Positive thinking helpful in coping with, but perhaps not banishing, chronic illness

positive-thinking-chronic-illness

When a chronic health issue has you feeling like crud, few things are more insulting than someone telling you to “keep your chin up” or “think positive.” Such advice sounds like a brush-off from someone who has no idea what it is to struggle with pain, fatigue, depression, and other frightening, life-altering symptoms.

Today, one in two people suffer from a chronic health condition in the United States. Although researchers point to the more well-known illnesses of diabetes, arthritis, cancer, and heart disease, many others suffer from conditions doctors treat with little more than a psych consult or antidepressants: fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, Lyme disease, persistent hypothyroidism, and irritable bowel syndrome are among these.

Positive thinking can help you cope with chronic illness

The research regarding positive thinking during illness is mixed. But it does suggest while positive thinking can’t guarantee a cure, it can help you better cope with your illness and comply with your treatment plan.

A study published in early 2012 showed subjects with chronic disease who thought of something that made them feel good each morning and who used self-affirmation techniques when encountering obstacles exercised more and were better about complying with their treatment plan. Older studies show patients with a positive spiritual belief system suffer from less depression and are better able to handle their medical situation.

Don’t pressure yourself to be positive

Conversely, some studies show no correlation between positive thinking and health outcomes, such as in the case of cancer survival rates. If anything, the pressure to “be positive,” which has become trendy in some circles, can be stressful or make one feel like a failure if the illness progresses.

Taking action to lower stress can increase positivity

The truth is, a chronic illness is difficult and involves emotional lows. And while stifling emotions to appear positive is unlikely to be helpful, plenty of evidence shows lowering stress with a positive outlook improves overall health and well-being. The same techniques that lower stress can also foster a more positive attitude, hence improving your resilience in the face of chronic illness.

If anything, coping better is more about positive doing than positive thinking. Adopting a few small and seemingly meaningless strategies can add up to significant gains in well-being.

For instance, in the study mentioned earlier, researchers asked participants to think of something that made them feel better—a sunny beach or a proud moment—upon waking each morning and when experiencing a setback. Participating in a spiritual, religious, or philosophical practice has been shown to help many, and social connections improve the odds of survival by 50 percent. Although Crossfit or Zumba may not be in the cards for someone struggling with a chronic illness, research nevertheless shows exercise relieves anxiety. Exercise can be as gentle as a half-hour walk several times a week or some time in the pool.

Look at brain chemical or thyroid imbalances to boost positivity

Also, when you have been struggling with a chronic health condition, other health factors, such as poor brain neurotransmitter activity or low thyroid function, may also play a role in depression, anxiety, and a generally negative outlook. In these cases, natural remedies for symptom relief may be appropriate. Ask my office for suggestions.

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