How to Stay Positive Even When Times Are Tough

Have you ever had one of those mornings when it seemed everything that could go wrong did? You overslept. You were out of milk for the cereal. You couldn’t find your car keys. A co-worker knocked a glass of water into your lap.

After a morning like that, do you want to give up and go back to bed? Or are you able to smile, make a joke and still have a great day?

The ability to stay positive and optimistic is an important skill. Positivity is a vital part of our mental health, and it’s been shown to be important to physical health as well.

“There is a link between how we feel and how we behave,” says Erin Bondy, PhD, a researcher and clinician at the UNC Center for Women’s Mood Disorders. “With negative thoughts, we feel depressed and withdraw from activities we enjoy. It’s a downward spiral.”

Dr. Bondy explains how to break a negative cycle with positive thoughts and behaviors.

Use Behaviors for Positive Thinking

Positive thinking is the ability to acknowledge the good in a bad situation and to remain hopeful and optimistic that challenges will resolve. You might know people who seem naturally positive, but positive thinking is a skill that everyone can practice, one small step at a time.

“Changing feelings or thoughts is hard,” Dr. Bondy says. “Behavioral activation is a therapy in which we work with patients to identify small things they can implement to feel good. That positive behavior helps to interrupt a downward cycle, so the person feels better.”

If you’re having a rough patch, for example, you shouldn’t cancel your plans because you’re feeling down.

“Go ahead and say yes to seeing a friend or attending a social event, even when you don’t feel like it,” Dr. Bondy says. “Don’t wait until you feel good to say yes to things. When we engage in positive behaviors, we can bring the mind with us. That doesn’t mean we have to pretend that things are good when they’re not, but often we’ll feel better when we get there.”

Develop Positive Reframing Strategies

One practice for positivity is reframing thoughts.

“When people are stressed, their thoughts tend to go to the worst-case scenario,” Dr. Bondy says. “Therapists can help people learn how to put those thoughts on trial. If you’re worried about a troubling thought, weigh how helpful the thought is. That can really help you determine how to feel about a given situation.”

Even if a negative thought might be true, that’s a time to use a positive behavior to balance it. While acknowledging that a situation is stressful, for example, you could also take a moment to express gratitude for something else that is going well or schedule an activity that you know will make you feel better, like coffee with a friend.

To help make that shift, consider how you’d treat a friend who was struggling.

“Talk to yourself the way you’d talk to a friend,” Dr. Bondy says. “If you can practice compassion in a moment when things are hard, it feels very comforting.”

Anyone can work to find this balance in their thoughts, but if you’re struggling to do so on your own, you might benefit from working with a mental health provider.

“The mind can get creative at tricking us with negative thoughts,” Dr. Bondy says. “Therapeutic approaches like behavioral activation or cognitive behavioral therapy can be helpful in learning to recognize when our thoughts are pulling us down and causing us to shift away from the things that bring us joy.”

Develop Positive Habits

You can develop habits to reinforce positive thoughts, whether it’s a visualization technique or a physical activity, and these behavior patterns will look different for each person. Seeing a mental health provider may help with identifying habits that work for you.

Dr. Bondy says everyone can engage in the self-reflection that is necessary to stay optimistic.

“Think about a time when you felt joy,” she says. “What were you doing? Who were you with? What about that time can you build into your daily life?”

Once you’ve identified something that will help you stay positive, such as exercising regularly or keeping a gratitude journal, it’s important to implement it slowly.

“If someone hasn’t moved their body in months, the goal shouldn’t be to run 5 miles on the first day,” Dr. Bondy says. “The goal for the first day should be lacing up the sneakers to walk for five minutes. Another day try for 10 minutes. Make the first step of your positive habit feasible and achievable, and then build on it. That will make those shifts lasting and meaningful.”

Avoid Toxic Positivity

Practicing positivity does not mean ignoring the hard parts of a situation.

“Toxic positivity is the result of not acknowledging negative things,” Dr. Bondy says. “You can’t just pretend everything is great. If we push negative feelings away, they exacerbate over time. What we’re trying to do is increase positivity in the context of everything that is going on, and we do that with those small things that provide joy and rest.”

If you’re struggling with negative thoughts, talk to your doctor. Need a doctor? Find one near you.