Optimism is Good Medicine
By John A. Patterson MD, MSPH, FAAFP, ABIHM
Founding co-chair LMS Physician Wellness Program
We are experiencing an epidemic of stress in America.
Surveys of American society show increasing levels of anxiety, depression, loneliness, substance abuse and suicide—among both our patients and the health professional community. Optimism can help you fill up your cup, promote resilience, manage stress, prevent burnout, cultivate compassion and perhaps save your life- and you can cultivate it.
What is resilience? The American Psychological Association (APA) describes resilience as “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress, such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors.” It means bouncing back from difficult experiences. APA describes resilience as “ordinary, not extraordinary.” People commonly demonstrate resilience as part of the wisdom of our miraculous human physiology. Being resilient does not mean a person doesn’t experience fear, anxiety, panic, depression, addiction or other distress. In fact, the path to resilience may involve considerable physical, mental emotional, interpersonal or spiritual distress. “Resilience is not a trait that people either have or do not have. It involves behaviors, thoughts and actions that can be learned and developed in anyone.” (1)
Resilience is part of your birthright as a human being, an internal resource for managing stress, preventing burnout and recovering from compassion fatigue, emotional numbness and psycho-spiritual exhaustion. It helps us rebalance when we live our lives disconnected from joy, meaning, purpose, values, belief and faith. Resilience is determined by the way we explain events to ourselves- our explanatory style.
What is optimism? A positive explanatory style is the most important determinant of resilience. (2) Are you a ‘cup half full’ person or a ‘cup half empty’ person? Your explanatory style involves the mental processing of life events, assigning meaning to them, and assessing them as threats/dangers or challenges/opportunities. The words and images in our heads affect our stress levels. An optimistic explanatory style is related to far greater resilience and much less stress than a pessimistic explanatory style.
Optimists are more successful in school, at work, and in athletics. They are healthier and live longer. They are more satisfied with their marriages and less likely to suffer from depression and anxiety. And rather than being a static trait you are born with, you can learn to grow optimism- increasing your resilience, health, well being and fulfillment in relationships. One way to grow optimism is the practice of imagining your best possible self. (3)
Best Possible Self Exercise– Allow 10-15 minutes for this practice. Think about how your life would look in your best possible future (say in the next 10 years). Imagine that you have reached your goals, everything has gone as well as it possibly and feasibly could. Use vivid images of scenes with as much detail as possible. Perhaps you have reached the pinnacle of your dream career, you have loving relationships, great friends and family and good health. Think of this as the realization of the best possible life you could ever hope for yourself.
Then, for 10 minutes, write about what you imagined. Using these instructions:
1. Be as creative and imaginative as possible.
2. Use whatever writing style you wish, writing without stopping or analyzing, erasing or editing. Just write what you imagined.
3. Don’t worry about grammar and spelling.
4. Be specific. It will increase the effectiveness of the exercise. For instance, imagine the precise nature of your future work or your relationships in as much detail as possible.
5. Then read your words to yourself and allow yourself to really savor and relish this experience. Know this future self is possible and that you deserve it.
We are all affected by stress. An optimistic, positive explanatory style promotes resilience and helps you manage that stress wisely. Practicing your Best Possible Self exercise may be a useful tool for your personal self-care and stress-survival toolkit. Starting with yourself, you can then teach your children, students, clients and patients to do the same – and join you on the road to resilience.
(1) The road to resilience- American Psychological Association
(2) Learned Optimism, Martin Seligman PhD
(3) Picture Your Best Possible Self
About the Author-
Dr. Patterson is founding co-chair of Lexington Medical Society’s Physician Wellness Commission, is past president of the Kentucky Academy of Family Physicians, is certified in family medicine, integrative holistic medicine, mind body medicine, Integral Yoga, iRest Yoga Nidra, mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) and is a certified Physician Coach. He teaches mindfulness for the UK Health and Wellness Program, Saybrook College of Integrative Medicine and Health Sciences (Pasadena) and the Center for Mind Body Medicine (Washington, DC). He operates Mind Body Studio in Lexington, where he offers integrative mind-body health consultations and classes, specializing in mindfulness for stress-related chronic conditions and burnout prevention. He can be reached through his website. at www.mindbodystudio.org