Posts Tagged ‘Optimism’

What Fear Can Do

November 3rd, 2016 at 12:58 pm by timigustafson

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously proclaimed in his first inaugural address that there was “nothing to fear but fear itself,” it was intended to encourage people not to despair in the face of an unprecedented economic crisis, a.k.a. the “Great Depression.” Much has been argued over the true meaning of his words, not least because they don’t make a lot of sense if taken out of context. Yet, they have lived on in the public discourse ever since, applicable as they seem in every generation.

Indeed, we are experiencing a time of acute fear and anxiety right now. People around the world are worried for countless reasons. There is hardly a place left on earth where populations enjoy relatively tranquil lives – not even in the remote Himalayan country of Bhutan, where achieving happiness for all is a declared goal of the government.

Many of us seem to be affected by an epidemic of worry. Oftentimes, it may start with something concrete, a situation or event one can point to, like the attacks of 9/11. But over time, a specific fear can turn into a state of growing uneasiness.

Worry is circular, it feeds on itself, gets out of hand, and eventually becomes almost uncontrollable, according to Francis O’Gorman, a professor of English literature at the University of Edinburgh, United Kingdom, and author of “Worrying, a Literary and Cultural History” (Bloomsbury 2015).

While today’s world is a risky place and evokes many well-founded concerns, the experience of fear itself creates new risks that can affect a person’s health and well-being, says David Ropeik, an expert on risk perception. In fact, the hazards of fretting over perceived threats may be more harmful than the actual risks themselves, he argues.

The reason is that when a state of fear persists over extended periods of time, our bodies react to chronically elevated levels of stress. Once stress hormones flood the bloodstream without finding relief, they can literally become poisonous and lead to dire, even life-threatening consequences.

The human species could not have survived for long without the experience of fear. The ability to identify certain events and situations as dangerous and respond appropriately is essential for our existence. But these responses are meant to be rare and short-lived. If we cannot switch off this built-in alarm system of ours, it will quickly exhaust us, even turn against us.

In contrast to justified concerns – which can be motivating to take action – fear as a state of mind is paralyzing. It prevents clear thinking. It destroys hope and optimism. It can lead to destructive behavior and make us sick.

The fact that we are constantly bombarded with messages that contain potential threats, whether they occur nearby or halfway around the world, is not conducive to our psychological (and subsequently overall) well-being. We may live in an ever-more globalized environment, but we also must consider our limits as individuals who can only digest a finite amount of information.

No one should retort to a head-in-the-sand attitude. Our lives have become too complex and too intertwined to hide from reality. But if we keep getting overloaded with data that leave us feeling more helpless than empowered, we won’t be useful in tackling the problems we could otherwise help solving. We just end up hunkering down in fear, anger and despair. Not a healthy prospect. Not for anyone of us, and not for the world.

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.

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Lessons in Positive Thinking

May 9th, 2015 at 3:13 pm by timigustafson

For most of my career as a dietitian and health counselor I have paid much attention to the deficiencies in my clients’ diet and lifestyle choices and how these could be changed for the better. Over the years, however, I began focusing more on what went right in their lives and how their strengths could be utilized in order to overcome their weaknesses. You may say I applied (unknowingly) what is now known as “positive psychology.”

When I say, “what went right in their lives,” I do not necessarily mean whether they were successful at their work, were financially secure, or had stable marriages and relationships – although these may be important aspects as well – but rather, on a more intimate level, whether they had a sense of self-esteem, fulfillment, gratitude, purpose, and looked optimistically to the future.

This is in fact what practitioners of positive psychology are also most interested in. Their goal is to overcome existing negative thinking styles, mainly by fostering positive ones. They try to achieve this by having their clients recall pleasant past experiences, build on advantageous traits and characteristics, cultivate supportive relationships, and so forth. The desired end result is what proponents call “living the good life,” which, again, is not simply to be equated with material wealth.

The “good life” is happy, engaged, and meaningful. To realize it, one must mobilize inherent strengths, thereby increasing positive emotions while decreasing negative ones, according to Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and author of several best-selling self-help books who is widely credited as one of the founders and early developers of positive psychology as its own academic branch.

Traditional psychology has almost always been concerned with mental and emotional disorders and malfunctions and ways to treat them, he explains. By contrast, positive psychology adds an important emphasis on the human potential for building and maintaining highly functional and constructive lives.

