- Anxiety disorders currently affect approximately 40 million adult Americans.
- Experts say people have negativity bias, which means we’re hardwired to pay more attention to threatening and scary information than positive, assuring information.
- This can increase feelings of stress and anxiety in many people, but there are a number of ways practicing optimism can help.
As the most common mental illness in the United States, anxiety disorders affect 40 million adults.
“If we look at anxiety from a psychological understanding, we think about it as a miscalculation. Anxiety happens when we overestimate the likelihood that something bad will happen and underestimate our ability to handle it,” Natalie Dattilo, PhD, clinical psychologist and director of psychology at Brigham & Women’s Hospital, told Healthline.
“Human beings have something called human negativity bias, which means we are hardwired to pay more attention to threatening and scary information than positive, assuring information,” Gross told Healthline.
This tracks back to survival when early humans hunted for food, water, and shelter. The constant threat of attack kept humans in fight-or-flight mode.
“Some anxiety is a physiological response when your body produces a lot of adrenaline and goes in threat detection mode. While the anxiety may be a hyper-exaggeration of the risk of something, the body is trying to keep you safe,” said Gross.
Still, both experts say practicing optimism can help reduce anxiety.
“I think of optimism as a mix of positive thinking, feelings of hope, goal-driven behavior, and confidence. It isn’t about glass-half-full thinking or rose-colored glasses necessarily. It’s about how you explain the things that happen to you in your life, especially the things that don’t go well, and what you expect to happen in the future,” Dattilo said.
For instance, when things don’t turn out well, an optimistic person is more likely to think that they’re experiencing a temporary setback rather than a doomed future.
While this may come across as denial or unrealistic, Gross says an optimist recognizes the bad things in life but chooses not to dwell on them.
“Our definition [of optimism] is our capacity to see, feel, and focus on the goodness in ourselves, in others, and around us,” he said.
Here are 7 ways to bring optimism into your life and help reduce anxious feelings:
When Dattilo works with clients with anxiety, she uses talk therapy to shift their thinking.
“I talk about how our ways of thinking become very entrenched neurologically. If we want to change the way we think about ourselves, people, and the world, it takes time to create new pathways,” she said.
“The brain is very flexible and malleable and changeable and has the ability to form new connections between parts of the brain that don’t communicate that much. It takes time, repetition, and new experiences to help solidify new thoughts we’re trying to practice,” she added.
Dattilo explained that the part of the brain called the orbitalfrontal cortex (OFC), which is important for the integration of information from the intellectual, rational, and emotional centers, is bigger and more developed in people who tend to be more optimistic and less anxious.
When she works with clients, she first aims for them to recognize that there are different ways of thinking. Then they discuss a setback to identify which patterns of thinking are problematic.
For instance, through a series of questions, Dattilo and the client will determine what was going through their mind as the setback happened and what they think about it now. Then Dattilo determines how much of their thoughts they’re using to predict what will happen in the future, and what actions they take and don’t take based on that.
The most important component is practicing new ways of thinking.
“Many people abandon their efforts too soon before noticing any change has stuck and maintained. An important part of treatment is a maintenance stage where we have done a lot of thought editing/active treatment and then spend time practicing the new way of thinking and consolidating or storing those ideas so they are more available to you and become the default way of thinking,” Dattilo said.
“They can be on edge and have a hard time relaxing. They overprepare, overworry, and overthink,” Dattilo said.
She refers to this as a crisis of confidence.
Understanding your fear and gaining information about your fear is the antidote to fear, notes Gross.
“If you have a fear, understanding the odds of it happening can put things into perspective cognitively. A lot of people have a distorted perception of the threat that’s going on in the world,” he said. “You want to be mindful that ‘yes’ things can happen, but other things can happen too.”
“You want to realistically assess the likelihood of a negative event and accurately assess your ability to handle it,” he added.
Dattilo helps clients do this by asking them to think about a recent upsetting event and on a scale of 0 to 100, answer the following:
How likely is it that this will never resolve or change?
For people who tend to overestimate the likelihood, she challenges them to accept that realistically most things tend to resolve over time.
What’s the likelihood that this event will affect everything in your life?
Thinking about how the event is affecting some areas and not others, can help one realize that it isn’t as catastrophic as originally thought.
What other factors might have contributed to the event?
Owning a role in the outcome of the event is important, says Dattilo.
Additionally, part of this process includes accepting that fear isn’t the enemy, notes Gross.
“There is risk in everything we do and anxiety is a hyper-exaggeration about the risk of something,” he said.
For example, if you’re worried about talking in school or at work and making a fool out of yourself, he says to think about what would happen if that were the case, as well as other outcomes that could occur.
“Is it possible that you could talk and people like what you say? You want to be able to imagine positive outcomes, as well as realize that negative outcomes won’t destroy you,” he said.
If you’re open to practicing optimism, Dattilo says hearing how other optimists explain their stories and events can be helpful from a modeling standpoint. However, if you’re at point where you doubt optimism’s effects on anxiety, it may not be effective.
“It’s kind of like learning a different language. If you had a basic understanding of the language and wanted to emerge yourself in it, that can be useful, but if you are put into a different country and trying to learn the language, you might be overwhelmed,” she said.
Gross says that keeping people near you who make you feel calm, safe, and good can bring about positive change.
“Your social relationships are one of the best predicaments of healthy outcomes, so if you feel anxious, spending time with these people can make you feel better,” he said.
He notes that anxiety is on the rise because people are more socially isolated than ever.
“There is a connection with feelings of isolation and feelings of anxiety. If you had a tribe back in the day, you felt protected,” Gross said.
Waking up every morning and stating or writing down what your goal is for the day can get you into a positive mindset.
Keeping a gratitude journal is another way to start off the day positively.
“When you wake up, think about things you appreciate, and shift from ‘I have to,’ to ‘I get to,'” Gross said.
For instance, instead of saying, “I have to drive my kids to school,” try to shift your thoughts to something like, “I have healthy kids well enough to go to school” or “I have a car to take my kids to school.”
When anxious, Gross says to turn to old wisdom: stop and smell the roses.
“Being in touch with nature and being present by seeing, feeling, hearing, and smelling… can shift your frame of reference,” said Gross. “If you can be fully present in the moment, there is no anxiety, since anxiety is something that happened or is going to happen.”
Gross believes that sometimes joy is the source of a smile — yet sometimes a smile is the source of joy.
“Sometimes we’re happy so we’re happy when we smile, but sometimes the opposite is true. If you smile, you can sometimes trick your body to feeling happy,” he said.
Dattilo agrees, noting that biological, psychological, and social components all contribute to anxiety. She says that mind-body research is showing more and more that thinking better mentally has an impact on how the body is functioning physically.
“The parts of the brain that regulate emotion or might contribute to the fight-or-flight response, which is an anxiety response that sets off intense hormonal changes in the body and affects different systems, can begin to do damage to your body,” she said.
For instance, when people are overstressed and under-relaxed, she says they tend to get sick more often.
“That’s why things like exercise and medication can be helpful for regulating anxiety and mood, even though they are not directly targeting the things you are thinking — they are kind of bypassing that and going straight to the biology,” said Dattilo.
She believes positive psychology and mindset science is breaking ground.
“Mind-body therapy is really examining our expectations because what we believe is likely to happen, is really more likely to happen,” said Dattilo. “We are demonstrating some robust scientific support for that and we can demonstrate it in ways we weren’t able to before.”