Positive Thinking Leads to Positive Actions

Since the 1952 publication of Norman Vincent Peale’s book The Power of Positive Thinking, there’s been a market for promoting positive thinking in the self-help circuit. It does make sense, and science backs it up: when we focus on engaging with our positive thoughts, we are less stressed and improve our health. The more we engage with positive thinking, the more it leads to positive actions in our lives.

We are marketed positive thinking as a way to increase our overall happiness in life. The issue is that happiness gets conflated with satisfaction. What we are truly seeking is total satisfaction with our lives, whereas happiness becomes a byproduct from that satisfaction. We can achieve joy, and therefore, happiness when we begin to shift our mindset from mostly negative to mostly positive.

To begin this process, we must self-reflect and be open to rewiring our brain to be receptive to positive experiences and thoughts.

Positive Thinking = Healthy Mindset

So positive thinking, what is that anyway?

The theory is this: if we start to incorporate more positive thoughts in our daily lives, we engage in a healthier mindset. Once we have a healthier mindset, we engage in more positive behaviors.

Anecdotally: when I started viewing myself with a positive perspective, I found I was open to doing positive things for myself. I have a hard time accepting myself as a decent person, but once I stopped thinking of myself as a bad person, I was more willing to eat healthier. I started to make healthier decisions regarding exercise. I decreased my desire for self-destructive behaviors. The idea of making healthy decisions became palatable because I finally felt like I was worthy of the effort.

It all stemmed from the moment I chose to engage with positive thinking.

Healthy Mindset Leads to Healthy Actions

The science is there: when a person develops a positive mindset, they are more inclined to engage in healthy behavior. You are more prone to go to the doctor to treat an exacerbation of an ailment you might have ignored. You re-prioritize your thoughts, choosing not to get distracted by things out of your control. You may even decide to reconfigure who you spend your time with, opting to be with people who leave you feeling good about yourself, rather than those who are toxic.

To be clear, this isn’t saying we take on a Pollyanna perspective and only view the good out there. We still acknowledge the negative and yet get caught in the negative thought cycle, but we spend less time in the negativity.

For those of us who spent a lot of time in the negativity, incorporating more positive thoughts is not a 180-degree turn, but a chance to be more centered in our thoughts. Be realistic, but also choose to be more positive in our realism.

Engaging with Positivity More

Find ways to think of yourself in a positive light. Celebrate your life as much as possible. Did you let someone in front of you in line today? How did that make you feel when you brightened their day, even for a moment? Engage in those good feelings you get when you do something positive.

Often we look to others to be our cheerleaders, our parents, friends, coworkers, and sometimes strangers. But the biggest cheerleader in our lives has to be ourselves. External validation is nice to have, but its the internal validation that’s more important. If you let that person in front of you in line and they didn’t acknowledge it, that’s okay. You didn’t do it for their validation or gratitude. You did it for yourself. If you feel good about doing it, who cares how others react?

Praise yourself for the moments you did something that makes you feel good. Don’t look around for others to do it. Engage with your positive thinking and positive actions as often as possible.

It will be gradual, but you’ll find that after some time, your actions will begin to reflect your positive thinking. Your feeling of self-satisfaction and its byproduct of happiness will increase as well.


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Is there Positive in an Exacerbation?

Ask yourself this: is there anything good that comes from a chronic illness exacerbation? The obvious answer is no. The hidden answer is yes.

Exacerbations do a number on our bodies and psyche. They are physical and mental setbacks that leave us feeling stuck in place until they are over. They can cause long-term damage or help progress our disease farther along.

Stating that an exacerbation can be “good” is unconscionable. As people coping with a chronic illness, we want to avoid them at all costs. Absolutely. But that isn’t always possible. I am aware that I could become a Zen Master and banish all the stress I feel in life, and still get hit by an MS exacerbation without warning. That is the very problem with a chronic illness: the unpredictability.

The key is to find a silver lining in the middle of each exacerbation as much as possible. There will be moments where maintaining optimism is near impossible, and that is fine. But in the moments we can find a ray of sunshine, we should embrace positivity.

The Frustration of an Exacerbation

Exacerbations slow us down. They can land us in the hospital for treatment, and they can leave us searching for more answers on how to best approach our treatment.

