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How to stay positive when you really don’t feel like it

Your negative self-talk tends to flare up when things get tough. Here’s why it happens and what you can do about it.

How to stay positive when you really don’t feel like it
[Photo: Jacqueline Munguía/Unsplash]
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Four score and seventeen pounds ago, I was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed about relaunching my consulting company. Resigning from a cushy job in a pandemic would be challenging, but I’d made jumps like this before, so about nine minutes into lockdown, I peaced out and leapt back into the tumultuous world of entrepreneurship.

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Things started off great. Over time though, my inner dialogue got progressively more pissy, and being cooped up for months on end probably didn’t help. Why does making the same progress week after week feel harder, not easier? As it turns out, your own neurochemistry begins to work against you when you stay in overdrive too long—even if you love what you’re doing. Whether you’re out to change the world or just want to change your current situation, here’s what to keep in mind.

Allostatic load and negativity bias

The late neuroendocrinologist Dr. Bruce McEwen coined the term allostatic load to define the relationship between stress and performance. A little pressure can help you turn up the heat and perform at your best—pressure turns rocks into diamonds, after all—but chronic stress or constant pressure will eventually erode your spirit if you’re not careful.

Combine allostatic load’s parabolic curve with a negativity bias—the psychological phenomenon in which negative thoughts come to us more easily than positive ones—and you have a slope so slippery it makes an episode of Wipeout look like child’s play. We’re ambitious and want to do hard things, but all that chronic stress results in heightened levels of cortisol. Cortisol is your BFF when you’re trying to outrun a mountain lion, but it’s not great to have the hormone in the picture 24/7. Research published in the journal Neurology found that elevated cortisol levels can impact cognition, memory, and even visual processing in middle age.

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With me so far? Cortisol impacts cognition. And to outrun your inevitable negativity bias and save the planet, you need cognition in your corner. When impostor syndrome takes hold, it becomes a vicious cycle; negative thoughts are shown to affect the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal axis, which results in—you guessed it—more cortisol release. Damn, cortisol, are you Megan Thee Stallion? All of a sudden you’re everywhere.

There’s good news, though: This mad scientist neurochemistry works in your favor when your thoughts are positive. As psychologist Daniel Goleman notes in his book Focus: The Hidden Driver Of Excellence, optimistic thought patterns can heighten creative thinking and information processing. Cortisol takes a backseat, and serotonin gets released instead to give you those delicious feelings of well-being.

How to stay positive when you really don’t feel like it

Mental fatigue is inevitable when you’re taking on big challenges, but there are a few things you can do to stave off your inner critic. Consider making one or all of the following tweaks when overwhelm begins to rear its ugly head.

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Reassess your timeline. Did you drink one too many Gary Vaynerchuk podcast episodes for breakfast this week? It happens to the best of us. Set audacious goals, but watch your benchmarks carefully; impossible growth targets make a death spiral inevitable.

Have a sounding board in your corner. The mind is a dangerous place—don’t go there alone. Put a support system in place now that you can tap into for energy and encouragement; a coach, free online group, or trusted friend on speed dial can help you stay objective when you hit a rough patch.

Recall past badassery. Past achievements often feel like a distant memory, but taking a moment to recall your most courageous moments can actually initiate a brain chemistry reset. In psychology, this is called the peak—end rule, and it explains why you often only remember the most intense moments of both positive and negative past experiences. Use these positive memories as spark plugs to recalibrate your hustle.

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Even the most bionic quote box won’t save you from centuries of neurochemical evolution. You’re wired to get frustrated when things get tough. So instead of throwing in the towel, find ways to rebalance your brain, and your tenacity will pay off in the long run.


Nick Wolny is a former classically trained musician and a current online marketing strategist for small-business owners, experts, and entrepreneurs.