About halfway through last month’s plank challenge, I got into a little tiff with my husband. To reset, I stormed off and decided to meditate. I (loudly) shut the door to my closet and thought that starting off with a strong, solid plank would get my blood flowing to all the right parts and help me step into my strength. I do believe I mentioned in a previous post that I meditate and plank in my closet, but it’s worth repeating. Meditate on a beach, meditate on a peach. Meditate here, meditate there, meditate anywhere. Up to this point, I had been fairly easily achieving my one-minute plank and even going past the minute before quitting. I knew I would feel extra confident after this plank and be ready to dive into my work with a new outlook and attitude.
As I set up, I continued stewing on the argument with my husband. I felt a little guilty for storming off but justified it by feeling sorry for myself and having to repeat things more than once, or something equally as horrifying. I pushed the timer and set myself over my hands. A few seconds into my plank, I noticed that my arms were already shaking. I couldn’t get over how weak I felt. Just yesterday, I was strong and proud of how I didn’t even notice the time until about 40 seconds. Today, I was struggling at 12 seconds and resetting at 20. I had to reset three times during my minute and had already dropped to my knees as the timer flipped from 59 to 1:00. I couldn’t get over how weak I was during this plank. I hadn’t done anything differently, except get into an argument with my husband right before.
I have always heard of, and believed, the power of the mind and the importance of your mental state, but I had never seen it played out so physically before. It was as if my muscles were exhausted and emotionally drained. They didn’t even want to keep going for one minute. It was as if the weight of my problems was physically resting on my shoulders.
Although it was the first time I had physically experienced my attitude in such a profound way, I know it was not the first time I had been physically impacted by my mental state. Typically, mental state manifests in symptoms of stress: exhaustion, irritability, and even sickness. The classic signs that we need a break or a “mental reset”. Study after study has shown that our physical state, our bodies, are actually impacted by our mental state.
One meta-analysis (a.k.a., review of many studies) shows the significant impact that optimism has on the physical body. This report, reviewing 15 studies of almost 230,000 participants revealed that optimism was related to lower risk of “cardiovascular events” and reduced risk of “all-cause” mortality. All-cause is how the meta-analysis categorized all other causes of heart attacks outside of strictly cardiovascular events.
Optimism is just one representation of mental state, but it is a broad one. Generally speaking, optimism is defined as the extent to which people feel positive or favorable regarding their future. It is often referred to as “looking at the world through rose-colored glasses” or “finding the silver lining”. Optimists tend to see the good in situations more than the negative. To be fair, this can be pretty annoying when you just want a moment to sulk or cry. More than once I have been completely turned off by an optimist’s overly positive attitude regarding a difficult situation I was going through. There are certainly times when an optimist needs to tuck it away for a moment and just be with someone who is suffering. As you build your optimistic muscle, please use it wisely.
Another study showed that optimism was negatively related to death from a second heart attack while pessimism was positively related to death from a second heart attack. This was shown to hold for all levels of optimism and pessimism, meaning that all levels of pessimism and optimism were correlated with death from a second heart attack, but the more extreme the mental state, the stronger the relationship. So, you may be thinking, “I’m not that pessimistic.” Unfortunately, it doesn’t take much negativity to impact your body physically. The good news is, it doesn’t take much positivity to positively impact your health.
Your mental state has a profound effect on your health, not just mental but also physical. It may not be a big deal to only hold a plank for 20 seconds instead of 60, but when we look past the symptom, the deeper issue is must more problematic. Today, it may be a short plank, tomorrow, it could be a heart attack. Below are 5 tips for improving your mental state through increased optimism.
Step 1: Practice Gratitude
Negative mental states often arise from thinking about things we don’t have, where we aren’t, or what our relationship isn’t. Instead of focusing on the negative in a situation, intentionally focus on the positive. This can be difficult when we are in the middle of an argument or wallowing in our own self-pity. We want to be miserable and feel sorry for ourselves. I know this because I do it too. Sometimes I don’t want to give it up just yet. Unfortunately, this keeps us in a negative state of mind. This not only keeps us distant from the ones we love but can also have a negative impact on our physical health. Talk about a downer!