I hate exacerbations because of how much they set me back. Before I managed my MS, I would be in the middle of an important project, and an exacerbation would slow me down for several weeks while I recovered. My usual MS symptoms, like fatigue, often cause me to take a day “off,” while I recover in bed.

I often wonder if my body coordinates the timing of the exacerbation as a form of self-sabotage. I get ahead, and my exacerbations/symptoms pull me back.

There might be some truth to that conspiratorial belief. I am pushing myself so hard that I do not listen to my body, so my body has to get my attention. Fatigue, L’Hermmittes Sign are red flags that I am not taking care of myself.

And if I continue not to listen, the exacerbation comes along to stop me in my tracks and take a break. But by then, it’s usually too late, and I may not know the extent of the damage done by the flare-up.

Gratitude in the Lowest Moments

We know that exacerbations are annoying, we know that they can be damaging, so how can I find the positive in these adverse chronic illness events? What follows is what works for me, so your own experience may not reflect my own.

I learned that an exacerbation is an excellent opportunity to practice gratitude. Sometimes the flare-up affects my depression, so finding appreciation might be impossible. Literally, because the exacerbation is the source of a mental block. If this happens to you, try to remember not to feel discouraged because it is out of your control.

But in the moments where this isn’t the case, where the exacerbation impacts your body, where you can recognize what is going on, we can practice gratitude. This isn’t something you will be able to whip out on the first go, it will take practice. A lot of practice. Gratitude and positivity are hard to be the first thing we reach for in our lowest moments.

What would gratitude during an exacerbation look like?

Take time reflecting on the points I’ve listed below and try to find gratitude in at least one of them. If one of the points don’t fit or bring on further negative thoughts, move on, and find another aspect that can help.

When you find a point that works, take time to examine it thoroughly. Reflect on each part that you are grateful for, each positive experience you’ve had relating to it. This will serve as a healthy distraction from your exacerbation.

  • Your medical team. How quick are they to listen to you and respond to your needs?
  • Your support team. This might be your family, professional nurses/helpers, and beyond.
  • Your social network. Both online and offline. How well do they listen, respond to your needs, and help you through your tough times?
  • Your financial situation. Is it favorable or not? Do you have the means to care for yourself?
  • Your overall health outside of the exacerbation. What are you usually able to do and looking forward to once this resolves?
  • Your professional situation. Are you satisfied in your professional life, and do you find validation there? Are they supportive of your case?
  • Overall survival security. Do you have a home, food, ways to clothe and take care of yourself? Ability to get around, even if it’s less than ideal?

Hopefully, you’ll find plenty of things to be grateful for running for this list or have a starting point for your own gratitude list. It’s essential to find things you do have in your life, despite this low point, and focus on them as a means of distraction. The idea is to help uplift you until you recover.

Searching for Positive

I will acknowledge that it’s privileged to say that there can be a silver lining in almost every situation. Certain fundamental conditions need to be met before taking a step back and look for the positive. I am sure a number of my readers are in that position of privilege, but I won’t make a sweeping generalization.

That said, try and look for the positive even in the middle of your exacerbation. Finding the positive does feel futile at times, so don’t feel pressured if you can’t find it. There are going to be good moments, and there are going to be bad. When you first start off, there will be more bad moments until you get more practice.

The key is to retrain your brain to not focus on the negative, but be receptive of the positive. This will be an uphill battle, as our biology steers us towards the negative. We are no longer running from other apex predators when we walk in the woods, so take time to retrain the primitive brain.

Exacerbations, while overall, are not a positive experience, they can give us a chance to find the positive in our lives separate from the negative experience. They give us a chance to slow down, appreciate what we do have, and find a way to retrain our brains to focus on the positive aspects of life. It’s not ideal, it never is, but it’s one way to cope with an uncontrollable situation.


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Coping with a Setback

It’s tough to cope with a setback. Setbacks stink, and they, well, set us back. How often have you started with a specific goal in mind only to find that something gets in the way of completing it? It might be a person dragging their feet on a project, a health obstacle, or poor timing, so it doesn’t work out.

Every Sunday, I set a small goal for myself for the week: complete my chores each day promptly so I might spend more time with Jai. I might start off strong, get ahead by two days on Monday only to have something happen Tuesday and Wednesday to get me rushing to finish my chores if they get finished at all. As the week marches on, I get farther and farther behind on my tasks until its Sunday again.

It never seems to fail that each time I get two steps ahead, something sets me four steps behind.

