February 20, 2024

Practical Optimism: How to Use Optimism to Manage Your Emotions before They Manage You!

by | Feb 20, 2024 | Other

By: Sue Varma, M.D.

Hi, MedCircle family!

You’ve all been an important part of my journey in advocacy and mental health education. I was
delighted to have many conversations with your amazing Medcircle host, Kyle Kittleson over the
years. Together, we embarked on a multi-part series on depression (it won the inaugural
Sharecare Emmy back in 2019) and later on cognitive behavioral therapy, and loneliness. I hope
you get to watch all of these episodes. You see, whether you realize it or not, you learning about
mental health for your own self-care, or to support others, is considered a vital act of public
service. As you know, we are experiencing many crisis at once- from rising rates of depression
and anxiety in our kids (I’m a parent myself) to loneliness across all generations. And sure, we
can blame technology and the overwhelm that comes with being too plugged in- something
called cyberoverload- our brains, as evolved as they are, weren’t meant to handle the rapid rate
and volume of information. But it’s important that we just don’t blame the sometimes addictive
pull to the digital world- but also, to take the time to understand just why it’s so compelling-
whether it’s the hits or likes we get when we engage in novel content, to the dopamine spikes- it’s
also filling voids, and taking us away from in person meetings with friends, exercising and sleep.
In fact, the US Surgeon General (whom I’ve had the opportunity to be in conversation with)
shares that it’s not social media that is inherently good or bad for the young folks, it’s what is
being lost as a result of excessive digital use – ie. not spending as much time outdoors, with
peers, having fun, and simply being kids.

So what are we to do in a world where it seems like bad news is just around the corner (because
these days there is certainly no shortage of it- with war, inflation, climate problems). What we
need is a new paradigm of illness and wellness- one that doesn’t wait for the other shoe to drop-
which is how the medical system is- ie healthcare, critics say, seems to be in the business,
unfortunately, disease management. And frankly, I was getting a bit tired of the lack of focus on
prevention. We need both- prevention and management of illness and both are equally important-
across all fields of medicine, including psychiatry.

I’ve been a psychiatrist for more than 20 years. In fact, I began my career as the first medical
director of the mental health program treating 9/11 survivors at Bellevue/NYU Langone Medical
center. I have worked with people in extremes of stress and trauma- and learned a lot about
resilience and the human spirit. It’s through this work, that I first got very interested in something
no one ever talked to me about in my 12 plus years of medical training: optimism.

And for many people, myself included, optimism was simply seen as either something you
naturally had or didn’t- you were either glass-half full type or not. But through my research, and
clinical work, I started to learn that there was something in the secret sauce of optimism- it was
not only having a positive outlook, it was learning, through actionable, concrete, behavioral
skills- how to turn positive outlooks, into positive outcomes. And that is what Practical
Optimism is- a mindset, skillset and action set. Some days it’s a five minute practice, other days
its longer. Practical Optimism, is ultimately a practice- like learning a language, a sport, or like
practicing a hobby. Think of it like a yoga practice- you come to it wherever you are, and with
small intentional adjustments and practice you realize just how much you are capable of.

Over the last several years, I’ve been putting pen to paper (okay, to be honest, my fingers are a
little tired from all the typing!)-but only because I have a lot to share. I’ve learned how to take all
that I’ve researched- and observed in my practice- how to take lessons from those who have lived
through the big “T” of trauma- ie life threatening circumstances, and use it for the little “t”, the
everyday hassles that are simply part of life. Practical optimism teaches us life skills that can be
used to not only prevent stress but also teaches us how to cope with it once the other shoe drops,
so to speak. Practical optimism is the bridge between illness and wellness- it focuses on our
strengths and helps us maximize them but also gives us resources to manage when things go
wrong. In fact, I’ve learned that many of the treatments used as part of cognitive behavioral
therapy needn’t only be applied to depression and anxiety, but in everyday life – how to deal
with negative emotions, how to develop healthy habits, how to boost productivity and time
management etc.

