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Eating Disorders

Can Optimism Reduce Your Eating Disorder Symptoms?

Cultivating a positive outlook may increase healthy eating habits.

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This post was written by Gia Marson, Ed.D.

Having a positive outlook can be challenging these days. With a pandemic at peak levels, online school, canceled activities, political upheavals, and other major stressors, it’s no wonder our day-to-day mindset may be more pessimistic than usual.

You can thank evolution for a bias toward the negative

Social scientists hypothesize that we are wired to focus more on negative events than equivalent positive ones because doing so helps us survive. Imagine yourself hiking down a hilly, rocky trail. Fixating on a potentially lethal rock slide, rather than a beautiful migration of geese overhead, certainly increases the odds of you reaching your destination safely.

The problem with having this negative bias is that it can impact your health physically and mentally. It may sow fear, limit your potential, and keep you from living a full life. Of the myriad problems correlated with a negative attitude, disordered eating is one of them.

The genius of evolution lies in the dynamic tension between optimism and pessimism continually correcting each other. — Martin Seligman

Become a realistic optimist, even if you weren’t born that way

To counterbalance a negative bias you can develop learned optimism, “the tendency to be hopeful and to emphasize or think of the good part in a situation rather than the bad part, or the feeling that in the future good things are more likely to happen than bad things.”

Optimism has not only been associated with lower mortality rates, but it’s also been distinguished as a helpful response to challenges that places our attention on how we can grow, get stronger, and improve.

As if that’s not enough motivation to cultivate optimism, a recent study of nearly 33,000 adults analyzed the association between optimism and eating behaviors, eating disorder risk, and weight. Based on self-reported answers to questionnaires, participants with an optimistic outlook were less prone to emotional eating and uncontrolled eating, and their weight was less likely to be in either the very low or high end of the spectrum. Most important, more optimistic participants had a lower risk of eating disorders.

How to cultivate a glass-half-full attitude

Another study on optimism, this one of college undergraduates with depression, demonstrated that those who mentally rehearsed positive future event predictions were able to shift their thoughts about the future away from depressive certainty and toward positive outcomes. Reviewing the facts about positive future everyday experiences led to decreases in depression and hopelessness, and increases in positive beliefs about their own future. If having a more positive mindset can be possible for these study participants, it may very well be possible for you too.

An important factor when developing realistic optimism is to see what’s possible in the future by paying attention to the positive aspects of a situation. Looking at a glass as “half full” is considered realistic optimism because it is calling attention to what is in the glass, whereas a pessimist pays attention to what is missing. While both views may be factually correct, the optimist calls attention to the positive truth.

You can practice realistic optimism

Write down as many hopeful and realistic positive predictions as you can. These are events that you can expect to likely occur in your own life in the next week or month. Include events that are big and small. Here are some ideas to jump-start your thinking:

-My supervisor will give me a raise. -I’ll spend time in nature. -I’ll reach out to someone with whom I’ve lost touch. -My gym will reopen. -This project I’m working on will be complete. -I’ll laugh with my friends. -When I feel comfortably full, I’ll notice and stop eating. -I’ll organize my closet. -I will exercise. -Reading at night will be relaxing. -I’ll include more fresh fruits and vegetables when I eat. -My dog will greet me happily when I come in the door. -I’ll meditate in the mornings. -My plants will thrive. -I’ll eat when I’m hungry before the feeling gets too intense or I get a headache. -I’ll clean out my car. -My sore muscles will feel better. -I’ll enjoy my morning coffee.

Once you have a list of at least 10 positive future events that are likely to occur, identify whether you believe each event is very likely to occur or somewhat likely to occur. Store your list in a place that’s easy to access. In one week, and again in one month, review your list to see which positive predictions came true.

Be on the lookout for positive events

Make a habit of predicting positive future events that are likely to occur, whether you use paper or make mental lists. Though your mind will still notice the negative events necessary for survival, you’ll also be training it to be optimistic—to expect positive events as well. If you have been diagnosed with an eating disorder, cultivating optimism can give you the hope needed to motivate you toward recovery and the determination to keep going.

Success requires persistence, the ability to not give up in the face of failure. I believe that optimistic explanatory style is the key to persistence. — Martin Seligman

If you are trying to heal from disordered eating, negative body image, or chronic dieting, becoming more optimistic is a helpful step. Optimism may decrease instances of emotional eating, being out of control with food, and rigid thinking about food, and it may reduce your risk of developing an eating disorder. Moreover, cultivating a positive outlook can improve your physical and mental health, and maybe even add years to your life.


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