It’s frustrating when this happens. Every time I set a goal for myself, with or without expectation, something gets in the way. The trouble is, it isn’t every time that this happens. It only seems like it due to negative bias. But often it’s enough to leave me to feel discouraged that I am getting nowhere near achieving my personal goals.

The Source of Setbacks

When I recognize that I am slipping down a discouraging path with a setback, I try to reach a space where I can understand what is happening. Some delays are out of my control: the car needs an oil change, and thirty minutes last two hours because the car is due for a maintenance check. In this scenario, I have a choice to make: deal with the issue at hand, and get the car checked out, or skip-it and allow a possible issue fester into an expensive problem.

I choose the setback because I know not dealing with the critical task at hand, maintaining the health of my vehicle, can cause more stress in the future. Yet, time was lost that I planned to devote to something else, and that feels frustrating.

Another source of the setback may be of my own making, typically through self-sabotage. I am aware enough to know that I am the source of it, yet sometimes I continue to engage in the self-destructive setback. This may be dropping the ball on a project, not responding to essential communications, or participating in toxic behavior to avoid dealing with the situation.

When I get a setback that is out of my control, I get more frustrated. When I create my own impediments, I have only myself to blame. I can choose to change my behavior to have a favorable outcome. But when the setback is external, I get more discouraged because I don’t know how to fix it. It’s out of control, which makes me feel out of control.

But I am learning how to better deal with it.

Self-Compassion and Gratitude

When I feel out of control, especially amid a setback, I have to find a healthy way to control the situation. There is only one thing I can control, and that is my reaction to the setback. Through this, I can manage the next couple of steps I take. This is my response, how I deal with my response and deciding what my options are.

Depending on the scenario, a setback might feel like a permanent roadblock, but it does not have to be. I have options for finding a way around it. If I react like I’ve hit a dead-end, I won’t try to find an alternative. If I respond like I can turn around and try a different path, I am more apt to consider my options.

And sometimes a shut door is a shut door. There is wisdom in knowing that there are no other options over assuming there are no alternatives.

To healthily manage my reaction to a setback, I engage in self-compassion and gratitude for the situation. I tell myself, “it’s okay that this might not be your ideal situation, but you will do the best you can with it.” I follow it with gratitude that I am given a chance to learn more about what I can do. Adversity, via setback, is often the best tool to teach us about ourselves.

I don’t seek out setbacks, nor do I martyr myself in the middle of one. Rather, I take the “life gives you lemons,” approach: if I am stuck dealing with it, might as well make the most of it.

Despite what it sounds like, I don’t believe life purposely sets out lessons for us. The lessons are always there, it’s just a matter of, are we listening to them? Setbacks are one of those lessons we can’t avoid, so we should look to them not as keeping us back, but teaching us patience perseverance, and humility.

Each setback isn’t an addition to a lesson, it’s just a chance to deepen or refresh what you’ve previously learned.

Maintaining Focus

There isn’t one ideal way to handle a setback. But I have found one thing, besides self-compassion and gratitude, that helps me get through it: maintaining my focus.

A setback often derails us mentally and emotionally. We might want to complete a particular task this week, and an injury prevents that from happening. Rather than focusing on the injury beyond healing, focus on what can be done in the meantime.

Keep yourself focused while moving forward.

Sometimes it hard to keep that focus if it’s a long-term setback. If that’s the case, consider re-evaluating your goals, if only temporarily. Refocus on another goal that might help you achieve your sidelined goal. Look for alternatives, but keep yourself focused on moving forward rather than staying stuck in one place.

Respecting the Setback and Ourselves

The key to dealing with a setback is respecting the lessons and our ability to listen. Delays aren’t inherently a bad thing, though they do get a bad rap. They are frustrating simply because they put a pause on our expectations, and makes us feel stagnant. Yet, a setback can be a good thing.

I view setbacks as an opportunity to take a break. When I create the hindrance, often it’s because I am doing too much and not listening to my need to slow down. I unconsciously self-sabotage because it’s the only way I will listen to taking a breather.

When the setback is out of my control, it allows me to regroup, figure out what happened, and decide on my next step. Delays will enable us to take the time to reassess what is going on in our lives, especially if we usually don’t give ourselves permission to do so.

It is hard to cope with setbacks, but we can and will each time we experience one. And that’s okay.


