Optimism: a potent buffer against stress and negative thinking

Optimism is the madness of insisting that all is well when we are miserable.”-Voltaire 

You may be wondering, reading the title, what’s the connection between optimism and stress?

You may have your own perception what optimism means.

The term originates from the Latin word optimum, meaning “best”.

Being optimistic, in the typical sense of the word, is defined as expecting the best possible outcome from any given situation.

Yet, much research has shown that an optimistic view brings many more advantages than just expecting the best.

Notably, optimistic people tend to be more resilient towards stress in life. Their thinking allows them to cope with more ease through problematic stressful situations in life.

Nevertheless, to fully understand the ‘how’ of being an optimist, we need to firstly understand the meaning of stress.  

What is stress?

Understanding the meaning of stress

There are many definitions available. Some believe stress should be defined subjectively- what I say about how I feel.

Alternatively, others believe there needs to be an objective definition. This could be an impartial physical measurement of some kind.

Up until the 18th century, the word ‘stress’ implied hardship or adversity.

By the 1950’s researchers had come to some agreement for the definition of stress:

“The non-specific response of the body to any demand made upon it”.

But should stress be defined by the outside stimulus that causes it or by how people respond to it?

Stress or stressor?

Firstly, it’s important to understand the difference between stress and a stressor.

Stress is the process of adjusting to circumstances, while a stressor is the event or situation to which people must adjust.

Stressors can be events such as what we are all experiencing at present with Covid-19.

The long-term persistent uncertain nature of a pandemic can take a toll on your mental health.

Stress is our adaptive response to a stressor. Put simply, stressors are external, while stress is internal.

Many models and theories try to define and understand stress.

Over the last 30 years, the concept of stress has developed around the idea that a people react when various psychological and physical demands are placed on them from the environment or circumstances. These can be challenging and sometimes overwhelming to their wellbeing.

When the pressure is on do you exhibit control and positivity or does your thinking become triggered negatively?

Coping with stress

The term ‘coping’ refers to the mechanisms and mental processes used by an individual as an adaptive response to reduce the stress arising from a threatening situation.

We all need a little stress in life to act as a motivator. However, experiencing too much creates an imbalance that throws us off-course and upsets our stability.

Obviously, we seek to reduce our stress in circumstances that cause us distress.

 When it comes to managing and reducing stress, negative or anxious thinking does not help. With the stress cycle, everything begins with a person’s thinking patterns.

Your thoughts are responsible for your emotions which in turn affects your physiology.

We need to nurture a more positive optimistic way of thinking around events in our life.

The benefits of an optimistic attitude

Being optimistic allows you to handle stressful situations better, which reduces the harmful health effects of stress on your body.

What does the research tell us about optimism as a tool to decrease stress?

It seems the last seven years have produced more studies around this topic than the previous twenty years combined.  

From all the material available there are two stand-out research studies that emphasize the importance of adopting an optimist attitude towards adversity.  

Firstly, a 2011 research paper found optimism worked well as a buffering against the negative effects of warzone stress among combat veterans.

 Following a 12-month deployment to Iraq they surveyed 2,439 soldiers from an active combat team to assess Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms, and mental health issues.

Soldiers recorded as having high dispositional optimism reported having fewer mental health issues than there pessimistic counterparts. They concluded these individuals used more adaptive coping strategies to combat their stressful issues.

Secondly, a 2013 research study at Concordia University in Canada found optimists were able to buffer the impact of stress, thereby limiting the increase of cortisol in their bodies. The study followed 152 adults over six years. They found individuals who were identified as optimists tended to be able to stabilise and regulate the levels of the stress hormone in their body compared to the pessimists in the group.

Why is this important?

Reduced cortisol excretion into a body helps us deal with the situation in a more positive way and negates the impact of the “fight or flight response”.

Am I a pessimist or optimist?

Is your glass half-empty or half-full?

How you answer this question about positive thinking may reflect your outlook on life, and whether you’re optimistic or pessimistic.

Do you find it easy to cope with unexpected disasters or do they completely throw you off track?

Do you see the silver lining in all situations or do you take a more cynical approach?

While most of us are neither one extreme nor the other, you’re likely to find that you identify with an optimistic or pessimistic personality type.

Whether or not we are optimistic in our nature tends to depend on our genetic predisposition, environmental factors, and learned attitudes throughout our lives.

Is there a way to uncover your preferences?

There’s a variety of tools to help you measure your overall optimism and pessimism by evaluating your outlook towards life.

By taking the test it will help you better understand your current state.

How to cultivate optimism into a habit

Its only lifelong developed habits that make us focus and dwell on negative thinking.

However, by consciously altering your thought processes, you can literally re-wire your brain.

Research shows that we’re not destined to be optimists or pessimists. We can actually change our outlook and become more positive.

Optimism is a mindset that enables people to view the world, other people and events in the most favourable, positive light.

Some are born optimists; however, the good news for those that are not, you can make optimism into a habit.

If the thoughts that run through your head are mostly negative, your outlook on life is more likely pessimistic.

If your thoughts are mostly positive, you’re more than likely to be an optimist.

Unfortunately, with the on-going uncertainty around Covid-19, it becomes too easy for pessimism negative thinking to become the norm.

It’s important to develop an optimistic explanatory style to counter the negativity and gloomy outlook with the current situation.


  • We change our thinking;
  • We change our feelings;
  • Then we change our actions;
  • This changes our life.

Is there a simple way to achieve this?

As simple as ABCDE

Martin Seligman, the author of ‘Learned Optimism’, proposed an adaption of Aaron Beck’s CBT and Albert Ellis’s RBT techniques to practice building a more optimist approach to life’s events.  

Both focus on identifying the underlying thoughts that influence behaviours and then focus on challenging the underlining beliefs.

Seligman’s approach is known as the “ABCDE” model of learned optimism:

  • Adversity or activating event: Think about a recent adversity you have faced. An example for me is the prospect of facing 2 weeks in Covid lockdown
  • Belief:  become aware of the type of thoughts that are running through your mind when you think about this adversity. How do you interpret the event? Become aware of the on-going narrative. Is it positive or negative? This is unfair. Will this ever end? How much will lose in income and work?  I will have nothing positive or purposeful to do for 2 weeks.
  • Consequence: Consider the consequences and behaviours that emerge from your beliefs. How do you tend to behave, respond, or feel? No one can help me. I don’t want to do anything productive and feel sad.
  • Dispute: Look for examples that challenge your assumptions and beliefs. Realize this gives me great opportunity to move my work outdoors and free up time to attend to other issues that have been outstanding due to lack of time.  Acknowledge the temporary unfortunate nature of the situation and let it go.
  • Energized: The outcome that emerges from trying to challenge our beliefs. Need to get in touch and communicate with as many people as I can to tell them what’s available during these uncertain times to keep productivity high.

Take away message

Optimism and pessimism are powerful forces.

Through our tendency towards optimistic or pessimistic thinking we create a ripple effect. Being optimistic involves making a choice about how you see the world around you. It doesn’t mean denying the negative or avoiding the situation.

Cultivating an optimistic approach to life is not a magic wand. It is a valuable tool that when used wisely allows you to change your thinking to help overcome stress in your life.

It takes a bit of time to master. Nonetheless, by practicing the ABCDE cognitive approach you effectively rewire your mind and form new positive habits.

If you need help around this area of your life and find yourself struggling to stay positive in life please reach out.

I’m here to help!

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