An Expert Reveals the Power of Positivity and How to Boost Your Mood

March brings a tough milestone: this month marks one year since Covid-19 arrived in our communities, upending our daily lives and forcing us to adjust to a new normal.

For many of us, the past year has taken a serious toll on our mental health, and staying positive can feel more difficult than ever. The current state of pandemic burnout is very, very real–so we’re bringing in an expert for advice.

Dr. Jamie Howard is a senior clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, where she specializes in anxiety and mood disorders. Below, Dr. Howard is sharing her tips on how to combat negative thinking, the power of exercise and meditation, and why you should limit your social media and news consumption.

Question: What are the benefits of positive thinking?

Dr. Howard: When we talk about “positive thinking,” what we mean is to look for the things to be grateful for now or hopeful about in the future. Positive thinking doesn’t mean sugarcoating an awful situation or pretending the reality of a situation is different than it is. This pandemic is awful. It’s causing ongoing illness, stress, and isolation. And yet, there are still some things to be grateful for within your own life right now and things to look forward to in the near future. 

Try to balance acknowledging how hard this situation is with an appreciation for what is going well, or even just okay. This can help prevent depression, which is characterized by globally negative patterns of thinking. Positive thinking can also allow for more frequent pleasant moments throughout the day. In order to get through this stressful time, we need to string together as many pleasant experiences as possible.

Question: Are there any daily practices or tools that can help individuals feel more positive?

Dr. Howard: Engaging in activities that are fun, social, or stimulating is really important for bringing about a positive frame of mind. This can be anything from going for a walk with a friend to watching a funny movie to learning a new skill. Exercise and meditation are both known mood boosters that can help people to feel more positive. When exercising for mood, it doesn’t have to be high intensity or grueling–moderate cardio or yoga are both helpful for mood.

People can feel intimidated or bored by the idea of meditation, but really it’s just the act of being in this one moment. You can do that by clearing your mind and focusing on your breath. Or, try an active mindfulness practice, like going for a jog and really focusing on everything around you.

Question: What other factors impact our mental health?

Dr. Howard: Being bombarded by information that makes us feel anxious, discouraged, angry, or sad can take a serious toll on our state of mind. It’s especially important to limit news consumption right now. We’re all so eager for the pandemic to be over, so we can get stuck in a loop of constant watching for new information, only to hear the same things over and over again. As a rule of thumb, you can be sure you won’t miss major headlines if you tune in one time per day for 30 mins (or less).

With social media, people still tend to present a very curated view of their life. It’s easy to generalize from these images that people are always looking and feeling great, but this is not the reality for most people. So I recommend that people limit social media to a few times per day in which they mindfully scroll, and also remembering the images are a moment in time but not a sustained experience. If you’re feeling isolated and lonely, remember that so many other people are too, but social media is not usually where they express that.

It’s also important to be mindful of the company you keep. When we’re in a negative headspace that we’re trying to get out of, it can be helpful to be around people who are vocalizing more positivity. A daily gratitude journal, or simply noticing something you’re grateful for every day can also be helpful.

Question: How should we handle negative thoughts?

Dr. Howard: Sometimes negative thoughts are accurate, even if they do lead to uncomfortable feelings. But oftentimes they’re overly negative to the point that they’re not realistic.

The first step is to “check the facts” to determine how accurate your thoughts are. We often fall into thinking traps during hard times, such as catastrophizing (focusing on the worst possible scenario), black and white thinking (believing something is all good or all bad), or fortune-telling (predicting something negative will happen).

The second step is to catch ourselves in these traps and try to balance out our negative thoughts with more realistic thoughts. It can help to visualize a seesaw to imagine balancing out the negative thought with a more positive thought.