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Celebrate Life

Today I wanted to focus on celebrating the big things since we discussed celebrating the small stuff on Monday. So, why not go for the most significant thing worthy of our celebration, and that’s life itself? Why not celebrate life?

Living with a chronic illness makes celebrating life hard, but it can be done. We might wish things were different, hope that we were healthy. But let’s be honest: if we were healthy, there would be something else to make celebrating life difficult. It’s in our nature to skew towards the negative.

We all wish for what we don’t have, no matter how rich or healthy we might be. We are always desirous of something, and with that, we sometimes forget the most important thing out there: that we have our lives.

Using Mallory Smith as an example, let us celebrate each day despite the setbacks we encounter.

Appreciating Victories (Big and Small)

Each day we wake up is a small victory. If you wake up with no pain, a victory. If you wake up with no exacerbation, a victory. If everything is going well, then that’s a victory! That is a moment worthy of celebration.

Maybe you don’t take each (relatively) good moment for granted, but there might be moments where you forget. I often forget to appreciate the exacerbation-free days. I am reminded to recognize them when I am in the middle of a particularly frustrating exacerbation episode. At that point, it’s too late. I am in the past, appreciating what I had; or in the future when the event is over.

Neither of these options is ideal because I am struggling to maintain my mindfulness practice, which can help me manage my discomfort and stress.

It’s difficult to appreciate life with a chronic illness. The absolute uncertainty of when we’ll experience a flare-up is frustrating. Deep in the moments of an exacerbation brings us to the breaking point. Yet, we have to press on. The moments our illness minimally impacts us are worth appreciating.

Allow yourself to celebrate the mundane. Try not to feel weird about it because it’s something everyone, healthy or chronically ill, should do. Celebrate over social media if you need to, let others know what’s going on in your life but do not worry about getting validation. You probably won’t get it, or you’ll get a negative person trying to bring you down. Ignore them because it’s your celebration. Not theirs. If it’s important to you and you are the only one who matters.

Putting it into Perspective

A few months after my diagnosis, I was in the position of being “at least I’m not them,” for some stranger. It was not a good feeling to be the subject of someone else’s perspective-check. Yet, it’s a mindfulness exercise, recognizing that while your life might not be where you want it, there is always someone worse off than you.

To put it into context: I was in group therapy at the time, and it was my final session. As I was doing the “graduating out” exercises, the person taking my spot overlapped and was in their first session, seated beside me. I described my life with MS, how I was coming to terms with it, and I noticed this new person writing furiously in their journal.

I later learned that it was poor form for the facilitator to allow the journal into this safe space.

Curiosity overcame me, and since they were sitting next to me, I peeked over to see what was on the paper. I saw the words “…she has MS, at least that’s not me. I am lucky not to be her.” I was humiliated to see those words. No one else in the group had MS, so it was clearly about me. I could feel my anger towards this person rise and towards myself for being put into a position of pity.

Was that a breach of privacy to peek at what they wrote? Perhaps, but they didn’t exactly try to hide what they were writing. The journal was wide open and tilted towards me. Not knowing this person or their situation, it’s possible they wanted me to see what they wrote.

I recognize the importance this practice plays in our lives. It allows us to acknowledge that while our situation is not ideal, we could have it worse. Often it is said to us by others either as a means to comfort us or get us to be quiet about our situation.

So it’s a mixed bag as to whether this type of perspective check is healthy or not. I am not going to endorse it one way or the other beyond recognizing the importance of maintaining perspective.

For this person, perhaps I was able to provide small comfort in their life. It was incredibly humiliating and yet positively humbling. It would take a few more years before I had a better perspective, but I learned at that moment that I am not as perfect as I thought I was. It humanized me to myself. I know that sounds weird, but for years, I had an inflated sense of self as a coping mechanism. I was out of touch with reality, and this private journal entry broke through that.

It gave me perspective in a different way that it gave the writer perspective. I suspect, given what I remember of what little they shared about themselves, I probably gained more from the whole experience than them.

Mindful of the Moment

Practicing mindfulness is a chance for us to appreciate life.

When we celebrate the moment, at the moment, everything melts away. I am fortunate enough to spend a week or two on the shores of Lake Michigan every year. Looking out at the endless watery horizon, I can put everything aside and focus on that moment, staring off into the distance. It grants me an opportunity to put my life into perspective, but also recognize how fortunate I am.

