What is toxic positivity?

How looking only on the bright side can be damaging to mental health.

As NSW continues its second and strictest COVID lockdown, there has been plenty of focus on maintaining a positive outlook.

While 2020 saw people around the globe taking up new hobbies, exercising and learning languages, the new lockdowns across Australia have people feeling rightly frustrated and deflated.

Despite this, your news feed is probably filled with messaging telling you to appreciate the good and ignore the bad.

There are concerns over the mental health impacts of toxic positivity – the notion that people must put a positive spin on all experiences, even those that are objectively negative. 

Lorna Moxham is a Professor of Mental Health Nursing in UOW’s School of Science, Medicine and Health. She says that despite people’s good intentions, toxic positivity can do more harm than good.

“We encourage people to reach out, and to do that we need to validate people’s feelings and acknowledge that they are in distress. People should be allowed to say ‘I’m really angry with COVID, it’s not fair.’ Even though it comes from a good place, telling people to be grateful or to look on the bright side doesn’t give them permission to say ‘I’m not well’,” says Professor Moxham.

Professor Lorna Moxham smiles while leaning against a wall wearing a blue shirt.

Professor Lorna Moxham of UOW's School of Science, Medicine and Health.

Data has shown an increase in people reaching out for mental health services since lockdowns began in Australia in 2020. Professor Moxham says we should not invalidate the link between the pandemic and mental health issues by obsessing over positive thinking. 

“It’s a bit like if you told me that you had depression and I tell you that have a good job and car and there is nothing for you to be depressed about. I’ve now shut you down and you won’t reach out to me in the future. If we close the conversation down by saying ‘just carry on’, they will be more distressed and it perpetuates that cycle,” she says.

“We are living in the here and now”

Professor Moxham says while you can call individuals out on their behaviour, the prevalence of toxic positivity in social media makes it difficult for people to escape.

“It’s almost society saying that you’re not allowed to have your feelings, distress, unhappiness, anger. Hearing it from a friend is one thing, but if the whole of society is saying this, then no one is going to reach out,” she says.

“People probably don’t want to hear ‘we can get through this.’ People know that they have to do exercise and puzzles, but it is also okay to feel angry and annoyed. You have the right to be frustrated, distressed and angry, without social media telling you to be positive.”  

Comparing your own lockdown experience to other issues is also not helpful, says Professor Moxham. While the impact of lockdown has been labelled a ‘first-world problem’ and a post circulating social media measures lockdowns against the WW2 effort, she says comparing the situations does not change what we are going through. 

“Even if something is a ‘first-world problem’, we live in the developed world, and this is a problem to you.

We are living in the here and now. If you are someone who likes to be connected, you have now lost that and can feel sad about it,” she says.  

How to break the toxic positivity cycle

It’s important to be aware of your own emotions and acknowledge why you are feeling them, says Professor Moxham.

“I wouldn’t even call them negative; I would just call them emotions. It is healthy to feel varied emotions, even anger, as long as they are expressed in an appropriate way. Make sure to validate your own emotions, and if someone reaches out to you, make sure to listen. Listen to the person, validate their experience and their feelings. This sometimes means sitting in silence, not even offering your opinion. Let them know you agree and that they have every right to be angry.”

Professor Moxham is heavily involved in Recovery Camp, an evidence-based initiative to assist people in recovery of mental illness. She says lockdowns have disrupted their usual practice, but they are staying connected virtually.

“We have been doing virtual coffee catch ups where we just allow people to say what they want to say and how they are feeling, and we just listen. We know that loneliness is as bad for mental health as cigarettes are for physical health, so it’s important to stay connected. We also use this group to find strategies people are using to support their own mental health during this time.”

 If you or anyone you know needs support, you can contact:

Lifeline: 13 11 14

Beyond Blue: 1300 22 4636

Coronavirus Mental Wellbeing Support Service: 1800 512 348



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