Long before Dr. Norman Vincent Peale wrote his best-selling book on The Power of Positive Thinking, people knew that those who tended to think negatively about life in general, and their own circumstances in particular, were more likely to be sick than cheerful and optimistic individuals.
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Exceptions occur, of course, but modern research confirms that even with a history of chronic illness such as heart disease, a positive view of life is linked to a reduction in the risk of heart attacks or other cardiovascular events within the next 5-25 years, compared to people with the same history and a gloomier outlook. So says John Hopkins scientist Lisa R. Yanek.
Her team found that even when the person was at high risk for ischemic heart disease, as well as having others with heart disease in their family, such people had a 13% lower risk of a coronary event compared to the general population. That is, even the highest risk was mitigated to some extent by a cheerful worldview.
What is positive thinking? According to Yanek, it means a combination of cheerfulness, high energy, low anxiety, and life satisfaction. How is this associated with health? The mechanism, suspect scientists, has to do with how a positive attitude protects one against disease-related stress.
Since stress is a known and potent inducer of inflammation, which is linked to cardiovascular disease, positive thinking will reduce the impact of inflammation on the heart and cardiovascular system. Secondly, positive people are typically optimistic, leading them to tend to make better health decisions and be invested in their own health, which in turn will strengthen their resilience and immune response.
And it’s not just about heart attacks. A positive outlook improves outcomes and increases satisfaction with life in many more situations, including traumatic brain injury, brain tumors, and stroke.
Stress reduces lifespan, by shortening the telomeres of the chromosomes. These are the end-caps that resist damage to human genetic material in the cell nucleus, and their removal enhances the rate of aging. Chronic stress is also related to impaired immunity, hypertension, and digestive problems.
Ways to improve your attitude
So how can a person maximize the profit from a positive personality? Obviously, one cannot conjure up such a persona in a moment. However, some actions can be done to improve one’s risk status.
For one, just smile – even if you don’t feel like it. Smiling instead of frowning decreases the heart rate and blood pressure even when under stress. Enjoying a joke tends to defuse feelings of frustration, and even reduces the amount of pain perceived, say experts.
Secondly, there’s almost always something to appreciate about a situation, even if it spells Trouble at first glance. The ability to see the good things in a situation is not just Pollyanna-like, it could actually make you healthier by reducing your stress.
Resilience is important
Resilience is another vital factor in positive thinking that improves health and competence. This important quality can be defined as being able to adapt to an adverse situation.
To make sure you have resilience, experts say healthy relationships with family and friends, the equanimity to accept changes as inevitable, and being proactive when it comes to handling problems, are all essential factors that are within your control.
Being mindful of the good things that happened during the day also helps tune your mind towards positive thinking. Again, the tendency of a pessimistic or unhappy person may be to automatically take all the blame for any situation, deserved or not, and to see even minor things as catastrophic.
Forgiveness, or releasing negativity about an event, is crucial to mental and physical health.
Finally, identifying areas that are usually triggering for negative thoughts, and focusing on one to make a change in the way you think about it, is unexpectedly fruitful in enhancing positive thinking. A healthy lifestyle works wonders too, of course, as does taking the pains to block out those who consistently push your thoughts down, and keeping in contact with those who love and support you.
Silencing the voice inside your head
Anxious and worried people often hear voices inside their head telling them about all the ways that all the possible things in any given situation can go wrong. In many anxiety disorders, this aspect is key and is driven by skewed mental processing of any event, poor control over the things one focuses on, and generalizing potentially negative outcomes.
Scientists say that worrying about something is mainly verbal while imagining adverse outcomes is mainly short-term and in the form of images. When verbally worrying about something, the feeling of anxiety seems to decline immediately, but in the following days, intrusive images tend to become more common afterward.
This may be because the vague and over-generalized style of worrying in words reduces the ability to resolve them due to their very indistinctness. On the other hand, the worry remains because of the vaguely looming threat expressed in such words.
In fact, worrying in words perpetuates thoughts about future threats, while images do not. Conversely, replacing such words with a positive thought or image led to markedly reduced intrusive negative thoughts and worry, or anxiety. The positive idea may, indeed, shift the worry from center stage, allowing the person to focus on happier things.
Why do people continue to think negatively despite knowing it makes them feel worse? Some say it’s because of the brain’s inertia, or resistance to the uncertainty associated with changing one’s thought patterns. Surrounding yourself with notes and signs that highlight the goal you’re aiming for – transforming your whole life by thinking positively – will help you overcome this initial resistance.
Advantages of positive thinking
The benefits of positive thinking are too many and too real to be discounted. Not only does it give people a wider worldview, including creativity and wonder, but positive thoughts accumulate over time, building resilience. They include mental and emotional resilience, a longer life, reduced chances of depression, decreased rates of cardiovascular illness, and the ability to deal successfully with adversity and stress without losing one’s mind.
The obvious conclusion is that it’s always worthwhile practicing and perfecting this skill, to handle negatives more constructively and live a happier, more peaceful, and friendlier life. Positive thinking has the potential to change your life by adjusting your mental attitudes to life.
- The Power of Positive Thinking (Online). https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/the-power-of-positive-thinking (Accessed on 16 August 2021).
- Eagleson, C. et al. (2016). The Power of Positive Thinking: Pathological Worry Is Reduced by Thought Replacement in Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Behavioral Research and Therapy. https://dx.doi.org/10.1016%2Fj.brat.2015.12.017. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4760272/ (Accessed on 16 August 2021).
- Positive Thinking: Stop Negative Self-Talk to Reduce Stress (Online). https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/positive-thinking/art-20043950 (Accessed on 16 August 2021).
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Last Updated: Sep 27, 2021
Dr. Liji Thomas
Dr. Liji Thomas is an OB-GYN, who graduated from the Government Medical College, University of Calicut, Kerala, in 2001. Liji practiced as a full-time consultant in obstetrics/gynecology in a private hospital for a few years following her graduation. She has counseled hundreds of patients facing issues from pregnancy-related problems and infertility, and has been in charge of over 2,000 deliveries, striving always to achieve a normal delivery rather than operative.
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