Striving to stay upbeat and optimistic during a life-altering global pandemic can backfire.

By Claire Gillespie
May 22, 2020
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There are a lot of reasons to feel down right now. The news cycle is a constant reminder of the havoc the coronavirus pandemic is causing on a local, national and global scale. Health concerns, frustration, loneliness, and financial uncertainty are having a widespread impact on mental health, with two-thirds of people saying they feel nervous, depressed, lonely, or hopeless during at least one of their last seven days, according to the COVID Impact Survey

What we all need is a steady dose of positivity, right? Well, yes—but positivity comes in different forms, and they’re not all good for you. 

Credit: Alex Sandoval

What is toxic positivity?

The term “toxic positivity” has been around for a while, but it’s taken a global pandemic for many of us to be aware of its insidious effects. “Toxic positivity can be described as insincere positivity that leads to harm, needless suffering, or misunderstanding,” California-based psychiatrist Gayani DeSilva, MD, tells Health. Toxic positivity is all over social media, in memes—“Positive vibes only!” is a popular message—and in the comments section, with things like “it could be worse” and “look on the bright side” popping up frequently.

“The example that immediately comes to mind are the posts that say ‘if you repost this, I will know someone cares…’” says Dr. DeSilva. “Well, people care in their own ways. There is no one way to care.” And then there are the posts that insinuate that if you aren’t being positive, then you’re doing something wrong. 

Toxic positivity in the age of coronavirus

The cultural phenomenon that is toxic positivity has gone into overdrive during the COVID-19 lockdown. “We are being bombarded with ideas about how this time should be used to write a novel, learn a new language, and find our zen and that we are somehow failing if we are not doing these things,” New York board-certified psychiatrist Margaret Seide, MD, tells Health.  

If people are finding inner peace and endless silver linings buried deep within lockdown, that’s amazing. But constant promotion of this approach, however well-meaning it may be, can become toxic. “They can make anyone who doesn’t view this period as an eight-week yoga retreat feel flawed,” says Dr. Seide. “These messages delegitimize the anxiety and heartbreak ripping through our country and the world right now, robbing us of the right to have bad days in the midst of this crisis.” 

If you never let yourself feel any emotion besides happiness or gratitude and instantly shut down any so-called “negative” emotion, you’re not dealing with how you really feel. “You may close the metaphorical closet door on it but the specter of it looms behind the door, growing scarier and stronger in our minds precisely because we aren’t addressing it,” licensed clinical social worker and author of Forward in Heels, Jenny Maenpaa, tells Health. “There’s an expression ‘sunlight is the best disinfectant’ and it means that when we bring the scary things into the light, whether they are memories, emotions, or fears about the future, we can really examine them and take away some of their power to infect us.”

It’s important to acknowledge that multiple, complex emotions can exist in you all at once, says Maenpaa. You can be grateful to have a roof over your head and hate the job that’s continuing to pay you in order to afford that roof. You can be devastated at the loss of life from COVID-19, but still enjoy the hygge of lockdown. 

The right way to be positive

So what’s a healthier, kinder approach? Maenpaa’s favorite strategy for accepting and balancing the seemingly conflicting emotions we are all likely to be feeling during the current situation—and at any given time, in fact—is an old improv strategy called “yes, and.” For instance, “I’m so tired of being stuck inside with my family and I’m grateful that I enjoy my family’s company enough to be stuck inside with them.” Or “I’m afraid of what the future holds and I feel some excitement at the hope some things may change for the better.” 

“When we give ourselves permission to hold multiple seemingly conflicting truths in our minds at the same time, we can eliminate the tension between them and give room to all of our emotions—both positive and negative,” says Maenpaa. 

The best approach is simple: tell the truth. “It’s always kinder,” says Dr. DeSilva. “It’s also healthier to acknowledge the pain a person might be experiencing. Ask what they need. It’s possible to exude a positive attitude and still interact with others in a caring way. That’s when positivity is not toxic.”

Unfortunately, social media and the truth often don’t go hand in hand. “Even pre-COVID, social media was a tool with which a vulnerable person can compare their worst day to another person’s best day,” says Dr. Seide. If you’re one of many who’s struggling to stay positive right now, it’s important to know you’re not alone—even if Instagram makes you feel that way. 

“For most of us, this is our first pandemic, therefore, there is no ‘normal’ response,” says Dr. Seide. “There are no self-help books on how to successfully navigate a pandemic. There is only content created by people who have also never lived through a pandemic. We should all be open to the fact that we do not know what to expect from ourselves or from each other.”

With no standard of appropriate lockdown behavior—besides all the hand-washing and mask-wearing, of course—there may be days where you feel grateful, productive, and positive, and days where you see any light at the end of the tunnel. “Be flexible and be ready to adjust your definition of a constructive day,” says Dr. Seide. “Don’t shame yourself or anyone else for feeling frightened or overwhelmed. Expect times when you have difficulty coping with the uncertainty of this pandemic or sustaining the patience required to homeschool your kids.”

And while it can be really, really difficult to “out” yourself on social media by sharing your darkest moments, it might just be a step forward—and a way out of toxic positivity. “You don’t know who else you are helping, and there would likely be positive feedback,” says Dr. Seide. “My hope is that all the emotion of this situation and the existential questions it brings up make way for real dialogue about bad days and weak moments. Be positive when you can be, but make room for days when you can’t.”  

Bottom line: It would be much kinder and healthier if we turned off the toxic positivity and made every range of emotion permissible and even welcomed.

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDCWHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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