Wednesday, 7 October 2015

A Pessimist’s Guide to being Optimistic

I have been a pessimist my entire life. Some of my earliest memories are of me worrying, mostly of problems that never came to fruition. I was always a “glass half empty” kind of person, both figuratively and literally.  This, by the way, drives my boyfriend Spencer insane. I always ask him to fill up my glass of water when it is half empty. Now he refuses to fill up my glass until it is completely empty, which in some weird way has taught me that a half empty glass of water is still half full. (I know this because I used to chug my half empty glass of water to get him to fill it up, which I do not recommend unless you like choking on water and frequent bathroom trips while trying to watch the Entourage movie.)

I am sure that being diagnosed with a disease like Pulmonary Hypertension is difficult for both the optimists and pessimists of the world. I say this because Pulmonary Hypertension is a pessimist’s disease. Pulmonary Hypertension is something that can turn an optimist into a pessimist, or allow a pessimist’s worries to thrive like a germ cell in a Petri dish. The statistics about PH are not good. Many of the people with PH that I have spoken to through this project have only had these statistics affirmed by their doctors. With PH we don’t get a 50% chance of remission with a certain kind of treatment. Once we are diagnosed, we are often told that it is all down hill from here. As you might know, this is one of the main reasons that I started The PHight or Flight Project. Statistics are flawed; statistics do not apply to everyone. Many people with PH are simply exceptional, regardless of where they fit into that pie chart.

When I was diagnosed, the statistics that I read about PH were not very optimistic. One of the first articles that I read stated that people with PH have three years to live, and will require a heart-lung-transplant (which also has terrible statistics!) I was a wreck. When I finally saw a PH specialist he told me I that had maybe 5 to 10 years to live. That was a lot better than 3 years to live, but at age 25, living another 5 to 10 years simply isn’t good enough. (Not so fun fact: I was 25 when I was diagnosed, I am now 27.) Maybe I am spoiled for feeling this way. I have been told I am a little spoiled… but I swear I just have good taste (this statement is only half true) and I just like nice things!

Being an optimist is good for your health, so if you haven’t already, it is time to start seeing your glass as being half full. Numerous studies have concluded that optimists live longer. These studies have also concluded that optimists heal quicker after surgery, survive longer with cancer, and heart patients live longer. Perhaps you don’t trust me because I admitted to being a reformed pessimist, and now you want to do your own research. If so, a lot of information is available for free with a simple Google search. (If you use Bing as your search engine, I don’t trust you.) 

Being an optimist is good for your health regardless of your current situation, whether you have PH or not.  A study performed the Harvard School of Public Heart Health has found that having a positive attitude, such as self acceptance, is linked to improved hearth health. This study concluded that people who are optimists had fewer heart problems. The University of  Pittsburgh found that optimists were more likely to live into old age, and were less likely to die from all causes than cynics. Research has also shown that optimists are less likely to get sick with a common cold. Their bodies are also more efficient at fighting off infection during times they feel optimist (opposed to times when they left less hopeful.) Studies have also found that cancer patients with positive attitudes tend to have better outcomes. In short, optimists expect the best to happen and reap the rewards for their positive thinking. (I am sorry, I am not sourcing any of these studies. I am not being graded.)

As I said before, PH is a pessimist’s disease. I understand that it can be hard not to feel like the world is against you when the chances of developing PH are so astronomically impossible. Statistically, you are more likely to die in an asteroid apocalypse. Oh…maybe I shouldn’t have said that. (Sorry pessimists, you’re probably safe from asteroids and zombies.) As someone who grew up as a chronically pessimistic person, I will admit that it is hard to change to way you think, but it isn’t impossible.  Look at all the benefits being  an optimist can provide. Becoming an optimist is free. It is also an oppurtnity that one cannot afford not to at least try.

A Pessimist's Tips for Becoming Optimistic

If you are still reading this, you might be slightly dubious of my tips because I have mentioned that I was a pessimist before. I wanted to highlight this because there is hope for everyone to become Optimist Prime...or just a regular optimistic person. Whichever you prefer.

1. Keep a Gratitude Journal

Research shows that grateful people experience less aches and pains, and report feeling better. Keeping a gratitude journal can also improve your long-term well being. It can also help improve your quality of sleep, and help decrease systolic blood pressure. This exercise in gratitude can also help improve relationships, and spirituality.

I recommend keeping a gratitude journal for at least a year. (However, you might find it so beneficial you may want to continue practicing it.) I know a year sounds like a big commitment, but chances are you can squeeze 5 minutes in each day to do this. What worked best for me was setting 5 minutes aside before bed to write what I was grateful for. I recommend trying to write three gratitudes everyday before bed. You don't have to write a full essay- just three small points. I did this for the first year following my diagnosis, which was my most challenging year thus far in life.