We may not be able to spend a few moments in a place conducive to personal reflection, but we can spend time being mindful of our life. We can appreciate being able to breathe on our own; our ability to walk or if we can’t, the tools available to us so we can remain mobile; and we can appreciate the support network available to us, regardless of its size.

Take time to connect with the ground beneath your feet, the chair you sit in, or your bed. If you connect with the earth, reflect on all the other people who stood in that spot throughout time. Feel a connection to the faceless masses over several millennia. The animals, the plants, and all of life that experienced the same place you are in right now. Feeling that connection to others, allows you to feel a connection to life itself.

Celebrate that life.

It’s typically in these moments I feel small, but not in a negative way. I recognize my space and place in the universe. My existence is not even a blip in time or space. My problems, concerns, and worries will not matter in the end.

What is important is what I do with my blip in time.

Celebrate Life

Take some time to celebrate your life, as it is, no matter where you are in life. Put it into proper perspective, experience the benefits of mindfulness, and take time to decide how you want to spend your time. Do you want to engage in negativity beyond healthy expressions, or do you want to enjoy the time you do have, as imperfect as it may seem?

Choosing to celebrate life will help you feel better, lower stress, and find the personal satisfaction you might be searching for, despite your chronic illness.


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Appreciating the Small Things

One afternoon, Jai and I walked to meet Ash at work. In the middle of the walkway was a considerable Skink that I almost stepped on because I wasn’t paying attention. This was the second time I almost got this little guy because I tend to be single-focused to keep Jai moving along. Each time I almost step on the little lizard, I feel bad. They are just sitting there, on the sidewalk, appreciating the midday sun. As the Skink scuttles off to avoid my feet, I give a moment of appreciation for them. Here, in a major metropolitan area, is a reminder of nature and a moment to appreciate the small things in life.

Now that I am aware that this is the Skink’s favorite sunning spot, Jai and I keep a lookout for him each time we visit Ash. It’s an opportunity for Jai to learn more about his local ecology, and me to appreciate its size and coloring. With a toddler, each Skink-sized stick is our sunning friend, and each little Skink discovered is the big one’s “baby.”

Watching Jai get so excited over discovery is one of the sweeter moments of parenthood. These are the moments he and I treasure, but often get lost in daily life. I have chores to do, posts to write, and training to manage, that I often forget the importance of slowing down and appreciating the little moments.

Appreciating the small things in life is so integral to de-stressing and finding inner satisfaction.

Don’t Get Bogged Down

Appreciating the small things is not an opportunity to practice avoidance. Sometimes, we use little details as an excuse to procrastinate. Try not to get so bogged down in the minutia that you lose focus of your goals. You may even miss the more significant moments worthy of our appreciation when we focus too strictly on the small stuff.

That said, it’s essential to strike a balance between the little and big things in life. Take time to appreciate the moments you might overlook, but don’t let that consume you. On Wednesday, I will focus on the more significant parts of life worthy of our appreciation.

Grateful for the Little Stuff

How do you determine that something is worthy of appreciation? Why is it important to appreciate?

If the moment or experience strikes a positive response from you, it is worthy of appreciation. Looking at a cute dog walking down the street is an opportunity to appreciate living alongside our canine companions. Hearing a child’s unbridled laughter across the store is a moment to enjoy living in the moment like a child. Seeing a stranger do something kind for you or another stranger is a moment to appreciate the kindness in the world.

These are three moments we might miss or not devote the level of appreciation they deserve. If we want to rewire our brain, take the time to be mindful, and show gratitude in the small things is another area to start. Engage in the feelings a dog, child, or stranger brings up in you. A dog might make you feel good because of how cute it is. A child’s laughter might make you feel good because it reminds you of positive childhood experiences. A random act of kindness might make you feel good because it reaffirms your faith in humanity.

These are all moments of mindfulness. The small things in life tend to only happen in the current moment, so when they arrive, embrace these moments and appreciate life as it currently is. Not how you wish it would be, or your past. These little moments keep us from focusing on the negative that bog us down.

If we are busy appreciating the little things, we do not leave room to focus on the negative.

Take the rest of the day to find moments to appreciate. Observe others behaving kindly. Enjoy a stranger’s happiness. Give your companion animal an extra scratch and take comfort in the feel of their fur (or scales, or feathers).

Find some time today to appreciate the little things in life and see how they add up to the richness and positivity of your day.


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