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Stress Management for Health Course

Explanatory Style - Optimism/Pessimism


"There is compelling evidence that those of us whose world view is essentially pessimistic regarding our problems as pervasive, long lasting, insoluble and our fault suffer worse damage from stress than those irritating optimists who always look on the bright side of life."

 (Dr Paul Martin, PhD : Clinical Psychologist)


Explanatory style is the way in which we explain the events that happen to us in our lives, either good or bad.  Some of us may have a more pessimistic explanatory style, so that we blame ourselves when things don't go right (eg "it was my fault") and will not take credit for successes,  (eg "it was just luck").  Some of us may have a more optimistic explanatory style so that we do not blame ourselves 100% for things that go wrong and we realise there are other external influences on what happens.   

An excessively pessimistic thinking style can be a contributory factor in stress.  A certain degree of pessimism is useful but an overly chronic pessimistic style can reduce our ability to cope with stress and research has shown that it can also have a negative influence on our physical and psychological health.

Most of us can look back and remember times when we worried about something awful that we thought would happen, and worried we wouldn't cope if it did happen, but when the situation arrived it was a lot less difficult than we thought it would be and we were more able to cope than we had thought.  Some of us with a pessimistic thinking style not only think events will be awful but we also underestimate our capacity to deal with potentially challenging situations.  Fortunately though, it is possible to switch from an overly pessimistic thinking style to a more optimistic thinking style. 


Pessimism and Stress

Excess pessimism is an internal stressor to the body.  When encountering a challenging situation a pessimist's fight/flight response will be triggered more often and stay switched on for longer than an optimistic person.  Pessimism decreases our stress resistance.  When we are pessimistic it is difficult to have hope when we face difficulties.  We think the difficulties will go on forever and we tend to think we cannot do anything to change or influence events.  This stops us taking any action that would improve our situation.  Excess pessimism undermines our confidence and interferes with our quality of life.  It makes life harder and we stop trying to achieve our goals because we think we will fail before we've even started. 


Learned Optimism 

Some people are naturally more optimistic than others, however research has shown that like any other skill we can learn to think more optimistically.  In one study the, Penn Optimism Program, participants were taught thinking skills that helped to increase their level of optimism.  When the study was over and the research data analysed, it was found that there was a 50% lower risk of developing depression in the group taught optimism increasing thinking skills, and if they did develop depression it was 50% less severe.

An excellent self-help book to increase our optimism is called Learned Optimism written by one of the leading experts on optimism, Clinical Psychologist Dr Martin Seligman, PhD.


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