Using the Mayo Clinic's definition, "expecting good things to happen," certified nurse midwife Anna Cherry has days at work when she'd be silly not to feel optimistic. "We have beautiful and amazing and wonderful moments at this job, times that are transformative and empowering," says Cherry, who works at Atlanta's Emory School of Medicine.
But like nurses at every level and in every job, Cherry also has experiences that make it tough to have a positive outlook, much less demonstrate it for co-workers or patients who are looking for her support. Big picture issues, like the national nursing shortage, can sap positive energy. So can personal and specific situations, like losing a patient or an overcritical supervisor. Yet optimism in health care is not just desirable, it can improve life for nurses and patients alike.
"More than five decades of research have found that optimism is a potent health tonic. Optimistic people remain healthier and live longer," psychologist Utpal Dholakia noted in Psychology Today. "They have better cardiovascular health — even after risk factors are controlled for — stronger immune function, and lower levels of stress and pain. And healthy people who are optimistic report feeling better than equally healthy people who are pessimistic."
Being optimistic can even make you live longer. According to a 2017 study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, the most optimistic people reduced their risk of mortality by 31 percent. And the study was even conducted on nurses, so the findings are definitely applicable here.
Of course, trying to shift to an optimistic outlook can look like a monumental task, especially if you've always been more of a Debbie Downer than a Pollyanna (or Ned Flanders, Kimmy Schmidt, Cleveland Brown fan, you get the idea).
But you can develop an ability to be more optimistic, and here are tips from upbeat nurses and psychology experts to help you jump-start the process:
Don't fret about genetics. According to the Mayo Clinic, optimism is only 25-30 percent reliant on genetics. That gives you plenty of leeway in finding a way to be more optimistic even if it's contrary to your personality.
Prepare to pay it forward. If you are in a bad mood and inflict it on the next person, it can have a ripple effect, according to Cherry. "If you see 20 or 30 people a day, you are having a pretty big impact, negative or positive." To make sure she's using her influence over all those people for good, Cherry pauses and lets the last situation ebb away if it was negative. "Take a breath, center yourself before you go into the next patient or to talk to a co-worker," she said.
Don't expect the best from patients. Cardiac nurse Anetra Wilhoite reminds herself constantly that it's her job to stay positive. "Remember that we often see patients at their worst," said Wilhoite, a 12-year nursing veteran in Knoxville, Tennessee. "They are exhausted and don't feel good. They're scared, depressed, physically hurt, malnourished, and feel hopeless. So it is up to the medical staff to try to help or even change some or all of these feelings and circumstances."
Remember who you're dealing with. When Wilhoite is having a tough time staying positive, she tries to put herself in the patient's shoes. "How would I want to be treated if I were the patient? Or how would I want my mom to be treated?" she said. "Also I try to remember that nursing is not 'just a job.' I help people. I can make a big impact on people's lives. And ultimately, I remember I am working for the Lord and caring for his children."
Do something nice for yourself before you begin. According to the Elite Learning Resource Center nursing blog, it's a good idea to start the day with a positive attitude. But don't expect that to happen effortlessly. Instead, start the morning (or preshift) with something that brings you peace, comfort or cheer. "Maybe you could eat breakfast with the family, sit down and enjoy a cup of coffee or read a chapter of a favorite novel," the blog advises.
Don't work all the time. Cherry likes her current job because she no longer works up to 100 hours in one week as she did in her last position. She recommended that any nurse try to find a work-life balance to improve optimism. "Now that I have some personal time, hours when I don't have to think about work, it makes me a better nurse and a more pleasant person," she says. "It's hard to be optimistic when you work somewhere like my old job, where co-workers were afraid to call in sick because they were so understaffed someone else would have had to pick up their work burden."
Journal out the pessimistic thinking. Elite Learning also recommends the time-honored tradition of journaling to improve your outlook. "It can help you keep track of negative thoughts and discover the reason behind these feelings," EL notes. "For example, you might notice that you're upset at certain times of the day or only in certain places. Take a closer look at these factors and figure out what you can change and what you can't. For elements you have little to no control over, such as your heavy workload, you may want to talk to your boss or make a list of actions you can take."
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