might be: ‘Dan shouted at me. I don’t fully understand what is going on, so I will be sure to ask him. Meanwhile, I know that I am competent; I am doing my best in a challenging environment.’
  • Choose actions. From this realistic perspective, consider what choices you are making, what actions you want to take, and how you can be creative with your situation. For example: 1) Talk to Dan when the time is right; 2) Put an hour aside to look at priorities with a cool head; 3) Call a mentor for advice on how to manage expectations and push back on timelines. As you do this, you may notice a sense of weight lifting from you – serotonin and oxytocin levels are rising and you should feel a resurgence of optimism.
  • Capture learning. Finally, ask yourself, ‘What did I learn from this experience and how can I embed this learning? What historical “rabbit hole” is the source of my interpretation of this event? What specifically can I watch out for in future situations to pre-empt this reaction?’

Thought patterns change over time and create a different set of emotions and long-term attitudes. We can ‘hack into’ interpretations in order that we can make different choices. With practice, you will be able to ‘Bounce Positive’ quickly, taking thirty seconds to a minute to verify, deny or question thoughts. Sometimes, where new situations arise and emotions run high, it is important to give this exercise ten to twenty minutes in order to understand your reactions more deeply.