In focus: Positive thinking

No-one feels positive 100% of the time – but there are plenty of things you can do to help during difficult moments. Here’s where to start
A blackboard with text written in chalk saying NEW MINDSET LOADING...

There have been a lot of ups and downs for many of us in the past few years, and together with the rising cost of living, you may be left feeling anxious or stressed out. It’s totally understandable, and while none of us has a crystal ball, there are some things we can do to make ourselves feel more positive about the future. Here, NHS GP, author and podcaster Dr Radha Modgil shares her top tips for staying positive when challenging times come your way.

Why can it feel so tough to keep a positive mindset during difficult times?

No one is immune to feeling down or stressed out when things are tough, especially when it comes to money worries. We all have our own emotional reserve – a bit like the battery on your phone – and this can change depending on our circumstances. When we face a challenge, it can feel like some of our charge gets run down, so it’s important to top it up regularly – things like sleeping enough, eating a balanced diet, and exercising all help us to feel good.

“Hold on to your ability to hope and know that things will get better,” says Dr Radha. “Sometimes, when we face something difficult, our brains start telling us that if things aren’t happening or changing as we would like them to right now, they never will, and we can get caught in a cycle of catastrophising.” That’s not to say that you must be relentlessly optimistic or unrealistic, but stay open to the possibility of things improving. That faith can be a key part of how to have a positive mindset.

It can also be helpful to manage your own expectations and the pressure that you put on yourself – whether that’s financially, through having the latest clothes or an expensive phone, or knowing what you want to do for a career. Your happiness and wellbeing are more important than passing trends – and trust us, no-one has everything figured out in their teens, or even their 20s or 30s for that matter!

How can change and uncertainty affect our mental and physical wellbeing?

You’re definitely not alone if the pace of the world feels a little overwhelming sometimes. Results from the 2022 Prince’s Trust NatWest Youth Index showed that young people’s happiness and confidence were at their lowest point in 13 years. And when one or more key areas of your life – such as family, friendships, finances, school, university, work, and health – changes it can be easy to lose your sense of balance. “Emotionally, this might make us feel anxious and begin preempting things going wrong before they even happen to try to protect ourselves,” explains Dr Radha. “Physically, change and uncertainty might drain our energy and leave us feeling really tired.”

This kind of uncertainty can make us want to withdraw, and as a result, the things we often think of as the ‘nice to haves’ like socialising and exercising get dropped. But they’re also the things that can help us through tough times, so “we should try our hardest to focus in on them,” Dr Radha adds. That doesn’t mean adding more pressure financially, either – get creative when it comes to making plans. Want a much-needed catch-up with your friends? Instead of going out to the cinema, pick a film you can stream at home together.

3 tips for reframing your focus

1. Try box breathing: This can help to relax your nervous system and make you feel more in control. Inhale for four counts, hold your breath for four, exhale for four and then hold your breath for four. Repeat this pattern to find calmness in busy moments.

2. Start a gratitude journal: Write down three things each day that you are thankful for. They could be anything, from the tasty lunch you just ate, to the friend who messaged to ask about your day. It might sound cheesy but over time it’ll start to take effect.

3. Call a loved one: Hearing the voice of friends and family releases the ‘bonding’ hormone, oxytocin. Studies show that just 10 minutes on the phone can reduce anxiety.

Is there anything we can do if we’re feeling blue?

First things first: don’t criticise yourself for feeling this way. It might feel tricky at first, but begin by accepting the feeling, sitting with it, and then start processing it through positive actions like exercising and resting. “Tune in to the kind of feeling you’re having so you can choose the right action. If you’re feeling angry, play some music or go running. If you’re feeling sad, wrap yourself in a soft blanket and watch some TV that feels familiar and comforting,” Dr Radha suggests. Think about how you might look after a friend feeling this way and treat yourself with the same kindness.

Finding a balance between this and allowing ourselves breaks from our feelings can also help. Whether that’s by turning your phone off for the morning or having a day out with a friend, a bit of escapism can be healthy. “While it’s not good to deny our feelings, we shouldn’t push ourselves too much either by thinking ‘I must sit with all my feelings until I’m completely ok’, because normally it’s not a linear process,” says Dr Radha.

A teenage girl sits on the sofa with a mug of tea whilst reading a book

What about when it comes to money worries?

Figuring out money management can feel daunting, especially if you’ve just started living independently. With the current economic climate causing 61% of young people to feel anxious about their future, it’s time to break down the stigma around money and start having more open conversations about it instead.

If it’s financial pressures that are getting to you, remember that, despite sometimes seeming a little intimidating, banks want to help you. NatWest, for example, offers free Financial Health Checks. During these sessions, you’ll be given helpful hints and ideas to help you make informed decisions about your finances, both now and in the future.

Ask for help early if you’re struggling too, says Dr Radha. “As a doctor, I often see that the longer a problem is ignored the bigger it becomes. That can be true of financial problems too, so getting the right support early is key.” Your bank, and organisations like Citizens Advice or StepChange can help if you’re concerned about your finances but don’t know where to start. “Financial wellbeing is now recognised as fundamental to feeling healthy and well, so hopefully this lets more people know that money worries are not anything to be ashamed of,” Dr Radha adds.

Spread a little kindness

Science has proven that our own health benefits when we do kind things for others. “It’s a beneficial circle, because thinking about others takes us out of our own brains for a moment and helps us to come back with a renewed perspective, making it easier to find our way through rough patches,” says Dr Radha. It can be the small, simple actions that mean the most, too, like making a cuppa for a friend or asking them how their day has been.

“CPR can be lifesaving when it comes to physical health, and I think kindness can be lifesaving for mental health. It's all about giving people time and making them feel heard and valued.”

Lastly, remember: it’s ok to have good days and bad days

Life is full of ups and downs, and it’s totally normal not to feel positive 100% of the time. While it doesn’t feel very nice when things are difficult, we often learn a lot about ourselves in the process. “Challenges can help us to learn empathy for other people, shape who we are, and even end up contributing to some of the most beautiful bits of life,” says Dr Radha. “I often find that there are little gifts hidden amongst difficult times that we only see later on.”

Check out this article to learn more about the link between money and mental health, and to find support for a more positive future. And if you’d like to hear more from Dr Radha, listen in to the ‘Things I Forgot Were Good For Me’ podcast or check out her book, ‘Know Your Own Power’.


Image credits: iStock