"Stock market plunges 400 points … 1.5 million bank foreclosures threaten real estate recovery … Earthquake and tsunami kill hundreds."
Have you ever noticed that no matter how good or bad things are, some people always have a positive mindset while others are constantly negative? If you’re finding that you’re feeling helpless or out of control, a few simple steps may be all you need to break this negative pattern.
The news cycle thrives on negativity. If you turn on the television, read news stories or listen to the radio, you’re constantly bombarded with all that is wrong, not just locally, but globally. The result is that as you listen to the news or when you focus on what’s going wrong rather than what’s going right, you may fall victim to "vicarious trauma."
"Vicarious trauma" occurs when people see or hear about events and become emotionally distraught even though the event does not affect them personally. We hear about a devastating earthquake or watch the recent images of semitrucks flying in the air during a swarm of tornadoes.
Even though the logical part of your brain understands this is not happening to you personally, the brainstem areas that process emotional responses view the images and interpret them as threats to your well-being. Although you are not experiencing the event firsthand, the stress of being bombarded constantly with this type of information disturbs your concentration and reduces your effectiveness. Most importantly, the more vicarious trauma you experience, the less optimism you feel. The long-term effects can be devastating.
Anger, pessimism and negativity are dangerous to you both physically and emotionally. If you focus on negative events, your environment will support you to attract negative events. Psychologists call this self-fulfilling prophecy. What we expect will happen does happen.
In fact, recent research in quantum physics supports the same conclusion. Researchers created an experiment designed to settle the dispute about whether light was composed of waves or particles. What happened? The "objective" experiment yielded "waves" for those who expected "waves" and "particles" for those who expected particles. What the researchers expected, is what the experiment yielded.
Furthermore, psychologist Martin Seligman’s research demonstrates that our degree of optimism has a profound impact on not only the quality of our lives, but on our longevity as well. Up until age 40, our health is determined by how healthy we were at age 25. Being a pessimist has no effect. From ages 40 to 65, however, our level of optimism has a profound effect on our health and longevity. In other words, optimists stay well and pessimists become increasingly ill.
Psychiatrist Daniel Amen’s research also vividly demonstrates the effects of negative thinking vs. optimistic thinking. Brain scans of normal people who focused on negative or angry thoughts had the same brain wave patterns as those who are schizophrenic.
What can you do to increase your level of optimism and avoid vicarious trauma? Here are five tips.
1. Limit your exposure to vicarious trauma
First, there’s little we can do to control events outside of us, including terrorist attacks, natural disasters, loss of loved ones, etc. A great starting place, however, is to limit your exposure to the constant onslaught of the 24-hour news cycle.
2. Respond rather than react
Take a proactive approach to how you respond to events as opposed to being caught up in reaction. When you experience a personal loss or challenge, Seligman’s research shows that those who fare the best and recover the most quickly approach the situation from the point of view, "When one door closes, another one opens."
In other words, look back at both the good and the bad in the situation, identify what you have learned, and then formulate at least one action step you can take now to move beyond the situation.
3. Create a positive environment
A study that tracked 4,800 individuals over a 37-year period demonstrated that happiness is contagious. The more happy friends you have, the happier you will be. Thus, a simple way to avoid being swallowed by the doom and gloom is to create an environment where you surround yourself with others who are also optimistic and positive.
4. Take control
You are in charge of your life. As Coach Philip Humbert described it:
"My well-being and optimism, my values and work ethic, and daily success are not determined by politicians in Washington or revolts in Egypt or events in Japan (as important as those things may be). My daily success is determined by my alarm clock, my to-do list, my use of time, and hugs from my friends. My success is determined by whether I do the things that I know are useful or whether I am distracted by the news, by gossip, or by worry."
Humbert recommends focusing on yourself, your work, and the "small tribe of about 100 people" with whom you interact on a regular basis.
5. Help someone else
Study after study has illustrated that helping others increases our well-being and makes us feel better about ourselves. Granted, you can’t change the world, but as former President Ronald Reagan observed:
"We can’t help everyone, but everyone can help someone."
You are in control. Will you choose anger, fear, pessimism and schizophrenic brain waves? Or will you choose an attitude that searches for the opportunity in the challenges you face and is optimistic about better times ahead?