Positive Thinking and Health

Almost all of us have heard of a scenario such as this one: A woman battling cancer has lost almost all hope of recovery. She has not been able to turn to her family for support for fear of their reactions to her illness. One morning she finally breaks down and tells her husband about the cancer. Instead of being devastated and turning his back on his wife, the husband supports the wife, every step of the way, and she gradually seems to improve.

Why is it that something as seemingly innocent as love and support can prolong life or improve someone's health? Is there any neurological evidence that positive thinking, love, and help can actually stimulate the brain to improve health? And how about the placebo effect? How is it that people can get better subconsciously? It seems that some health improvement can either happen consciously as in the case of emotional support, or subconsciously as in a placebo effect.

Think Positive

Carol Ryff, a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has been studying whether or not high levels of psychological well-being benefit physical health. "There is a science that is emerging that says a positive attitude isn't just a state of mind," she says. "It also has linkages to what's going on in the brain and in the body."

Ryff has shown that individuals with higher levels of well-being have lower cardiovascular risk, lower levels of stress hormones and lower levels of inflammation, which serves as a marker of the immune system. Her research on positive mental states is among 44 current grants funded by the National Institutes of Health evaluating optimism. Most research in this area has focused on negative feelings, such as how stress, anxiety and depression affect physical health.

"Science in this area is at the very beginning," Ryff said. "For a long period of time, you couldn't even get funding to do research like this because there was such a preoccupation with illness and dysfunction."

"Mind-body medicine is now scientifically proven," says Herbert Benson, a cardiologist and associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School who is considered a pioneer in the field. "There are literally thousands of articles on how the mind and brain affect the body."

Benson, author of 10 books, is founding president of the Mind/Body Medical Institute in Boston, a non-profit organization devoted to studying interactions between mind and body. He says Reeve's focus on improving the plight of others with disabilities, like Michael J. Fox's work with Parkinson's disease, in some ways may help them personally more than they realize.

"When a person can focus on something other than illness, it allows the body to take advantage of our own healing capacity," says Benson. "Hope in something beyond the illness and dedicating oneself to cures for the illness" rather than dwelling on oneself and one's illness "gives purpose to life," and helps prevent the negative effects of stress while medical science does its work.

Other notes...

** Instead of living your life on autopilot, letting any and all thoughts come into your mind, consciously feed your mind positive input. Do this on the first day of every week, and do it throughout the day. Read inspirational books; listen to uplifting music, or call an upbeat person. And by all means, avoid the cynics and gripers.

** Nothing... absolutely nothing... contributes more to healing than your attitude.

** Yes, it's difficult and takes self-discipline and lots of determination to stick to a healthy diet and a demanding and regular exercise program while maintaining a positive, happy attitude toward life. But I can tell you from my own experience that the payoff in terms of a healthy, rewarding and enjoyable old age is beyond belief.

** Positive and negative thinking are both contagious.
All of us affect, in one way or another, the people we meet. This happens instinctively and on a subconscious level, through thoughts and feelings transference, and through body language. People sense our aura and are affected by our thoughts, and vice versa. Is it any wonder that we want to be around positive people and avoid negative ones?

** “Fear less, hope more; Eat less, chew more; Whine less, breathe more; Talk less, say more; Love more, and all good things will be yours”
(Swedish proverb)