Focusing only on fixing what people perceive to be broken in their lives may cause psychotherapists to ignore the value of helping them see what isn’t broken. Practicing ways to reflect and rely on personal joys and strengths can aid in overcoming anxiety. This therapeutic perspective is called positive psychology, which aims at fostering the growth of optimism.
Types of Anxiety
Anxiety can be useful, similar to a yellow traffic light alerting us to proceed with caution. Yet it is unhealthy when it is persistent and interferes with sleep, school, work or other regular activities. Some forms are related to specific worries such as fear of socializing or performance. Panic attacks and obsessive-compulsive behaviors may be involved.
Sometimes anxiety is general — a vague, pervasive sense of being ill at ease that is unrelenting and unconnected to any single problem — and is accompanied by depression. Therapy involving positive psychology may be part of treatment along with medicine.
Positive psychology is a field of study based on scientific research and a toolbox of psychotherapeutic techniques for helping anxious and depressed patients. It is also a teaching tool used in schools, medicine, business and the military to help build well-being and avoid the spread of anxiety. At its Authentic Happiness website, the University of Pennsylvania Positive Psychology Center notes that its master’s degree program in Applied Positive Psychology is designed for life coaches, educators and health and business professionals as well as psychologists.
Whether used with mentally healthy individuals or people who need help healing, one of the goals of positive psychology is to nudge individuals toward recognizing what they find valuable and identifying their strengths and virtues. A second goal is to get people thinking about how they can apply these values and traits to solving problems, such as causes of anxiety, and seeking emotional satisfaction.
Strengths and Virtues
The idea that awareness of strengths and virtues can increase the likelihood of happiness is one of the core ideas developed by the founders of positive psychology, including University of Pennsylvania Professor Martin E.P. Seligman.
Strengths and virtues vary from person to person, but may include creativity, compassion, courage and resilience — the ability to bounce back after trouble attacks. Another major tool that positive psychology stresses, and which many people may overlook, is the ability to reflect on what is going well and to express gratitude for it.
Practitioners of positive psychology encourage patients or group participants to practice optimism through activities designed to increase personal reflection. These include the following exercises — created by Seligman and his positive psychology colleagues —described in an online Harvard Medical School newsletter and designed for independent use by participants in positive psychology therapy or group training.
One of Seligman’s key ideas is that acknowledging gratitude can make us feel better. He suggests doing this by writing a letter to someone explaining your gratitude for something the recipient did or said, then visiting or calling to read the letter to the person.
Another helpful exercise is journaling each evening about a few good things that happened during the day and determining why they occurred. It is also useful for a sufferer of anxiety or depression to identify a few of personal strengths and use them daily, especially in new ways.
Learning the Good Life
Positive psychology is based, in part, on research indicating that happiness “ is not simply the result of a fortunate spin of the genetic roulette wheel,” according to University of Michigan psychology professor Christopher Peterson, a columnist at the Psychology Today website. With helpful direction, Peterson and other positive psychology proponents assert, anxiety sufferers can learn how to worry less and be happier.