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  • Pessimists and optimists are polar opposites; the former focus on the downside, while the latter tend to look on the bright side.
  • While neither of these mentalities are classified as mental illnesses, they each can have some seriously negative effects on our mental health.
  • First, optimism isn’t always the way to go; when it comes time to face difficult feelings, you shouldn’t sweep these under the rug and insist you’re fine. Instead, you should face your feelings and know that it’s okay to not be okay.
  • Pessimism is rarely the way to go, as ruminating over negative thoughts can damage your brain and play a role in the development of depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues.
  • Don’t accept your inherent way of thinking—instead, take control by processing your thoughts and emotions before acting, reflecting on your gratitudes, and calling a lifeline when you need it.

Pessimists are innately negative, while optimists are inherently positive; in any given situation, the former tend to focus on the bad, while the latter look for the good. People have long condemned both pessimistic and optimistic personalities (depending, probably, on where they themselves fall on the scale) and sparked a heated debate about which is better, correct, or more beneficial. But the truth is that each have their drawbacks… and analysis of highly pessimistic or highly optimistic individuals begs the question: Is there a bigger problem here? Is pessimism or optimism characteristic of a mental illness?

Pessimism nor optimism are classified alone as mental disorders. However, being too pessimistic or too optimistic can have negative effects on our mental health and exacerbate certain mental illnesses/issues. Dr. Caroline Leaf—a neuroscientist, mental health expert, and author of Think, Learn, Succeed—helps me explain how these two personality trends can hurt you in the long run and what mindset you should try to implement instead.

Optimism: Too Much of a Good Thing

What’s so bad about looking for the good? I know, I’m with you. I’m an optimist at heart, but the truth is there are times when optimism doesn’t serve you well. Bad things happen to all of us, and it’s important we deal with all of the negative emotions that come with that as opposed to pretending everything is fine. “Sweeping things under the rug and pretending everything is great is never a good idea and can actually allow toxic mindsets to take over our thinking,” says Leaf. “We should never stick our heads in the ground like an ostrich if there is something negative we do not want to face, because toxic thoughts and emotions grow like weeds if we do not deal with them.”

Pessimism: Never a Friend, Always a Foe

Pessimism, on the other hand, rarely serves you well. Assuming a negative mindset and attitude will only hurt you, in the short-term and the long-term. “Deliberating on our negative thoughts and feelings and allowing pessimism to take over our minds is incredibly damaging to the brain. Every thought we have changes the structure of our brains,” Leaf explains. “If we constantly have negative thoughts, we build these thoughts into our brain, which affects our future thoughts, words, and behavior.”

These negative thought patterns can then contribute to or even trigger bouts of depression or anxiety. Not to mention, it can wreak complete and utter havoc on our overall wellbeing: “Indeed, a 2013 BBC study has shown how ruminating on negative thoughts is one of the ‘biggest predictors of depression and anxiety.’ A cynical mindset also tends to stop us from seeking help or trusting others to help us, which can isolate us and further impact our mental and physical wellbeing.”

3 Hacks for Taking Control of Your Thoughts

Instead of accepting your overtly optimistic or pessimistic tendencies, challenge yourself to take each thought as it comes and use it to your benefit. That’ll typically mean accepting said thoughts, resisting a cycle of negativity, and choosing to be grateful instead. Here are a few guidelines that’ll help you do so:

    1) Think before you speak (or do).
    First, take a moment to process your thoughts before you act. “Think about what you say or do before you say or do it. Your words and actions are a reflection of your thoughts: catch those thoughts by writing them down on a piece of paper, in a journal or on your phone or computer,” Leaf suggests. “Then, think about and write down what you have to be thankful for right next to your negative thoughts.”

    2) Reflect on your gratitude.
    Also, focus on what you’re grateful for. And go deeper than you probably feel inclined to. “Don’t just say you are thankful for a specific thing or person, analyze how grateful you are. Keep a record, somehow, of every time you are grateful and every time you are feeling down and how your attitude affected your ability to think and act in a particular situation,” says Leaf. “Remind yourself of what you have to be grateful for by setting a reminder on your phone or sticking post-it notes on the fridge.”

    3) Call your lifeline.
    Finally, when it all becomes too much, call a lifeline. Your mom, your brother, your best friend, whoever. “When you feel burdened with work, emotionally challenged, or are going through something, try stopping for a moment and contacting someone in your life, even if it is just an email or text to tell that person you are thinking of them and are grateful that they are in your life,” says Leaf. “Think about how much you love them and all the good times you have shared together, perhaps writing down your feelings and reminding yourself of them throughout the day.”

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