A number of distinct theories have entered this relatively new field lately. Some focus on basic emotions like joy and happiness, others on the human capacity to create purpose and meaning. The ability to blissfully immerse oneself in one’s work, to flourish while encountering challenges, or to stay resilient in the face of adversity – these are all elements that can contribute to a person’s well-being and are worthy of further exploration.

And the positive effects are not limited to the mind but benefit the body as well. Plenty of research has already shown that a positive attitude can be enormously advantageous for good health, and even longevity. One study from the Netherlands found that heart disease patients who maintained a generally optimistic outlook were able to slow down the progress of their illness and extend their life expectancy by several years.

Of course, the reason why some people continue to thrive while others quickly succumb in similar situations is still a mystery. However, clearly distinguishable ways of thinking seem to make at least some difference that can determine outcomes.

And no doubt, in my own work as a health counselor, I have also reaped the benefits from seeing the glass more often as half-full than half-empty. And because optimism tends to be contagious, there lies some healing power for my clients in that, too.

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

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Look Back Once in a While – With Gratitude

April 9th, 2015 at 1:35 pm by timigustafson

All therapy is about change. Whether someone seeks professional advice or follows a self-help program, the underlying assumption is always that something is wrong and needs fixing. In my line of work, as a health counselor, it’s usually about diet, exercise, stress management, sleep, etc. that could be improved upon.

But when I find myself coaching clients how to overcome their shortcomings, I often wonder why there is so little attention being paid to what is right and works well in their lives already. Shouldn’t we all be encouraged to draw more often from our strengths rather than constantly be reminded of our weaknesses? Isn’t there anything that’s good enough to learn from and build on? Why not look back on occasion and appreciate what we have already accomplished and what we have been successful at?

Questions like these, of course, go to the heart of what has become known as the power of positive thinking, or positive psychology, and its potential influence on health outcomes, both physical and mental. The very idea that looking at life with a greater sense of optimism, appreciation, and gratitude could enhance a person’s well-being in multiple ways has become increasingly accepted among health experts, and was widely popularized by the work of psychologists like Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of CaliforniaDavis, and Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami who both have done extensive research on the subject.

In their combined research, they found that evoking feelings of gratitude can help people develop other positive emotions that, in turn, can be instrumental in their dealings with issues like weight control, stress management, or relational problems.

Another leader in the field of positive psychology, Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Penn Positive Psychology Center, successfully pioneered many psychological intervention methods to treat patients with clinical depression.

In tests conducted by Emmons and McCullough, participants who were asked to focus on their daily misgivings and irritations fared much worse in terms of overall well-being than their counterparts who directed their attention mostly on pleasant experiences. The differences were not just of emotional nature but extended demonstratively to physical symptoms and conditions as well.

Cultivating a grateful and appreciative attitude can be advantageous in almost any situation. People with a positive disposition tend to cope more efficiently and constructively with life’s daily challenges. It’s like they are getting a boost from a source deep within that gives them greater strength and resilience.

Not surprisingly, grateful people are also more likely to take good care of their physical health and wellbeing, says Amy Morin, a psychotherapist and author of “13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do” (William Morrow, 2014). They are motivated to maintain a health lifestyle and get regular medical check-ups because they value themselves, she says.

The fact is that it doesn’t really take great efforts to reach the point where a positive outlook becomes natural. Simply ask yourself a few questions by the end of your day, suggests Lindsay Holmes who writes for Huffington Post’s “GPS for the Soul” – e.g. What did I learn today? How do I feel about what happened or did not happen? What can I do better tomorrow? Where am I in my pursuit of my goals? Be encouraged about your advances, and forgiving with your setbacks. Making this a habit will not only foster a generally more optimistic perspective but also lead to greater success and fulfillment in the long run.

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

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About timigustafson

Timi Gustafson, RD, LDN, FAND is a registered dietitian, health counselor, book author, syndicated newspaper columnist and blogger. She lectures on nutrition and healthy living to audiences worldwide. She is the founder and president of Solstice Publications LLC, a publishing company specializing in health and lifestyle education. Timi completed her Clinical Dietetic Internship at the University of California Medical Center, San Francisco. She is a Fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, an active member of the Washington State Dietetic Association, a member of the Diabetes Care and Education, Healthy Aging, Vegetarian Nutrition and the Sports, Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutrition practice groups. For more information, please visit http://www.timigustafson.com

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