Positive Thinking Can Heal

What happens in the brain informs what happens in the body and a positive attitude can therefore literally impact your health. Lisa R. Yanek, M.P.H., and professor Judith T. Moskowitz, Ph.D., both conducted studies independently of each other which showcase this point.

Johns Hopkins expert Lisa R. Yanek, M.P.H., specifically looked at heart disease. She and her colleagues found that people with a family history of heart disease who managed to maintain a positive outlook were one-third less likely to have a heart attack or other cardiovascular event within five to 25 years. This proved true even with people who had the most risk factors for coronary heart disease.

Yanek believes that a positive personality is largely inherited but acknowledges that practicing techniques to enhance positivity can be helpful. People can build resiliency through maintaining healthy relationships, accepting that change is natural, and actively confronting problems rather than expecting them to solve themselves. Reframing, when someone highlights the positives in a situation rather than simply dwelling on the negatives, can also be helpful.

Professor Judith T. Moskowitz, Ph.D., conducted a similar study while teaching at the University of California, San Francisco. Moskowitz developed a set of eight coping skills meant to cultivate positive emotion and tested whether people who were seriously ill could benefit from practicing these skills. The skills included:

1. Acknowledging one positive event a day
2. Cherishing that event and recording it in a journal or sharing the experience with someone verbally
3. Beginning a daily gratitude journal
4. Recognizing a personal strength and how you used it
5. Setting realistic goals and charting your progress
6. Reframing a minor stress to note the positives
7. Acknowledging and practicing small acts of kindness each day
8. Practicing mindfulness, which centers on concentrating on the present moment rather than the past or future

There were 159 subjects in Moskowitz’s study and each person had only recently discovered they had H.I.V. Subjects were arbitrarily assigned either five sessions of general support or a five-session positive training course. Fifteen months later, participants trained in the eight skills retained more positive feelings and fewer negative thoughts about their illness. Those who could internalize the skills also carried a lower load of the virus, were better with medication compliance, and less likely to need antidepressants in order to cope with their illness.

There are different theories about what the link between health and positivity means. One idea is that positive people are better defended against the inflammatory impairment due to stress. Another is that hope enables people to make healthier choices because people who believe in their futures are better able to focus on long-term goals. Further, negativity can weaken the immune system. Whatever the reason however, both studies demonstrate the importance of positivity, and how mental alacrity can improve your physical health.

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