Positivity and mental health

A person raising their arms in celebration while outdoors

A positive outlook on life can be beneficial to physical and mental health. While limiting negative self-talk is crucial, it also is important to understand when positivity might not be helpful in times of distress.

“In general, having a positive world view is going to lead to a happier, more peaceful and fulfilled experience,” said Dr. Kathleen McDeavitt, assistant professor in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor.

However, for people who are diagnosed with depression, it can be grating when others assume they can “snap out of it” or cure their condition by changing their attitude. Depression is a common psychiatric diagnosis that is associated with negative health outcomes, such as cardiovascular disease. Often, evidence-based mental health treatments are necessary to address depression. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), an evidence-based treatment for depression, involves teaching patients to recognize emotions and develop awareness of their experiences. With depression, one may feel worthless and negative. CBT can help that patient recognize when certain thoughts may not be accurate.

“There is a behavioral aspect when someone that stays at home all day, every day, thinking ‘Nobody likes me’ and is not engaging with people. It becomes a vicious cycle that perpetuates,” McDeavitt said. “A CBT therapist will encourage that individual to engage in behaviors like leaving the house. They will start to notice how those behaviors have an impact and recognize that everything is inter-related.”

CBT helps change those negative thoughts by helping one realize that thoughts, feelings and behaviors are connected. The framework of looking at thoughts, feelings and behaviors is useful in general, not only for mental illness. For example, scrolling through social media on your phone might be correlated to feeling worse about the world. “If that becomes the way you feel all the time, then you’re going to start engaging in behaviors that are not helpful or positive, such as self-isolating, and you may view others in a negative way,” she said.

It can be useful for everyone to have self-curiosity about the everyday activities they engage in, and to note how those activities impact your thoughts and feelings. Ask yourself how you feel when you spend hours a day on social media, for example, versus when you take a break? What kinds of thoughts are you having?

Another important point to note is that staying positive is not always necessary or expected, especially when dealing with a medical emergency, difficult diagnosis or loss. It is important to have space for people to grieve or be sad about something.

“Sometimes we’re more comfortable with positivity and can lead with sayings like ‘You’re a fighter’ when someone has a medical diagnosis, but what the patient may need in that moment is to share comradery or feel like they’re not alone,” she said. “That can be difficult because there is an expectation that we’re always going to be positive, and that’s not always authentic to the human experience.”

In these situations, the person on the periphery should try to remember to not force the person into false positivity. It can be grading for people to be encouraged to be positive all the time for other people’s comfort. Forced positivity is not always warranted or helpful.

By Homa Warren

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