Editor’s Desk: Optimism is an Antidote to Worry

stepping stones

Image source: Bigstock | ©Elise Spangler

We’ve all heard the phrase, “If you are not worried then you are not paying attention.” No doubt there is much that is grabbing our attention that is worth deep consideration and action. But worry may not be the best course on which to set our internal GPS. As the wave of worry threatens to engulf us we might pause and ask: “What benefit will this litany of worry bestow upon us?”

Psychotherapist and teacher of Kaballah, Estelle Frankel, says in her book, The Wisdom of Not Knowing, “Even if some of our initial concerns turn out to be correct, worrying in advance rarely helps us cope . . . Being relaxed and centered is what will help us respond more effectively . . . When we allow our anxieties to control our decision-making, we often end up unnecessarily restricting our lives . . . Courage, on the other hand, enlarges us and expands the playing field upon which our lives unfold.” 

My life experience reinforces this view. Her words remind me of a favorite interview from years past with psychotherapist Alexander Shaia, Ph.D., author of The Hidden Power of the Gospels: Four Questions, Four Paths, One Journey, who agrees with Frankel and says, “Holding a positive system of belief is an extremely pragmatic approach, psychologically and spiritually. We tend to act in the direction of our expectations. A sincere faith that things will be well inspires us to behave in a manner that creates positive effects in ourselves and others – and consequently, things do improve. Physiologically, many parts of our brains and our bodies still operate in survival mode and are outside our conscious control. But when we hold a belief that ‘things’ are improving on a core level, our behavior will be more expansive and relaxed. We will tend to engage in activities that invest in a future that we feel is growing and beneficent. That behavior will lead, in turn, to responses from others that will generally tend to be positive and expansive.” 

I’m reminded of Shaia’s idea that if I believe that “things” are getting worse, then, despite my best efforts to be benevolent, my core behavior will tend to be contracted because this is the appropriate survival response. I will tend to steel myself up and work from my reactive and reptilian brain. My unavoidable negativity will then generate corresponding negativity and encourage more contraction in others.

The broadening effect of positive emotions is reliable and has been tested and supported in research labs. It is reported by some eye-tracking studies that positive emotions literally expand one’s peripheral vision, allowing people to see more of their surroundings (Wadlinger & Isaacowtiz, 2006). Studies of memory, attention, and verbal fluency show that, under the influence of positive emotions, people have access to a wider field of possibilities than is typically accessible to them (Fredrickson, 2003).

Reminding myself of this research has been helpful to me in stepping away from the “worry” box and moving toward a more positive frame.

Accomplishing this takes a commitment to the overall health of my mind, body, and spirit. What works for me is a daily practice of meditation, a daily reading from something inspiring, deep breathing, getting enough sleep, and monitoring my media input. When I’m beginning to feel over-loaded, I take a break, sit regularly with friends, eat well, exercise, and work to tilt the world towards the good without being attached to the outcome. All of these things take time and effort. And no one can give the assurance that it is easy to pull off. However, these daily practices go a long way to keep me from the crippling paralysis that can set in when I become overly obsessed with worry. I invite you to find the practices that support you in doing the same.

– Justine Willis Toms