Unless you’re living in a cave (which, in 2020, means that you’re not on any social media), you can’t escape negativity. The news is unwatchable. Twitter is a cesspool of angry bots and keyboard warriors “screaming” back and forth over everything from Trump to whether or not to wear a face mask. I’m not a hater (of mask wearing, because I’m not stupid and selfish). I actually love social media, especially Facebook, where I can keep up with dear old friends from my past without actually having to talk to them. Amazing how that works!
But lately even Facebook is fraught with depressing vibes. Sadly, I’ve noticed a lot of the negative energy I’m bombarded with comes from the private groups I joined for my rheumatoid arthritis. Those groups are usually a godsend, an important safe space for those with a debilitating disease to be able to vent with others who get exactly what we are going through. Recently, though, I’ve found so many posts such a bummer, so overwhelmingly sad and negative, that I snoozed them all for 30 days to take a break and clear my head.
Aiming for Optimism
Listen, I’m no Perfect Pollyanna. I’ve been known to post an outraged or miserable thought or two… or 10. But I just don’t want the experience of living with a chronic illness — I’ve had RA for more than a decade — to be negative 24/7. I can’t do it, on top of everything else going on in our country and world right now.
So I’ve made a huge effort lately to be more mindful of my attitude, especially when it comes to my RA. Because that is one thing I can control right now in a pandemic that often feels completely out of my control.
Trying to embrace more positive thinking doesn’t mean I need to feel that way all the time or that I’m not allowed to have bad days/weeks/months. Like most things in life, it’s all about balance. It’s great to be optimistic; it’s more than okay to be down, too.
“I think it’s important to have access to all of those feelings,” says Katie Willard Virant, MSW, JD, LCSW, a psychotherapist in St. Louis and author of Psychology Today blog Chronically Me: The Emotional Landscape of Chronic Illness. “It’s not an either/or. It’s a both. Looking at it as binary — as happy or sad — is problematic. We float through a continuum of feelings.”
Indeed, the research on the power of positive thinking (and its effect on our health) is mixed. Yes, it can be beneficial. A 2019 study in the Annual Review of Psychology, conducted by researchers at the University of California-Irvine, reported that “people who are more positive tend to live five to 10 years longer than individuals who are less positive.” It also found that positive emotions help lower inflammation levels, which is obviously very important for us arthritic folks.
But if you always “suck it up” and force yourself to try to be happy, that fake power of positive thinking can be “really damaging,” Willard Virant says. If you pretend to be so positive that you repress and hold negative feelings deep inside, that’s downright toxic.
I can’t help but think of that famous “This is fine” meme, with the dog sipping coffee while the house around him is engulfed in flames.
According to the ARP study’s author Sarah Pressman, “…keeping negative feelings locked up inside is harmful to our health. They have to go somewhere. You have to let it out — express your negativity and process it.”
At the same time, she has also insisted that you can’t blame your attitude for your condition: “There’s absolutely no evidence in health psychology that being unhappy causes cancer or causes disease to happen.”
My dad got cancer and died. I refuse to think it happened because he wasn’t a positive enough person. That’s BS. For me personally, when it comes to my health, it all boils down to just simply wanting to be happier as much as possible. It’s an added bonus if it mitigates my RA.
So, is it really possible to change from being a curmudgeon to a “Rah! Rah! Sis Boom Bah!” kind of person? It seems so. Some research has suggested that up to 50 percent of happiness is based on genetics — “you just luck into being born a more positive person.” But that leaves a lot of wiggle room to work on it.
“We can definitely rewire our brains,” confirms Willard Virant.
Here are five ways I learned to turn my frown upside down. Ew, that’s a little too much. Let’s try that again.
Here are five ways I learned to change my thinking and be more positive in certain situations, and how I learned to shift my mindset when I’d ordinarily go to a negative place.
1. I stopped calling myself names
A therapist once pointed out to me that I kept calling myself really awful things. Like “lazy,” “wimp,” “crippled,” — even “stupid.” Why would I self-bully and label myself? It was harmful, self-defeating, and irrational.
“I’m a big proponent of self-compassion,” says Willard Virant. She says you should tap into the adult part of yourself that’s like a nurturing parent to help calm those feelings and stop beating up on yourself.
Now when I catch myself calling myself a hideous name, I try to reframe it. For example, I’m not a wimp, I’m in a lot of pain and struggling to deal with it. And that actually takes courage. Likewise, I’m not lazy; I have fatigue. I have a chronic disease that makes me really tired, so lying down for a bit and watching Vanderpump Rules is actually a good thing to help me take care of my body.
2. I stopped playing the victim
I think the phrase “playing the victim” is loaded, especially when someone else says it to you because 99 percent of the time you’re really not — and they’re jerks. But I definitely have moments of feeling sorry for myself. Usually it’s when I want to bake a giant Ding Dong cake and eat it but I know I can’t because sugar inflames and blows me up like a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon.
