There are times when life gives us lemons and rather than cursing the sour fruit, we make lemonade. This is an example of how a positive attitude improves mental health. Life is never perfect and is generally never all bad. How we view life is commonly a matter of if we view it as a glass half full or a glass half empty. The point is that we hold the key to many mental health issues like mild depression in our own hands. We can choose to have and practice a positive attitude rather than a negative one and, in turn, help improve our own mental health.
What Is Attitude?
An attitude is a set of beliefs, emotions, and, ultimately, behaviors directed toward a given person, thing, event, or object. Attitudes are often shaped by our upbringing, our family, our friends, our schooling, and the culture in which we live. Sometimes attitudes set early in life are fixed for life and sometimes they change. In regard to how attitudes affect mental health, it is important to realize that one can, in fact, change one’s attitudes and especially negative ones for the better.
What Is Mental Health?
Mental health is the set of psychological, emotional, and social well-being factors that affect how we feel, think, and act. Mental health affects how we deal with stress and with success in life. It influences how we deal with others and the choices that we make. Mental health comprises not only one’s mood but one’s behavior, reactions to others and events of life. Some mental health issues are driven by our genetic makeup, some by events like abuse or trauma in early life or during military service, and others by the conditions we experience in our current lives.
Positive Thinking and Better Mental Health
As a practical matter, it is important in life to be realistic about life’s circumstances. Recognizing and preparing for trouble ahead can keep us out of trouble or even save our lives and those of our friends and loved ones. Unfortunately, extending a suspicious or negative attitude toward things in life that are not really dangerous, negative, or threats only makes us feel worse. Positive thinking and mental health are strongly related. When we routinely engage in positive thinking we tend to live longer, have less depression, are more resistant to illnesses, experience less depression, have lower risks of strokes and heart disease, less chance of death from cancer and typically experience improved physical and psychological well-being.
Two Sides of the Fight or Flight Response
At a very basic level our minds and bodies are programmed for self-preservation. When a predator attacks us or our family, we can fight them or run away. This fight or flight response is built into virtually every creature. In critical situations it keeps us alive instead of being eaten by the saber-tooth tiger or killed by the attacking army. When this response is brief and applied to truly dangerous situations it saves lives. Unfortunately, some people, like in the military, are routinely exposed to dangerous and stressful situations. When we are exposed to danger our blood pressure goes up, blood flow is directed to muscles and the brain, we become hyper-alert, and are more physically able to run or fight. We may even think more clearly about the present danger.
Unfortunately, this physiological state is not healthy on a daily basis. This sort of hyper-awareness creeps into the brain and the amygdala that moderates the fear response and then we constantly live in a state of fight or flight even when there is no danger. This is PTSD.
Dangers of a Constantly Negative Attitude
Aside from the physiological effects of carrying a negative attitude through life (shorter life, more illness) we experience social effects like fewer friends and missed opportunities because no one wants to deal with somebody who is always so negative. When a person views life as negative and adopts a negative attitude it does nothing to remedy their situation unless their response is to leave a bad situation and seek a better one. In that case it is critical that they leave their negative attitude back in the bad situation and not bring it along into their new life.
How to Practice a Positive Attitude
Practice makes perfect for many things in life and that applies to attitude. Work on recognizing when and how you are being negative. Make it a point to check your “emotional temperature” throughout the day. Allow yourself to laugh or at least smile even during difficult circumstances. Exercise every day. Seek out and spend your time with positive people. And, perhaps most importantly, practice positive “self-talk” with yourself.