Through the 8 pillars of Practical Optimism which are 8 scientifically backed principles, you will
learn how to find deeper meaning in life, in hobbies and through work, in love- by either finding
your purpose or creating it. I teach you quick tips on regulating powerful emotions- and how to
use your emotions to work for you, not the other way around. How to problem solve like
nobody’s business. I then teach you how to reclaim being in the present moment. You might’ve
noticed all 8 Pillars begin with P! I talk about how to develop a “people practice” as well as an
“aloneness practice”. I will tell you a little known fact- a little bts (behind the scenes) if you will-
a lot of this book was written in some unusual places- a city park bench, oceanside (because the
cold water really helps up my creativity!), in a subway, at the office, voice notes and memos
stored on my phone, coming out of the shower,, (and of course at my desk), . I’ve never been so
invigorated to share anything in my life- and I share this with you- so you can feel similarly
inspired by something that moves you.

Optimism is being used as a medical intervention more and more. Optimists are healthier,
wealthier, wiser, live longer and are more productive. And whether you are naturally the glass
half full or glass half empty type, optimism is a skill that can be learned and practiced. It’s
helped me through the darkest of times in my life, helped me thrive and succeed, and I hope it
will do the same for you! Now, let’s get into two of the key pillars (And I hope you pick up your
own copy of Practical Optimism, to learn more!)

One of the key pillars of Practical Optimism is called “processing”, as in processing your
emotions. Why is that so important? Aren’t emotions a bunch of nonsense- inconvenient,
unpleasant and unnecessary and passing sentiments (as some of my patients, in the depths of
negativity will ask me)? Well, actually, that type of thinking is not new- philosophers in Ancient
Greece to sociologists in18 t century France all used to think so. It’s only recently, in the last two
hundred years or so, where emotions, and their important role became elucidated.

Here is how to befriend your emotions:

Recognize the value of emotions and understand their characteristics.

1-Emotions are protective: Scientists like Charles Darwin gave emotions an important place in
understanding biology- emotions protected us from threat, kept us connected to our tribe- all of
which promote survival. Emotions like fear, sadness, loneliness were all clues to: get help, get
support, avert danger- all of which kept us alive, healthy and well.

2. Emotions are information: And well-sometimes it might be true- our emotions can be
inconvenient, think of them as information- just like physical pain in the body- an area that might
have been injured (even if it’s just our ego that’s bruised!)- or an area that needs some tending to,
a little extra TLC. Maybe it’s telling us we need to reexamine our relationships- maybe we need
more distance, maybe we need to express or assert ourselves more, maybe we need to let go. We
want to be able to pay attention to negative emotions, but not dwell in them. We don’t want to
get mired in negativity. And when we do experience negativity- it doesn’t hurt to , in short doses,
be able to confide in someone. Healthy venting involves asking for permission to vent (“trauma
dumping” on the other hand, is when we aren’t giving someone a heads up and endlessly ramble
without respecting another person’s comfort level or boundaries). In small doses, sharing what is
in our hearts and mind, can be highly therapeutic. In fact, the Buddist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh
said “Compassionate listening is giving the other person a chance to empty what is in their
hearts.” There is nothing more therapeutic than when a caring person holds a safe space in which
to share that which is dear to our hearts. I hope you have a chance to listen to my video on
loneliness for Medcircle where I share the importance of compassionate listening.
When it comes to emotions, you want to be able to manage them, not the other way around. In
fact, it’s the reason that many people come to therapy. I often hear the following during my first
session; “I’m tired of getting so stressed out by life, my family, the world.

3. Recognize that sometimes emotions can be irrational: Emotions are information, but not
always accurate information. Nor, do we need to always act upon them. Emotions can lead to
distress when they are not consistent with reality around us (for example, some of us have the
tendency to worry about the worse case scenario- we are living in a constant state of fear- where
dread and panic have become the norm. We project that bad things will happen even where there
are no facts to support them. Looking for factual evidence when you imagine the worst case
scenario can be very helpful- and in fact is a key component of cognitive behavioral therapy.
And while I’d likely recommend anyone living in this state to seek therapy, I’d also highly
recommend them to also learn to better regulate emotions.

