How to remain optimistic in the face of uncertainty

It’s hard to avoid the torrent of COVID-19 news at the moment: the constant social media posts, round-the-clock television news updates and endless reporting on radio leaves many of us feeling like we’re in an impossible situation. Of course, in the face of such uncertainty, it’s normal to struggle to see what good can come out of a situation.

Yet Mentemia (the online mental health and wellbeing resource co-founded by prominent New Zealand mental health advocate Sir John Kirwan) explains that optimism is a strategy that can help us all see a way forward more clearly.

“Optimism helps to protect against despair and hopelessness. It encourages you to imagine a different future and take important steps towards new opportunities or solutions, instead of feeling stuck.”

Here are five strategies taken from Mentemia’s website to help you cultivate optimism.

1. Acknowledge your feelings

If you want to develop optimism, the first step is to know having difficult emotions is normal. Feeling sad, angry, upset, or any other challenging emotions, is a perfectly normal response to a crisis. It’s important to acknowledge your feelings – a process called validation.

Validation is about making space to acknowledge your thoughts, feelings, and urges without jumping in to judge them, push them away, change them, or act on them immediately. And, importantly, showing yourself some understanding for having these emotions.

Once you’ve validated your feelings, then go on to the following steps. While it may be tempting, or a habit, don’t skip the validation phase. It really helps to acknowledge and process emotions before going into what else might help.

2. Get specific

An enemy of optimism is generalisation. Sweeping statements, such as “the world is falling apart” or “everything is going to pieces” often trigger feelings of hopelessness.

Instead, try to get specific. Relate the crisis to a specific event, instead of “everything going wrong”. Specific here may mean “due to the global situation, I fear for my job”, or “my child is really worried,” or “my partner and I have been arguing a lot”.

3. Attribute responsibility

Here, it might help to draw a pie-chart and draw up the different things causing the current problem. This can help to put things in perspective, localise the problem, and realise and focus more on what is in your power to change.

4. Focus on what you can control

Optimism is far better for your mental wellbeing when it’s grounded in reality (according to Tayyab Rashid and Martin P. Seligma, authors of Positive Psychotherapy, 2018). Being optimistic is not about staying positive no matter what. It’s about identifying what’s within your control and looking for realistic solutions.

A pessimist might focus on everything that cannot be changed. An optimist will look at what’s possible and focus their efforts on moving forward. Focus your energy on what you can control and change.

5. Avoid cliches

Cliches such as “always look on the bright side” or “everything happens for a reason” are well-intentioned but can be unhelpful. You’re more likely to feel a true sense of optimism if you can brainstorm specific, concrete opportunities and solutions (Rashid and Seligman, 2018).

6. Reflect on times when something good came from something hard

Think of other times when something bad has happened and see if you can identify something good that came out of that experience.

Contrary to point 5, one cliche that’s useful for optimism is “when one door closes, another door opens” (Rashid & Seligman, 2018). It’s a reminder that crises – even catastrophic ones – are temporary.

If you’re struggling to think of examples from your own life, ask your friends and family if they can share stories and examples.

Looking for glimmers of hope isn’t about underestimating a crisis or setback, or dismissing it’s very real consequences. It’s about cultivating optimism so that you acknowledge the door that may be closing, while looking for the doors that might be opening. Then take steps – no matter how small – towards solutions.

Mentemia is a free app that coaches mental wellbeing. It provides daily content like above, plus evidence-based tools and techniques you need to feel happier, stress less and build resilience. Download it from your favourite app store.

Photo by Ian Taylor on Unsplash

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