Maintaining a Positive Mindset

Positive Mindset

Creating a positive mindset is possible…

The notion of creating and maintaining a positive mindset can be cringe-inducing for a lot of people. Images of Stuart Smalley from SNL come rushing to mind and the entire topic becomes a punchline.

It would be a mistake to dismiss the concept, though.

A TON of science and research has been done in this field and the data are bulletproof at this point; positivity and happiness are incredibly important, malleable, and crucial for a rewarding and fulfilling life filled with growth and enjoyable challenge.

If you’re interested in looking into this, your first stop should be Mindset, by Carol Dweck.

This book is based upon the notion that a “fixed mindset” is one in which you grow up to believe that your talents, intelligence and skills are fixed and unchangeable. Those with a fixed mindset (me, but I’ve come a long way) are more easily frustrated and thwarted when their efforts don’t immediately pay off because they assign their “failure” to a talent/intellgence deficiency. Those with a “growth mindset” believe themselves to be capable of improving their intelligence, skills and “talents” through hard work and effort.

Another great field of study is Positive Psychology, championed by Martin Seligman and supported by the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Shawn Achor, Barbara Frederickson, Sonja Lyubomirsky, Daniel Gilbert, Gretchen Rubin and Tal Ben Shahar, among many others. This area has been propelled forward by REAL SCIENCE that shows that you can, in fact, create a positive mindset and increased happiness. I highly recommend reading about it and/or listening to their audio books.

This stuff is real.

The Brain Science Behind Positive Mindset

When we say “mindset,” in many ways we’re referring to brain health. Not just a brain free from disease, but a brain that is optimized by lifestyle habits that promote and support a clear, clean, well-fueled, properly exercised, energized and rested mind.

Your brain, like the rest of your body, is greatly impacted by the way in which you sleep, eat, exercise and recover.

Sounds reasonable, right?

Sleep and Fuel

The Importance of Sleep

We treat sleep very casually in this country. It seems like we consider it to be optional, something we can do without. We brag about not getting sleep and about not NEEDING IT. It seems to be a badge of honor to go without sleep.

“I can get by on 4 hours of sleep per night,” some people say.

Wrong.

Well, to be clear, you may get by, but the continual sleep deprivation is taking it’s toll on your body physiologically, physically and cognitively in ways that are wearing you down on a cellular level and will eventually contribute to chronic illness and a shortened lifespan.

I’m not kidding.

You NEED 7 to 9 hours of sleep every night.

Here are some disturbing facts about our poor sleep habits:

  • Americans’ sleep time over the last century has decreased by 20%
  • People in Western countries are sleeping on average 1 ½ to 2 full hours per night LESS than we did just a century ago
  • The National Sleep Foundation estimates that over 30% of the population sleep less than six hours at night
  • 60 percent of people in the United States say that they have difficulties sleeping every night (or at least every other night)
  • The CDC estimates that 50 to 70 million Americans have sleep disorders
  • 30% of the population has insomnia

Here are some horrifying COGNITIVE/BRAIN issues arising from sleep deprivation:

  • Sleep deprivation impairs our brains as much as alcohol, is responsible for an estimated 100,000 crashes per year and one out of every six fatal car accidents
  • After just 24 hours of sleep deprivation your brain receives less glucose (fuel), which leaves you foggy and craving sugary food to replace the lost glucose
  • Sleep-deprived people take longer to complete tasks and make more errors than well rested people
  • Sleep disorders impact our judgment, emotional capacity, creativity, and almost every cognitive process
  • Anxiety and depression are strongly linked with sleep disorders
  • Decreased concentration, irritability, bad mood, tremors, hallucinations, diminished immune function are potential effects of short-term sleep loss
  • Continued sleep deprivation results in an increase in metabolic rate, in appetite, and in body temperature, immune system failure, and decreased brain activity

(Sources: Sleep Soundly Every Night, Sleep Smarter, The 8-Hour Sleep Paradox, The Secret World of Sleep)

So, let’s summarize the negative brain/cognitive impacts of sleep deprivation; impaired cognition, increased irritability/bad mood, inability to balance moods, decreased brain activity, decreased judgement and emotional capacity, deadly driving, increased anxiety and depression.

If you are not getting 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night, you are likely to be cognitively impaired, irritable and negative.

These are not characteristics of a positive mindset.

So, one of the most immediate and powerful things you can do to improve and maintain your mindset is to get sleep!

Easier said than done, right? I hear you. I struggle with sleep and have since I was in high school. I totally understand the challenge. But I’m improving, and here are some ways in which you can set yourself up for better quality and quantity of sleep.

How do I improve my sleep?

The first step in improving your sleep quality and quantity is to care enough about it to be willing to take action and stick with the action steps for a long enough period of time for the behavior to stick. If this is just a casual interest of yours with a 48 hour window for expected returns, it’s not going to work.

You’ve been doing things a certain way for a long time. It takes time to establish new habits. How long? Depends upon which study you read, but if you’re committed to change it doesn’t really matter how long! These are LIFE LONG habits you should be establishing if you want to be healthy and happy, so the expectation that they should take a certain period of time to form runs counter to the goal.

Here are some simple steps you can take to improve your sleep quality and quantity. You may want to try only tackling one of these at a time until you establish routine so as to not overwhelm yourself, and try using the Way of Life app as a way of tracking your consistency (see below):

There are a lot of other helpful approaches to good sleep hygiene which I will outline in a future post, but it’s best to keep it simple at the beginning. If you can implement at least ONE of these concepts at the outset it should positively impact your sleep and mood.

