Can positive thinking really improve your health?
"Stay positive"-- chances are, that's what you've said to a loved one dealing with a serious health problem at some point. Chances are, someone's said it to you as well.
While this intuitively feels like the right thing to say, a growing body of medical research indicates that a positive attitude really does yield measurable health benefits.
One study of nearly 250 people who reached the age of 100 determined that the trait they shared wasn't a physical characteristic but an optimistic outlook.
Another study concluded that so-called "laughter therapy" not only relieved stress in cancer patients but improved NK cell activity, which helps the body fight cancer.
Yet another study found that of 600 hospitalized patients, those with an upbeat attitude were 58% more likely to live at least five more years than their peers.
The link between mind and body
Researchers haven't quite pinned down the relationship between positive attitude and improved health, but they are getting closer.
For one thing, optimism is thought to reduce inflammation linked to heart attacks and strokes, while boosting the immune system. Remarkably, studies have found that activity in parts of the brain linked to fear, sadness and negative emotions correlate with weaker immune system responses to vaccines.
High stress levels elevate blood pressure, risk of diabetes and even dementia. However, optimism is proven to reduce cortisone -- the stress hormone -- making it an effective form of stress management.
In addition, positive people are more likely to follow a healthy lifestyle that includes regular exercise, a healthy diet, and limited exposure to smoking and alcohol. It's all connected.
Are attitude adjustments possible?
Yes! If you're a glass half-empty kind of person, you can retrain your brain through activities like these:
• Edit your self-talk: Observe your inner narrative. When you start obsessing over dark thoughts and worst-case scenarios, consciously stop yourself and replace those thoughts with positivity. It takes work, but it does work.
• Seek out laughter: Choose comedies over dark, dystopian media. Spend more time with the friends who make you laugh and less with those who bring you down.
• Volunteer: Helping others reduces depression and stress, keeps you active, and may help you live longer. You may even experience a sense of well-being known as "the helper's high."
• Practice gratitude: Focus on the good things in your life, and you can't help but think bright thoughts. Build a daily habit of thankfulness.
• Ask for help: Don't tough things out on your own. Confide in your friends and loved ones. If you can't shake depression or anxiety, turn to a mental health professional for treatment. Similarly, if you have a health problem you can't get a handle on, ask more of your doctor or enlist a patient advocate. We're all in this together. That's what we're here for.
• Teri Dreher, RN, CCM, is a Board Certified Patient Advocate (BCPA) and pioneer in the growing field of private patient advocacy. A critical care nurse for more than 30 years, today she is owner/founder of NShore Patient Advocates, (www.northshorern.com), the largest advocacy company in the Chicago area. Her book, "Patient Advocacy Matters," is now in its second printing.