Telling Someone To Just Be Optimistic When They’re Anxious Doesn’t Always Work — Here’s Why

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Whether you've got work stress, or holiday-related money worries, it's natural to feel anxious when life gets tough. Everybody has their own set of strategies for dealing with anxiety, from seeing a therapist and taking medication to meditation and exercise (or all of the above). Now, a new study published by the American Psychological Association (APA) shows that being optimistic can help with money stress, but only in certain circumstances.

The APA’s research focused on money-related anxiety, specifically. Since money woes can make it feel like you don’t have a lot of control over your environment, focusing on what is working in your life might help you manage that stress, their research showed, especially if a lack of money is a primary source of anxiety.

“Our research shows that socioeconomic status has a powerful effect on whether reframing a situation can reduce anxiety, both in the short term and the long term," Claudia Haase, PhD, of Northwestern University and co-author of the study said in a recent press release. "As social inequality continues to rise, it becomes increasingly important that we understand how emotional regulation strategies might benefit mental health across the socioeconomic spectrum." Essentially, when people don't have a lot of control over external circumstances, and if resources are limited, then turning to internal strategies in order to cope can help. People with higher incomes may have more resources available to them to change difficult situations, researchers say, and cognitive reframing wasn’t shown to be as effective among this group during the study.


Haase and her fellow researchers examined how shifting the way you think might help manage challenging emotions. Getting a new perspective on a difficult situation, or looking at it a different way, may help some people feel less anxious when life events feel painful or overwhelming.

“After a romantic breakup, for example, you might be afraid of being lonely," lead author Emily Hittner, MA, a PhD candidate, also from Northwestern, said in the press release. "You could use cognitive reappraisal," also known as cognitive reframing or a mindset shift, "to manage this fear by telling yourself that now is a great time to get to know yourself better, discover new passions, rekindle old friendships, and have space to find a more fulfilling relationship." With cognitive reframing, you essentially reinterpret stressful events in order to find something redeeming, or positive, about them to focus on. If you feel like you don’t have much control over challenging life events, shifting your mindset, or internal perspective, might be your best strategy.

"Individuals with lower incomes … have less access to resources to directly change a stressful situation they may find themselves in," Haase said. "For that reason, they may find it more effective to deal with anxiety by reframing the situation."

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While positive thinking can be a helpful way to cope with mild anxiety and life stress for some people, it’s important to note that it’s not a cure-all. Anxiety disorders, especially severe ones, typically require more in-depth treatment plans, which can themselves require monetary resources that may be in short supply, causing further stress. So, if you’re tempted to tell a friend who's managing money stress to just ‘think positively’ when they’re coping with a major mental health challenge, consider that that might not be an effective solution for them.

While cognitive reframing can be an important mental health skill to develop, anyone dealing with trauma, major anxiety, or any significant mental health diagnosis, might need a professional therapist to help guide that process, in addition to their overall treatment plan. But, if you're managing milder forms of anxiety, focusing on what's working well in your life, even amidst challenging times, might help lessen your anxious feelings overall.