The Power of Positivity on Health

If you have just learned you have a health problem, such as a heart condition, or you are recovering from a procedure, you may be experiencing a wide array of emotions. Confusion, frustration, fear, anxiety, or maybe even relief or hope are all common. Even in healthy individuals negative emotions can be overwhelming, so what you are experiencing can be especially heightened if you feel your life may be at risk.

But studies have shown that focusing on the positive rather than dwelling on the negative emotions you may be experiencing can lead to a variety of health benefits.  Read on to learn more about these studies, the benefits of staying positive, and what you can do to ward off negativity and increase your positive thinking.

The Benefits of Positivity

Researchers around the world have studied the possible connection between mental state and health. Here are just a few of the possible benefits that have come to light as a result of these studies.

Those who have a positive outlook:

  • Are healthier in general, including lower blood pressure, reduced risk for heart disease, healthier weight, and better blood sugar levels
  • Can have an increased life span
  • Are better protected against damage of stress (learn more about the impact of stress here)
  • May have a stronger immune response
  • Experience lower rates of depression
  • Cope better during hardships and times of stress
  • May make better health and life decisions and focus more on long-term goals

Additional studies have found that a positive attitude improves outcomes and life satisfaction across a spectrum of conditions—including traumatic brain injury, stroke and brain tumors. These conditions specifically carry their own challenges with emotional recovery.

How Researchers Study Positivity & Health

There are many ways the link between health and positivity has been studied, from how the brain works on a scientific level, to measuring the impact in specific situations.

Dr. Richard J. Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, used brain imaging to explore the link between emotions and brain pathways. He and his fellow researchers found that positive emotions can trigger “reward” pathways located deep within the brain, including in an area known as the ventral striatum. On the opposite side of the spectrum, negative emotions can activate a brain region associated with fear and anxiety called the amygdala.

If the ventral striatum area of the brain (associated with positivity) was continually activated, there were links to healthy changes in the body, including reduced levels of a stress hormone.  However, Davidson said that if the amygdala region is continually activated, it may increase the risk of additional health conditions.

Positivity may also hold the power to overcome family history in certain cases. Johns Hopkins expert Lisa R. Yanek, M.P.H., found that people with a family history of heart disease (even if they had many risk factors) that had a positive outlook were one-third less likely to have a heart attack or other cardiovascular event than those with a more negative outlook.

So how can we think more positively? It first helps to understand where negative feelings come from.

Causes of Negative Thinking

It’s very common to feel worried or afraid when you have a health problem. Many people feel like they have less control, or they feel unsure of what the future holds for them. While having these thoughts is natural, dwelling on them too much can create problems. According to the American Heart Association, if your fear is overwhelming, it can prevent you from getting well and staying well.

One way to help squash negativity is to consider the root cause. A major reason why people feel anxious about a health condition is because they don’t have enough information. They may also feel isolated and alone in their struggle. It’s also possible that assumptions are being made or there has been inaccurate information shared that is causing unwarranted fear or anxiety. It can also be easy to play the blame game when it comes to any problem, especially health. It’s a common human response to try to find a reason why, but it can lead to negative thoughts.

Fortunately, there are many strategies for changing your mindset, and identifying what may be causing your negative thoughts can help guide which strategies will work best for you.

How to Increase Positive Thinking

It is important to note that having a positive outlook doesn’t mean you never experience negative emotions. Dr. Barbara L. Fredrickson of University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill points out that the key is finding balance.  Positive thinking is, in part, about changing your perspective. One of the most powerful ways may be to actively focus on things that hold the greatest meaning in your life.

Dr. Emily Falk, a neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania, studied how self-affirmation and reflection, such as thinking about what is important to you, impacted health.  She found that a certain region of the brain was activated when people thought about meaningful things, and that brain activity changed how they responded to health advice. If a person had these positive thoughts, they were less likely to become defensive or make an excuse as to why the health advice didn’t apply to them, and more open to making positive changes.

Another big part of reducing fear and negativity when it comes to health is being informed. Asking your doctor any questions you may have about your condition and treatment can help reduce anxiety, even if the facts are not what you want to hear. In the end it is better to get this information from your doctor, rather than seeking out less credible sources that may not be accurate.

For example, if you are undergoing certain procedures for a heart condition, it is possible that the risk of stroke may be increased. This includes TAVI (transcatheter aortic valve implantation) procedures among others. While that can seem scary, there may be ways you can reduce this risk during TAVI, such as using an embolic protection device during the procedure. So having all the information, including possible solutions to issues that may arise, is important to maintaining a positive outlook. Your doctor can help you set realistic expectations.

Positive thinking can also be improved by focusing in on what you can control, rather than dwelling on what you cannot. Here are some additional ways to keep the negative thoughts at bay:

  • Laughing and smiling more – A study found conducted at the University of Kansas found that smiling reduces heart rate and blood pressure during stressful situations.
  • Stay active through exercise (clear with your doctor first!)
  • Surround yourself with positive people, including others who may have been or are currently in your situation that you can relate to
  • Staying active socially (read about the importance of this here)
  • Engage in positive self-talk, such as “I can get through this”
  • Practice reframing – Find something to be grateful or appreciative for in every situation
  • Build resiliency by taking action on problems rather than just hoping they resolve themselves
  • Maintain relationships with friends and family

While research is still underway and there are no definitive answers that apply to everyone, there is definitely a strong link between “positivity” and health, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.  So while positive thinking may not be a cure-all, it’s likely that it can help you at least cope with your condition, treatment, or recovery in a healthy way. So why not try it!?

References:

This educational blog was provided by Boston Scientific.