It was very challenging to find things to be thankful at first, but that is the idea of this exercise. This will encourage you to think more positively.  Not every gratitude has to be grand. On days where I struggled I was thankful for really simple things, like a good cup of tea.

2. Take Things 10 Seconds at a Time

Taking painful or difficult things 10 seconds at a time is a revolutionary idea that I learned from The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. For those of you have never watched the The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, the show focuses around a young lady who was kept in a bunker for 15 years with several other ladies after being kidnapped by a man who refers to himself as the 'prophet.' The show contains flashbacks which shows how Kimmy's spirit was unbreakable in the bunker, and the ways she coped to life in the bunker. 

In one scene, it is revealed that the ladies in the bunker had to take turns turning a crank in the bunker for 24/7 hours a days. Similar to a plot in Lost, they had no idea why they had to turn the crank, but were told horrible things would happen if they did not continue to turn the crank. The crank was large and quite hard to turn, especially for someone of Kimmy's small stature. To get herself through this process, she would tell herself that she could stand anything for 10 seconds at a time. "Then you just start another 10 seconds" Kimmy explains of continuing this routine. 

With PH, you will go through challenges and face hard circumstances. Remember to take things 10 seconds at a time. You can stand anything for 10 seconds at a time. 

If you haven't watched The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt yet, you can binge watch it on Netflix. It has everything you could want in a show. (Did I mention the show was co-created by Tina Fey?) Kimmy's unbreakable spirit is almost contagious. I watched the entire first season and didn't realize until after that this show wasn't just a comedy. This story was about a young girl who was kidnapped, and probably a victim of sexual abuse. It was a story about a survivor. Her unwavering hope that she would escape kept her alive. Her unbreakable spirit kept her optimistic. 

3. Visualize the Things You Want

When I was first diagnosed all that went through my head was the terrible things the doctor's told me would eventually happen. I remember the phrase "I am dying" running through my head for 24/7 for the first year after diagnosis. It was horrible. Why was I focusing all my attention on something that I didn't want to happen? Belief is power. I believed that I was dying, there was no way my body could get better. I had to stop my way of thinking. I had to let go of the negative thoughts, and try to find optimistic thoughts.

Remember, visualization is the idea that your mind can prepare your body for the changes you want to happen. If you take one thing away from this, I hope it is that you should not focus on the things you don't want to happen. Instead, focus on what you do want to happen. You can incorporate visualization into your meditation routine. You can also write down a mantra or a goal and keep it somewhere you look everyday, like on your desktop or tapped to the mirror where you get ready in the morning. Reading what you want to happen and repeating it will help you to visualize your optimistic thought. It will help you focus on what you really want to happen, not what you are afraid will happen.

This might be a little hocus-pocus-new-age for some, which I understand. Instead, try not to focus on what you don't want to happen. Focus on what you want to happen. Don't focus your thoughts on fear, or worry. That will not help you become an optimist, but trying to visualize or imagine things you want to happen will. If you don't feel comfortable visualizing your health, you could visualize small goals that you hope to complete. This could be imagining a scrapbook you want to finish to doing a new yoga move. A lot of athletes use visualization to prepare for the perfect hole in one or goal, so there is some proof out there showing the power of visualization, which is important for positive thinking.

4. It is Okay to be Sad

Being an optimist doesn't mean that you cannot be sad. Part of being an optimist is recognizing your feelings. You will get sad and have a bad day. This is normal, and a part of life for everyone.

I know that I have a wave of emotions after a PH check up. I usually feel depressed for a few days. I try to acknowledge my feelings, but do not judge myself for feeling the way I do. I understand that what I am going through is incredibly challenging and hard. It wouldn't be natural to try to force happiness in these situations. I also think that in order to move on, I must go through the wave of emotions that accompanies a challenging day.

However, when these emotions no longer serve a purpose I try my best to let go of them. This means I have to stop replaying what the doctor said in my head, (or something else bad or negative) in my head over and over again. When I replay something in my head (or tell the story of something bad happening) over again I am reliving that experience. I keep putting myself back in that dangerous situation, even if it is just mentally.

To try and deal with sadness, or difficult emotions, you can always try writing down what happened, and how it made you feel. Read it a day later and see if you have an insight. Maybe you will be able to give yourself advice. You can also try to discuss your feelings with a good friend or family member. Because I know that PH check ups are difficult for me, I set up a 'self-care' plan. I set aside a few special items for me to enjoy when I get home. This includes having my favorite bath bomb from Lush to get all of the hospital cooties off of me, and then enjoying a cupcake that I have froze from my last visit to Kelly's saved especially for this occasion.

Do you have any tips on staying optimistic- or any tips on how you became an optimist? Please feel free to share in the comments.

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