Mahrukh Khwaja discusses how to lean into positive emotions to counteract the anxiety of the second wave of COVID-19.
As the UK heads into the second COVID-19 wave, it is very understandable for many dental professionals to feel a range of uncomfortable emotions. From anxiety and deflation, to uncertainty and being overwhelmed.
In the business world, there is an acronym that perfectly sums up the challenges of such an unsure world; VUCA. This describes an environment that is volatile (ever changing), uncertain, complex and ambiguous.
Undoubtedly, negative emotions in response to a VUCA environment are natural. Our brain is hardwired for leaning towards negativity as a basic survival skill (negativity bias). In the case of the second wave of the pandemic, our brain reacts by automatically trawling our memories for our past experiences. In this case, this is the first COVID-19 wave.
This further lowers our mood due to recalling past episodes of sadness or anxiety. Although we cannot stop the normal reaction of the brain, we can stop this downward spiral. Leaning into positive emotions, especially by leveraging the exciting positive psychology research findings, can provide the dentistry community a much needed ally to counteract negative emotions, build emotional resilience and enhance wellbeing.
In this article, I’ll be sharing the research and how to successfully implement positive emotions today for a brighter tomorrow.
Unlike traditional psychology – which concentrates solely on what is wrong with an individual and how to fix it – positive psychology encourages individuals to recognise what is going right. Amplify the positive and utilise what is best about them to buffer against life’s adversities. It can be defined as the science of what makes people and organisations flourish and live a meaningful and engaged life.
Increasing our diet of positive emotions
Positive psychology research during the last decade has successfully illustrated the significance of positive emotions. They not only make us feel better, but also in help us transform our personal growth. The lead researcher in the field of positive emotions is Babara Fredrickson. Her Broaden and Build theory explains the upwards trajectory that positive emotions taps into.
Broaden and Build theory, Fredrickson
Positive emotions, from the elevated ecstasy of love to empathy, awe, zest and deep gratitude, broadens our inventory of thoughts and actions. The converse can be said of stress. This narrows our thinking considerably. The broadening of our thoughts in turn leads to us building physical, mental and social resources.
This in turn leads to a further upwards spiral of advancing our personal growth and creating even more positive emotions. Let’s delve into tapping into three key positive emotions and how to practically apply them to your everyday.
Gratitude – an oxytocin generator
Indeed a buzz word in the last couple of years. The humble positive emotion of gratitude has a big impact on us, our interpersonal relationships and the wider community (Emmons, 2010).
Gratitude allows us to reaffirm that life is good despite adversities. On a physiological level, the practice of gratitude releases the love hormone, oxytocin.
Interestingly, gratitude can also benefit our mental health. In Seligman’s large online study, where participants took part in a one-week gratitude intervention, depression and anxiety scores were significantly reduced in the six-month follow up (Seligman et al, 2002).
Designing your own gratitude practice
The attitude of gratitude can be infused into all aspects of our life. In fact, in order to keep the practice novel and engaging, try incorporating a variety of examples. Honing into the small moments here are just as important as the bigger moments. We begin to realise that good things can still happen to us in the midst of chaos.
Gratitude at work:
- Morning huddle – the dental team shares the positive experiences and gratitude moments of the previous day. Key questions to reflect as a team include, what were you grateful for, big or small? What small wins made your day? Did any patients share their gratitude with you? This practice has the added benefit of positive reminiscing, encouraging the broaden and build upwards spiral of positive emotions
- Regular appreciation conversations – with all team members is another active way of training the gratitude muscle
- Gratitude boards – at work with kind, considerate messages of thanks to team members can also be an easy way to amplify the positivity at work.
Gratitude outside the clinic:
- Counting blessings – listing our blessings in a journal
- Writing three good things – reflecting on good things from your day and what this good thing means to you
- Savouring moments – from drinking a cup of tea to the smile of your nephew. This allows us to stay present and appreciate the little joys of the everyday. Try adding creativity to gratitude practice by combining photography with nature. Take pictures of aspects of nature that you are particularly grateful for
- A three blessings dinner – this can be effective in bringing the practice of gratitude to your family. Go around the table reflecting on three good things that have happened to you that day.
During life’s invariable bumps, optimism is the driving energy that fuels us and keeps us going.
Optimism is a well-researched protective factor of resilience – a set of thoughts that shape how we feel and behave. Far from looking at the bright side and discounting reality, optimism has a number of tremendous benefits.
As with mental health and resilience, it’s worth thinking of optimism in terms of a scale. We may shift up and down this scale depending on positive or negative outcomes and have a starting point dependent on our genetics.
Explanatory Style Theory
The leading psychologist in the field of optimism, Martin Seligman, theorised that when ‘good’ or ‘bad’ events happen to us, our brain tries to work out why. Our brain may focus on what the cause for that event may be and whether it is due to them or external factors (personalisation).
The brain also focuses on aspects it can control or cannot control (permanence). Lastly the brain focuses on how that event may impact our lives. Will it affect one area or all parts of our life (pervasiveness)?
The three Ps
These three Ps form the Explanatory Style Theory. Optimists believe for example, a ‘bad’ situation is temporary. They have control of aspects of it, it is an isolated incident and external causes have a hand.
Pessimists conversely believe the ‘bad’ situation is long lasting. It impacts every aspect of their life and the causes are internal. You can see already from this exploration of the negative self talk in pessimistic thinking that learning how to train the muscle of optimism may provide a number of life-changing benefits.
Benefits of learned optimism
Optimists’ cognitive skills, specifically the ability to better identify problems, see situations as a challenge, not a threat. They identify what they can control, resulting in a more effective ability to navigate life’s challenges. Optimists tend to be approach orientated.
They step in and find solutions, seek information and welcome receiving support. In terms of our behaviours, optimists take action and are much more likely to stick with exercising routinely and eating more healthily.
Gratitude and optimism worksheets
We value our physical health often over our mental health. However, just like exercising any muscle of the body, our mind needs a regular work out.
Try these worksheets to help boost your levels of gratitude and optimism.
Fear to flourishing
Leaning into the positive despite adversities, such as the pandemic, requires effortful practice. What feels like a frightening VUCA world to be living in can be made more palpable through regular brain training.
And although there isn’t a one size fits all approach to boosting positive emotions, treat it more like an experiment. And the more experiments you make, the better.
Mahrukh Khwaja is a dentist and founder of Mind Ninja, a well-being start-up providing preventative mental health and well-being coaching for dental teams. Connect with her on instagram @mindninja.ltd or via www.mindninja.org.