Fortunately, we can stop and reverse this negative state by simply pausing and reflecting on what we are grateful for. This can be so hard when we want to be angry or feel sorry for ourselves. It takes some practice, but I promise it will get easier. Gratitude is a muscle that must be worked out to grow. The more you use it, the easier it will get.
Step 2: Play the Blame Game
I don’t mean blame someone else, but optimists tend to more appropriately apply external attributions to problems. This means that instead of blaming themselves (or their relationship) when something goes wrong, they attribute blame to some external force or circumstance. Had I simply said, “Man, we are both really wiped out today,” when my husband and I got into an argument instead of saying, “Our relationship is doomed. We’ll never figure this out,” then it would have been easier to set the argument aside and not get so hung up on it. Similarly, optimists tend to internalize positive events or good things rather than blow it off to “luck” or some other factor. They more readily say, “Wow! I’m pretty awesome” or “My life is great” when things go well. This further supports their positive mental state.
When you are tempted to turn internal when something goes wrong, pause and toss that blame on a crazy week or miscommunication rather than attaching it to your self-worth or your relationship as a whole. Sure, there are some situations where you should certainly take the blame, but we (especially women) usually have that part down. I would prefer you err on the side of tossing too much blame to the situation rather than internalizing all of the negative that goes on around you. Please note, playing the blame game does not mean throwing the blame on your partner. That is the opposite of what I am suggesting.
Step 3: This Too Shall Pass
When things get tough, stop and physically say, “this too shall pass”. Optimists recognize that negative situations are temporary where pessimists tend to assign more permanence than they should. An argument is an instance; a hiccup is a slump. Good times and bad come and go. That’s just the way life is. Optimists recognize that this is only temporary, and the sun will rise again tomorrow. They bounce back after setbacks or perceived failures. Don’t give up when things get tough. Remind yourself that this is a moment in time, a season, and tomorrow is another day.
Step 4: Appropriate Alignment
Women have been said to have “spaghetti brains”, where thoughts, ideas, and concepts are all intertwined. You can’t pull on one thought without pulling the whole bowl. This can be tough when we get down and start doubting our abilities. Instead of containing that doubt to one area, we apply them like peanut butter across our entire identity. “I burned dinner, the house is a mess, I failed at the project, I’m a terrible mother, horrible wife, and worse employee!!” We start pulling on one piece of spaghetti and before we know it, we’re elbow-deep in noodles.
When you start feeling down about a perceived failure or negative situation, contain it to that one area. Stop yourself before you start pulling that thread (or noodle). Align the right activities to the right areas and don’t jump off the deep end with your self-pity. If you’re going to feel sorry for yourself for a while, just keep it focused on that one noodle, suck it all in, and put the rest back in the fridge.
Step 5: Focus on Someone or Something Else
There is no faster way, in my opinion, to get yourself in a positive state of mind than making someone else smile or doing something good. When I am in a bad mood and walk by a piece of trash on the ground, it just further reminds me what a horrible person I am. I mean, I didn’t even care enough to pick up a piece of trash. Who am I? But, when I am in that same bad mood and do pause to pick up that trash, something magical happens. The negative spiral of self-pity is momentarily interrupted and replaced with a story that says, “I am a helpful, kind, wonderful person.” That noodle was cut as I was pulling it all on top of myself.
Sometimes, that is just the disruption you need to stop the negative self-talk and reset to a more positive outlook. Don’t just pause there, though, start spooning up that new line of thinking quickly because we tend to try to get back to that negative state. We want to pick up where we left off. Smile at someone passing by, pick up something that someone dropped, hold the door open for the next person you see, drop a buck in the fireman’s boot. Whatever it is, keep that positivity going, and keep the attention off of you.