When the World Feels Scary Cultivating Hope is an act of Resilience
Resilience is the psychological strength that allows some people to adapt, thrive, and/or return to their baseline faster after adverse experiences happen.
Dealing with change, setbacks, loss, and grief is an inevitable and normal part of life. Resilient people are emotionally agile — they don’t ignore “bad” things or negative feelings, nor do they wallow in negative emotions. They have a fitting emotional response — neither overblown, nor callous, nor insensitive. This allows them to recover faster.
Fortunately, a person is not “resilient” or “not resilient”: resilience is a set of skills that can be grown through practice, not a static trait of individuals.
But what happens when “normal” for everyone changes dramatically and seemingly overnight?
In times of extreme collective uncertainty and adversity, like that posed by our new COVID-19 reality, it’s particularly important we all practice resilience daily so we can maintain our health, compassion, grace, and equanimity in the face of change and fear. This is the fifth in ten research-backed ways to grow our resilience daily.
Fear and its Antidotes
At the moment, the world feels scary. We’re in the midst of a global pandemic, schools are closed, borders are closed, there are angry protesters, unstable presidents, hunger, and fears of an oppressive government.
The dangers are potentially real, but perhaps fear is what we should fear most, not the actual danger — because fear interrupts our ability to take reasoned action.
When we are afraid, adrenaline and cortisol are released into the body and the amygdala (the brain’s center for emotions, memory, and survival instincts) takes over cognitive function in the brain. This is the “fight, freeze or flight” response. When the amygdala is in control, the limbic system of the brain shuts down connection to the neo-cortex, the parts of the brain responsible for rational thinking. When fear is primed, it narrows our perception of the world, both literally what we see visually, but also cognitively in terms of seeing the “big picture” of information. Fear also makes us less able to empathize and see the humanity in others.
To summarize: We literally cannot think rationally nor connect well with others when we are experiencing fear.
Being able to effectively take action to mitigate threats requires both our rational minds and our hearts. So what are the antidotes to fear’s poison?
Antidotes to fear include hope and optimism.
The most resilient people — those who can recover quickly from experiences of fear and move toward reasoned action — actively practice hope and optimism daily.
What are hope and optimism? How do they make us more resilient?
Optimism and hope are related but slightly different:
· Optimism is a mental attitude — it’s a positive outlook on the future or expecting the best possible outcome from any given situation. It’s the opposite of pessimism, a tendency to see or expect the worst.
Optimists see or seek out the “silver lining” and believe, like Patel in the movie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, that “Everything will be alright in the end. If it’s not alright, it’s not the end”. Optimism is not necessarily dependent on doing something or taking action.
· Hope is more closely related to locus of control in that people who feel hopeful believe they have both the “will” and the “ways” to achieve the outcomes they want — and therefore they tend to take action in pursuit of their goals and desires.
Social psychologists would say that hope might help you pursue a goal, while optimism helps you persist in the face of repeated setbacks or disappointments. You apply for a job with hope, but if you don’t get it, optimism will help you continue applying for other jobs.
Hope and optimism are both highly interrelated and very powerful predictors of positive outcomes, so perhaps this technicality is a bit irrelevant to our daily experience (despite being so interesting to nerds like me). Optimism predicts greater career success, better relationships, psychological wellness, well-being, and health — optimistic people recover faster and are less likely to have a second heart attack. Hope predicts the ability to attain goals, have better academic achievement, choose healthier diet and lifestyles, as well as cope and recover better from illness. Hopeful people also experience higher life satisfaction and spiritual well-being.
Sounds great, right?
But what if your natural tendency is to be a bit more like Eeyore, pessimistic and not-so-hopeful?
Luckily, like all aspects of resilience, hope and optimism are not fixed traits — they’re skills you can grow with practice.
Practices to Cultivate Hope & Optimism
1. Switch from Problem to Solutions Thinking
To feel hopeful you need to think realistically and flexibly about the problems you encounter (why it’s related to locus of control). To do this, you need to acknowledge the negative, and potential setbacks, but also move beyond the problem and think about various solutions, ways you could mitigate against potential setbacks, or ways you can navigate around potential pitfalls. Solutions thinking aligns with the old adage goes, “Take what you have and make what you want.” Solutions thinking mindset says:
· There is a solution to this problem or situation, and ways to reach my goal.
· I possess the skills, talents, and resources to discover the solution.
· I will devise a workable plan and make it work.
2. Look for the gift
Similar to “hunting the good stuff”, looking for the gift means to try to find the silver lining in every challenge or difficult situation. It does *not* mean denying that something is hard, traumatic, or painful — it *does* mean actively seeking the positive, even if we would have never chosen to have the experience. It means consistently asking, “what did I learn?” “what positive might come from this?” and, “how do I make lemonade from these lemons?”
3. Challenge negative thoughts
When you find yourself overwhelmed by scary thoughts about the future, it’s a good practice to challenge them directly. The most damaging negative thoughts are the 3Ps: 1) Personalization — the belief that we are at fault for something bad, or things happened because we are bad; 2) Pervasiveness — the belief the event will affect all areas of our life; and, 3) Permanence — the belief that the aftershocks of the event will last forever.
It’s important to challenge negative thoughts, especially when they fall in these 3P categories. So, for example, you might think, “It’s a global pandemic, I will never get a job.” Or, “I have diabetes — I’m doomed!” You can challenge these by saying, “It may be more challenging to get a job right now.”, or “Many people live long and fulfilling lives with diabetes.” Just a slight shift in words can change both how you feel and the outlook you have about a situation. It’s worth the effort to try to always pull yourself out of the 3P traps.
BONUS PRACTICE: Turn off the News.
This is true all the time, but especially in COVID-19 when the news is filled with people dying and global anxiety. Turn off the news if you want to cultivate hope and optimism. Our news is designed to get your attention, because that’s how they make money, and our attention is most drawn by catastrophe and negative information. Death and destruction sell. The availability bias, which tells us that what we see most frequently is more like to happen to us, means that the news right now is almost certain to provoke fear even beyond what is likely. Pay attention only so much as to keep up with what’s important, then turn.it.off. And, in all times, ‘social distance’ from negative and overly pessimistic friends. Emotions are contagious — surround yourself with hopeful optimists and you will be more optimistic and hopeful.
Resources to Learn More: Martin Seligman is the ‘father’ of positive psychology and has a number of books both on optimism and on flourishing more broadly. His book Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, gives both the science and the practical “how to” of cultivating optimism. C.R. Snyder is a leading scholar of hope, his book The Psychology of Hope brings the research of several decades together.
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