Fuel up for positivity…

If you want your car to perform optimally, you put the right fuel into it and you maintain it properly. If you want your brain to perform optimally, you need to do the same thing.

Good nutrition is critical to positive mindset for many reasons, but let’s tackle to simplest and most obvious steps to take to prevent negative thinking and to keep your brain as healthy as possible.

What to eat:

Your brain function will be best served when it’s fed a diet of whole foods, lots of plant-based materials (fruit, vegetables, nuts, etc.), fish and seafood. The whole, plant-based foods will provide the nutrients needed for optimal functioning. Make sure there’s a balance of protein, fats and healthy carbs with every meal. Studies show that the risk of depression is 25% to 35% lower in people who eat this way.

You need to know your portions! Overeating will lead to overweight and obesity, which will lead all manner of problems for your brain, including hormone issues and increased risk of depression and anxiety.

What to avoid:

The usual; processed and refined foods and sugar.

I’m still waiting for the research paper on how eating this shit is in any way advantageous to you.

I’m a realist, though. Very few of us will go entirely without eating processed foods and added sugar. Just limit it as much as you can and increase your intake of plant-based foods for optimal nutrition.

Choose your company wisely

We all have people in our lives who skew toward the negative. Friends, co-workers, relatives who seem stuck in problems, complaints and conflict. When someone vents their negativity on you, it’s like dumping a bag of garbage on your living room floor. Literally.

Negative people activate the stress response in your brain which causes the release of neurochemicals that have a significant and profound effect on your mood and health.

Our stress response is ancient, meant to protect us in the event we are attacked or encounter a grave threat. When activated, our stress response releases cortisol and adrenaline into our system and our muscles tighten, our breathing shallows, our heart rate increases, our senses of smell and sight sharpen, blood is diverted away from our organs and to our limbs in case we need to fight or flee.

All of this is spectacular if facing a wild animal. Not so cool if you’re driving to work or having coffee with your soul-killing co-worker who does little besides complain about the vast conspiracies the world puts in place to thwart her success.

When under stress, blood is diverted away from portions of your brain that control rational thought and toward the part of your brain that controls the “fight or flight” mechanism. This doesn’t produce a very healthy environment for positivity. You can’t simultaneously be in fear and positive.

Stress also suppresses your immune system, digestive system and reproductive systems. Makes sense. Your brain isn’t really worried about these things when you’re at risk of imminent death, but chronic stress can result in illness, poor digestion and a failure to bring your A game into the bedroom.

Mirror Neurons

Another reason to limit your exposure to negative people is that we have a tendency to take on the moods and emotions of people we encounter. This may be due to what are known as mirror neurons.

There isn’t unanimity on this issue, but the belief is that mirror neurons exist to teach us behavior and empathy, among other things. When we are infants, we see behavior and mirror it as a developmental process. As adults, we mirror emotions in front of us as a way of establishing empathy and cooperation with other human beings.

Have you ever noticed how, when a happy, excited person enters the room your mood elevates? Or how emotional you become when watching a heartbreaking scene in a movie?

Have you every walked away from an interaction with someone and said, “well, that put me in a shitty mood!”

Mirror neurons. We reflect the emotions we see.

So, if you spend time around negative people, guess what can easily happen?

It’s not your burden to assume the emotions of people with dark moods. Be mindful of how you spend your time, and with whom!

Roll up some quick wins

And then we get to the concept of micro-commitments, or what we call “quick wins.” The practice of micro-commitments deserves it’s own chapter, so I’ll expand on this in a future post.

But, for now, the key points to understand about micro-commitments and their relationship with a positive mindset are:

  • They are small, and when I say small I mean TINY
  • Their size renders them too small to fail, so they’re easy to accomplish every single day
  • Accomplishing them will stimulate your brain’s reward system, in which the accomplishment of a task causes the release of a small shot of dopamine, your body’s “reward and progress” neurochemical
  • Without going into the neurobiology of it (only some of which I understand) the release of dopamine creates the anticipation of reward, so your brain wants more of it, which is why you are motivated to repeat behaviors

The reason that micro-commitments are so powerful is they enable you to set up a series of tiny, productive and positive actions that you can complete every day almost without fail!

They require almost NO willpower to complete because they are so small, yet completing them:

  • Is a small positive step that guides you toward your bigger goals
  • Creates and builds momentum
  • Establishes repetition, and when you repeat the behavior long enough your brain will encode the actions so that they become habit and no longer require any conscious effort
  • Allows you to check things off your list, and your brain rewards you for completing positive steps, no matter the size, with a shot of dopamine, which continues to motivate you toward an anticipated reward

Here are a few examples of micro-commitments:

  • Do one minute of exercise per day. Yes, I said it. ONE. MINUTE. Just get the ball rolling. Don’t judge it.
  • Eat one piece of fruit (or a veggie) per day. Just one, if you’re trying to clean up your nutrition.
  • One minute of meditation per day.
  • Read 2 pages per day.

I know. You’re thinking these are so small they aren’t worth doing. Not true. If you don’t exercise and are trying to build the habit, this will enable you to start in a way that you will actually follow through with and build repetition.

I will expand on this in an upcoming post.

In summation…

Your mindset is a powerful and important thing. It’s also delicate if you allow external forces to dictate it and don’t take charge of the things that are within your control.

All of these suggestions are real-world, controllable behaviors. They take practice, you will stumble, but they’re very achievable.

Give it your best effort and you’ll see!

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Jonathan Aluzas is co-owner of Arena Fitness, a fitness center that offers group training in Encino as well as personal training in Northridge.