Now that we understand emotions, let’s learn to process them: And I’ve got a tangible 4 step
plan for you. It comes more natural over time. The key is to use it when the stakes are low- so
that it becomes second nature and readily available to you, as a practice when things are
stressful. It can sometimes be difficult to learn new coping skills.s

How to more effectively process emotions like a champ!

4. So, how exactly do we combat negative thinking? I have a several step plan. I like to call it
Name it, Claim it, Tame it and Reframe it.

Name it– What is the antecedent or situation that has got you down. Can you identify
a specific trigger?
Claim it– where did you feel it in the body- is it tightened fists, clenched jaws,
insomnia, jitteriness, frequent urination or bowel symptoms. Often times our body
expresses what our mind can not. Get a thorough medical workup- but don’t discount the
role that negative thinking has on creating physical stress and symptoms.
Tame it– what helps calm you down in time of stress? For me it’s a brisk walk
around the block, taking a warm bath, confiding in a loved one. Sometimes, I like to
journal about what is bothering me. In fact, there is so much science around the
benefits of journaling. You can also take a few quiet deep breaths- this is the
acknowledging, sitting with it, going for a walk, a healthy distraction, a few minutes
of mindful meditation. It takes far more energy to suppress emotions- than it does to
release them- and releasing them can be as simple as keeping a journal 15 min/day-
the benefits are great- from boosted immunity and less colds and infections to lower
heart disease, stroke and cancer. What to write in your journal-you ask? Get
granular- the more specifically you can learn to identify a trigger in real time, the
better off your mental health.
Reframe it-this is often the hardest, but most powerful- and if you aren’t ready for
this , fine, but come back to it.

Some other strategies:

Let’s enage in some proactive strategies to counteract the negative thinking head one
(again, not to meant to take the place of individualized care should you need it), but
some tips I practice on myself and with the people under my care. These are steps that
I learned when I engaged in my own therapy, something we were highly encouraged
to do during our training years.

-What you tell a friend? People are kinder and more creative when it comes to
helping others come up with different ways of looking at things.
Will this problem matter 5 years from now? If not, can you let it go?
Consider: is there another way of looking at this- are there any positive aspects of the
situation-at all? Is there a silver lining at all? Did I benefit from this in any way?
And if there was absolutely no upside to the situation, then, can I accept the situation?
I recognize that these steps take time and take some getting used to, which is why I
urge you to practice them. Trust me, I do this for a living, and I still have to work at
keeping negative thoughts at bay. I also want to encourage you to seek treatment if
you feel that most days your mood is down, you have trouble regulating emotions,
you don’t see things as getting better etc. There is always hope, you are not alone. But
whatever you do, don’t delay treatment. Sometimes the first place to start is with your
primary care doctor. Please note, that this blog post is merely a set of suggestions-
and for medical education only. Tips in this blog aren’t meant to be a source of

And if you’d like to learn more about boosting the positive aspects of your life- by turning
positive outlooks into positive outcomes, I’d like to invite you on journey, to Practical Optimism:
The Art, Science, and Practice of Exceptional Well-Being (out 2/20/24)

Dr Sue Varma - Practical Optimism

Dr. Sue Varma is a board-certified psychiatrist and author of Practical Optimism: The Art, Science, and Practice of Exceptional Well-Being. You can stay in touch with her (IG, Twitter, FB @doctorsuevarma)

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Disclaimer: This information is not specific medical advice and does not replace information you receive from your healthcare provider. This is only a brief summary of general information. It does NOT include all information about conditions, illnesses, injuries, tests, procedures, treatments, therapies, discharge instructions or lifestyle choices that may apply to you. You must talk with your health care provider for complete information about your health and treatment options. This information should not be used to decide whether or not to accept your health care provider’s advice, instructions or recommendations. Only your health care provider has the knowledge and training to provide advice that is right for you.

You must talk with your health care provider for complete information about your health and treatment options. This information should not be used to decide whether or not to accept your health care provider’s advice, instructions or recommendations. Only your health care provider has the knowledge and training to provide advice that is right for you.

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