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Staying Positive During Challenging Times

If you’re like most people these days, you’re spending a certain amount of time fretting. Given what’s going on in the world right now, that’s understandable. But what if you can’t stop the bad thoughts that are going through your mind?

In June 2020, a team of experts from the UK studied a group of seniors and found that those who had repetitive negative thoughts about the past or future were more likely to experience a decline in thinking and memory. PET scans of the brain confirmed that these seniors also were more likely to have increased deposits of the tau and amyloid proteins that cause Alzheimer’s disease.

“Depression and anxiety in mid-life and old age are already known to be risk factors for dementia,” said lead study author Dr. Natalie Marchant of the University College London psychiatry department. “Here, we found that certain thinking patterns implicated in depression and anxiety could be an underlying reason why people with those disorders are more likely to develop dementia. We expect that chronic negative thinking patterns over a long period of time could increase the risk.”

If obsessive negative thoughts are troubling us, what can we do? Experts say it’s possible to restructure our thought patterns. The first step could be to talk to your healthcare provider, who can recommend a therapist or other mental health professional.

The National Institutes of Health recently shared some self-care tips which also can improve our thought patterns and all-around mental health:

  1. Stay positive. Work on a balance between positive and negative emotions. Staying positive doesn’t mean that you never feel negative emotions, such as sadness or anger. You need to feel them so that you can move through difficult situations. They can help you to respond to a problem. But you don’t want those emotions to take over. For example, it’s not helpful to keep thinking about bad things that happened in the past or worry too much about the future.
  2. Try to hold on to the positive emotions when you have them. And take a break from negative information. Know when to stop watching or reading the news. Use social media to reach out for support and feel connected to others but don’t fall for rumors, get into arguments, or negatively compare your life to others.
  3. Practice gratitude. This can help you see life differently.  Make a point of noticing things you’re thankful for. Some people find it helpful to keep a gratitude journal where they write down the things they are grateful for every day. These can be big things, such as the support they have from loved ones, or little things, such as enjoying a nice meal.
  4. Take care of your physical health. Physical and mental health are connected, so get plenty of exercise, get enough sleep, and eat a healthy diet that includes all the nutrients you need.
  5. Connect with others. Strong, healthy relationships with others can improve our attitude. This could include spending time with family and friends, volunteering, or joining clubs and other groups. (These days a lot of this socializing happens online. Ask for help from family and friends if you need assistance setting up video chatting or email.)
  6. Develop coping techniques. A skilled therapist or support group can help. Many people also find their attitude is more positive if they practice meditation, which is a mind and body practice where you learn to focus your attention and awareness. There are many types, including mindfulness meditation, transcendental meditation, and guided imagery, where you learn to focus on positive images in your mind.

One bit of good news from the University College London team: It is long-term negative thinking that is the most harmful. “We do not think the evidence suggests that short-term setbacks would increase one’s risk of dementia,” noted Dr. Marchant. So if you, like many others, are thinking a lot about the COVID pandemic, politics and the other things going on today, it’s good to know there are ways to think about them in a less harmful way.

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