On a serious note, it is very normal and understandable when you have a chronic illness to think, “It’s not fair!” There’s nothing wrong with that whatsoever. It does suck. But there has to be a point of acceptance. “You need that to grow,” says Willard Virant. “You can say, ‘I wish it weren’t so, but this is my reality.’ It’s a process of turning the grievance into grief, which involves acceptance and then saying, ‘Well, this is the hand I’ve got. How am I going to play it?’”
Bad shit happens to good people all the time. When I get a bad flare or I can’t do something because of my RA, I do let myself feel upset but I try not to stew or wallow in it for too long anymore. Then I think about all the ways I’m grateful for what I have and count my blessings. Some people even write it down in pretty notebooks with fancy pens. Make fun of gratitude journals all you want but studies show they can work and that gratitude makes us happier.
“In positive psychology research, gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness,” Harvard Medical School research confirms. I believe Harvard.
3. I acknowledged my feelings of envy
After my dad died, my mom admitted she hated seeing happy couples out in public together. Not in a mean vindictive way. I understand it because I definitely get a pit in my stomach when I see able-bodied people doing things I can’t do anymore, like running or jumping or playing tennis. I know for a lot of RA patients on methotrexate or other biologics that not being able to enjoy a night out of drinking stinks. (Thankfully, I quit drinking completely so now I just pity the inebriated for acting like fools.)
“We feel envious of people who don’t live with illness,” Willard Virant says. “People who can do what they want. And it can be corrosive.”
Some of us with chronic illnesses don’t even want to be around healthy people, and in return, healthy people don’t understand what we’re going through and can’t deal with what they perceive as our constant negativity. They think we’re constantly complaining (which could be true) and ghost out of our lives. That’s when we end up really lonely.
I don’t try to pretend I’m not jealous. I grieve my past self then find something else to do that makes me happy. Like baking this Ding Dong cake. It’s beyond delicious!
4. I stopped being ‘superstitious’
Willard Virant often sees patients who defend themselves against feeling happy because they’re always in protection mode. “They think, ‘If I allow myself to be happy, it’s going to feel terrible when the rug gets pulled out from under me again.’ Most of us are pretty scared of disappointment. It’s a terrible feeling to be continually on guard,” she explains.
I used to be one of those people who, when things were going smoothly, didn’t want to jinx myself by being too happy about it. Now, I’ve learned that’s just pointless. Because then you don’t even enjoy the rare good moments.
Now, when I catch myself walking normally without pain I make a huge production about it. I throw a party and hand out cigars. Not really, but I do really savor those fleeting moments. I take advantage of the healthy times and push myself and if it goes south again, oh well, I’ll deal with it.
Recently, my foot wasn’t hurting so I eagerly attempted a pretty hard hike. I couldn’t walk for a week afterward but it was so worth it. The old me would have been so cautious. Now I live more in the moment and take chances and, in turn, it lifts my spirits.
5. I dealt with my depression
While that’s true, I think a lot of us are under the mistaken impression that depression is a natural progression of our disease; something that comes with our chronic illness, and we just have to accept it. Not so. Depression is an additional comorbidity that occurs alongside RA and it can be treated separately with therapy.
“I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with being negative,” Willard Virant notes, “but it can affect functioning and that’s what I would want to look at. If you’re constantly negative, if you’re constantly complaining, you end up really lonely. If someone’s in that situation, they should talk to a therapist because they need a place where they can process their pain and have a space for it. But they also need to find a way to be in relationship with other people in a way that involves giving and taking.”
Personally, I love therapy. It’s fantastic. It’s the one place where you really can say everything on your mind — sad or happy or weird — without being judged. I highly urge anyone who feels that their negativity or sadness is affecting their daily functioning to seek out a good shrink.
“It would be good to have access to all of your feelings,” Willard Virant adds. “Tap into your anger, sadness, grief, plus feelings of pleasure. And think about those feelings as all the keys on a piano keyboard. Let’s not just play one octave. Let’s learn how to play all the octaves. Many times when people are in that negative register, I often see there’s a sense that they feel that they haven’t been fully understood. I do understand that the circumstances they’re describing are really, really, really lousy. Time with a therapist allows the person to feel listened to and understood.”
A therapist can help us become more glass-half-full rather than glass-half-empty people. It can guide us to reframe our way of thinking without changing who we are. “It’s a long process,” Willard Virant explains, “but repeated experiences and different experiences can change our mindset.”
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Brown NJL, et al. Easy as (Happiness) Pie? A Critical Evaluation of a Popular Model of the Determinants of Well-Being. Journal of Happiness Studies. May 2019. doi: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10902-019-00128-4.
Giving thanks can make you happier. Harvard Health Publishing. https://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/giving-thanks-can-make-you-happier.
Holmes B. Always Look on the Bright Side. Knowable Magazine. May 14, 2019. https://www.knowablemagazine.org/article/health-disease/2019/always-look-bright-side-life.
Interview with Katie Willard Virant, MSW, JD, LCSW, a psychotherapist in St. Louis
Pressman SD, et al. Positive Affect and Health: What Do We Know and Where Next Should We Go? Annual Reviews of Psychology. January 2019. doi: https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-psych-010418-102955.