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How to Maintain Optimism in the time of COVID-19

COVID-19 is understandably taking a global toll on our mental health. The social isolation, fears of illness, threats to financial security, worries about how, when or if this will end are all rapidly leading to a mental health crisis.

In CBT, we often talk about the cognitive triad – core beliefs about the self, about others, and about the world.  These core beliefs dictate how we make sense of the world, and determine how we feel and how we behave. Negative core beliefs lead to diminished self-esteem, increased depression and anxiety, and a range of other problems.  COVID-19 has in an instant altered our collective core beliefs.  It is true that others are dangerous, it is true that the world and future is uncertain and it is true that our own safety and security is in question.  So what do we do to cope and not spiral down into a state of hopelessness?

Part of the answer lies in looking towards Positive Psychology and learned optimism.  Learned optimism, coined by Dr. Martin Seligman, is the idea that we can change our negative behaviours and attitudes by recognizing and challenging negative self-talk.  In other words, that optimism can be cultivated.  In turn, optimism about the self/others/world bodes well for our physical and mental health.  There’s plenty of research to back up the claim that people who have a ‘glass half full’ approach to life have improved physical health, mental health and overall success.  In ‘A Man’s Search for Meaning’ Victor Frankl, a Nazi camp survivor, a described how hope and optimism differentiated those who survived Auschwitz versus those who didn’t.

In order to understand how you can cultivate optimism in challenging times like these, you need to understand the underpinnings of pessimism.  Pessimists tend to spend more time processing negative information that matches their expectations.  During this COVID-19 pandemic, that may look like exclusively focusing on negative news stories (which there are plenty of), which reaffirms the belief that things are bleak.  Pessimists also have an external locus of control and have little confidence in how much change they can effect on their lives.  Another hallmark of pessimism is the tendency  to attribute struggles to pervasive, permanent and personal factors (3 Ps).   If we look at a pessimistic view of COVID-19, it may look something like this: ‘this pandemic will affect every aspect of my life’ (pervasive), ‘this pandemic will never end’ (permanent), and ‘I have no control over what happens and will end up on a ventilator’ (personal).

The good news is that optimism can be cultivated and learned.  And by refocusing the way we attend to and how we process information, we can keep calm during this challenging and uncertain time.  As Martin Seligman wrote, “Optimists don’t avoid life’s storms, but they weather them better and emerge from them better off.”

So how do you learn to become more optimistic?

The first step is to become aware of where you are focusing your attention,  examine your perception of control, and  understand your attributional and explanatory styles.  Are you exclusively focusing on and seeking out negative news?   Do you feel like you have no control over what’s happening?  Are you aware of negative thoughts that COVID-19 will never end, that it will affect all areas of your life, and that you have no control and will for certain be affected personally?

The next step is to confront your behaviours and thoughts and replace them with more optimistic and adaptive behaviours and thoughts.   Spend part of your time researching positive news – the research developments on new treatments/vaccines, the stories of acts of goodwill that are taking place in your community and around the world, the stories of courage and hope.  Focus on what you can control and rise up to the challenges that you are presented with, no matter how big or small they are.  And if you find your thoughts spiralling out of control, then take a step back and reinstate hope.  Tell yourself that this is temporary, that you can adapt to change, and that you can handle whatever comes your way.  Remind yourself that you are resilient, that others are good, and that the world is working together and will prevail.

To practice learned optimism, try out this exercise suggested by Dr. Martin Seligman.  https://penntoday.upenn.edu/news/tips-to-help-stay-calm-amid-coronavirus-COVID19-uncertainty

Stay healthy and hopeful,

Dr. Carolina McBride