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Bringing Out a Caregiver’s Inner Optimist

Optimism; a word associated with sunny smiles and a Pollyanna-ish outlook on life.

But, what does it really mean to be optimistic? And—more important to the stressed-out caregiver—how can you be optimistic in the face of seemingly endless negativity?

Being optimistic does not mean that you have to constantly walk around with a smile plastered onto your face, burying your true feelings and pretending to be happy.

Rick Hanson, Ph. D., caregiver, and author of "Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neurosciences of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom," says that being optimistic means that you see the world accurately, taking in both the good and the bad. And yes, you can train yourself to be more optimistic.

Pessimism, on the other hand, is an unhealthy obsession with the negative, which can snowball until a person feels completely helpless and totally trapped.

Hanson says that it's unfortunately pretty easy to fall prey to pessimism because the human brain has a built-in survival mechanism—called the negativity bias—that makes us instinctually focus on the bad or threatening aspects of our environment while ignoring the good.

Caregivers can become so overwhelmed by the bad that it can be nearly impossible to see the good. Hanson offers three simple tips for caregivers who want to teach themselves to become more optimistic:

  1. Look for areas where you are the hammer, not the nail: The unfortunate reality is that many times, caregivers are like nails—constantly hammered down by selfish siblings, unhappy seniors, and difficult doctors. During these times it's especially important to remember that there are things about your life that you can control. Hanson says that the typical person has control over three main realms: the outside environment (fixing a leaky faucet, painting a wall, etc.), our bodies (exercise, taking the right medication), and our minds (our perspective, where we focus our attention). Caregivers often find themselves in a position where it becomes harder for them to affect change in the outside world and even in their own bodies. Hanson says that when caregivers find themselves experiencing this reduced sense of control, it's important to remember that you can always influence your thoughts. This doesn't mean that you have to ignore the bad things, sometimes you can't, no matter how hard you try. It means making the choice to change your perspective, in spite of those bad things.
  2. Be a sponge for positive experiences; savor the small things: Thanks to the negativity bias, Hanson says that negative experiences tend to get stuck in our psyche whereas positive experiences run right through it, like water in a sieve. Part of training yourself to become more optimistic is to practice noticing and holding on the positive things that exist in our everyday lives. Hanson suggests that each day, caregivers should try and find ten instances where they recognize something positive and focus on it for at least ten seconds. It doesn't have to be anything big—a flower blooming on the bedside table, or the sound of a child's laugh in the distance—things you normally wouldn't even notice. Pausing to reflect on a positive experience, even if it seems minor, will help you internalize and attach emotion to it, something that Hanson says the brain normally wouldn't do. This is why simply telling someone to think more positively is often unhelpful, because happy thoughts alone will still lack that emotional component. But Hanson feels that ten seconds, ten times a day, is enough to help you begin to train your brain to hang on to the simple happiness that surrounds even the most dire situations.
  3. Connect with others: Hanson also emphasizes the value of a solid social network, saying that caregivers need to try and seek out as many opportunities for social interaction as they can. He says that caregivers seeking to become more optimistic need a diverse support network that can offer them camaraderie and support along their journey, as well as an opportunity to vent. Being a caregiver for both his mother and father, Hanson knows that finding time to socialize can be challenging for time-strapped caregivers, and encourages them to just do what they can. It may also help to broaden your idea of what social interaction means. Animals and kids are two sources of socialization that most people may not think to utilize, but Hanson says that they can supply caregivers with much-needed comfort and perspective.

It's true that focusing on a beautiful sunset won't make you deaf to your loved one's resentful complaints, or make changing their diaper a pleasant task, but Hanson points out that research has consistently shown that people, no matter their circumstances, can learn to see the world in a more balanced way.

Will these tips work for you?

As with all things, you'll never know until you try. Challenge yourself to really take the time and employ these strategies; then let us know what you think by commenting below.

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