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In this series, you and I are looking at the four main roads out of anxiety and depression. Here we’re discussing the second road.
Road #2: Be a REALIST.
This may seem counter-intuitive at first, because most of us who struggle with depression or anxiety would say we’re realists already.
And we would absolutely mean it.
We believe we see the world more clearly than most.
And you know what? We’re not completely wrong.
There is such a thing as “depressive realism” where depressed individuals sometimes make more accurate judgment calls than non-depressed individuals.
For example, research shows that non-depressed individuals tend to think things will work out better, they will perform better, and they will have more control than they actually do.
We think there’s a sort of spectrum for this.
Nondepressed individuals tend to view life through rose-colored glasses, while the lenses of mildly depressed individuals are crystal clear.
Severely depressed individuals wear a completely different sort of distorted eyewear. Their glasses can be cracked and cloudy, coloring the world in a darker, more sinister way.
You’ve probably heard these two extremes called by different names. I’ve talked about these in other posts, but they fit well in this topic as well:
Optimism and Pessimism.
Optimists commonly think the bad stuff that happens is only temporary, and abnormal, like snowflakes in summer. So, it can’t possibly last. But the good stuff will be like eternal spring, lasting forever.
Pessimists turn this thinking around. They see the good things that happen in life as just dumb luck, and as short-lived as snowflakes in August. They view the bad stuff as eternal winter, never leaving, never getting better.
Pessimism can be hazardous for our health.
In one recent study of over 70,000 women, the least optimistic were 30% more likely to die than the most optimistic. This included all major causes: heart disease, stroke, cancer, respiratory disease, and infection.
The case is often made in epidemiological research that it is not optimism per se that protects health; rather, optimism correlates to something else, like less socioeconomic hardship and/or better health and lifestyle choices.
And these study authors did note a few differences in the more optimistic women: they tended to be more educated and more physically active. They also reported lower rates of high blood pressure, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, and substantially lower rates of depression.
However, most other sociodemographic factors, health behaviors (e.g. smoking, drinking, diet) and health conditions (e.g. age and body mass index) were similar across all ranges of optimism.
Even after controlling for all these factors, optimism was still found to significantly reduce the chance of all-cause mortality.
So, the “realism” part in “depressive realism” may only be relative.
Depressed individuals don’t stray far into optimistic territory.
But they do tend to camp out in the land of eternal pessimism, where they think things will work out worse, they will perform worse, and that they have less control over life events than they actually do.
A true realist understands that life is a mixed bag of good and bad. Bad stuff is bound to happen once in a while and may not necessarily be anyone’s fault. But good stuff is bound to happen, too.
True REALISM is the goal of cognitive behavioral therapy.
It requires examining our thoughts for any whiffs of unrealistic pessimism. We don’t have to deny that bad things happen, but we do have to learn to judge their impact in a realistic and honest way.
When we are struggling in our pessimism, here are some questions we can ask ourselves:
- Is there more than one way to look at this?
- Would everyone see this the way that I am seeing it right now?
- Is there a more positive way to look at this?
- How could I put this problem into a realistic perspective?
- What if my worst feared outcome comes true? What impact would it realistically have on my life?
- Can something good come out of the worst outcome?
- What are some positive goals I can work toward during this time?
Let’s make an important distinction here. Rose-colored vision can sometimes result in a kind of color blindness that insists everything will work out in the end, no matter what. That’s not realism. A better term would be idealism. And it’s not the goal here.
Instead, we’re talking about a truly healthy worldview that prepares us for all (and even the worst) outcomes, yet hopes for the best. This is called optimistic realism.
Russian-born author Vera Nazarian describes the difference this way:
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An optimist is neither naïve, nor blind to the facts, nor in denial of grim reality. An optimist believes in the optimal usage of all options available, no matter how limited…An idealist focuses only on the best aspects of all things (sometimes in detriment to reality); an optimist strives to find an effective solution. A pessimist sees limited or no choices in dark times; an optimist makes choices. When bobbing for apples, an idealist endlessly reaches for the best apple, a pessimist settles for the first one within reach, while an optimist drains the barrel, fishes out all the apples and makes pie.”
 Moore, M. T., & Fresco, D. M. (2012). Depressive realism: A meta-analytic review. Clinical psychology review, 32(6), 496-509.
 Kim, E. S., Hagan, K. A., Grodstein, F., DeMeo, D. L., De Vivo, I., & Kubzansky, L. D. (2017). Optimism and cause-specific mortality: a prospective cohort study. American Journal of Epidemiology, 185(1), 21-29.
 Nazarian, V. (2010). The Perpetual Calendar of Inspiration. Spirit publishing.
Dr. Pamela Coburn-Litvak has published research articles on exercise and stress in Neuroscience and Neurobiology of Learning and Behavior. Her latest book, Leaving the Shadowland of Stress, Anxiety, and Depression, was published in 2020.
After receiving a Ph.D. in Neurobiology and Behavior from the State University of New York at Stony Brook, she served as both Assistant Professor of Physiology & Pharmacology and Special Assistant to the Vice President for Research Affairs at Loma Linda University in Loma Linda, California. She then joined the Biology department at Andrews University and developed courses in human physiology as well as the neurobiology of mental illness. She also founded Rock @ Science LLC, a company that specializes in health and science education and web development. She co-developed the brain and body physiology segment of the Stress: Beyond Coping seminar with its creator, Dr. William “Skip” MacCarty, DMin.
Dr. Coburn-Litvak currently lives in California with her husband. Their two daughters are mostly grown and attending school elsewhere.
When she’s not studying or teaching about stress, she enjoys stress-relieving activities like puttering around the garden, taking nature walks with her family, knitting, cooking, and reading.