Optimism and Chronic Health Conditions: Is ‘Think Positive’ A Cure, A Daily Boost, Or A False Promise?

Having a positive attitude will not cure you. Saying otherwise to people living with chronic conditions invalidates their experiences. But cultivating optimism can improve your quality of life, and help you to live better with a long-term illness.

Optimism and Chronic Illness

Are There Negatives to ‘Think Positive’ Advice for People with Chronic Conditions?

I was in my physiotherapist’s office when she probed an unexpectedly painful spot. This was the year my body began to fall apart and I had gone to see her in a desperate attempt to relieve the pain in my neck, shoulders, back and pelvis. When she found an agonizing point on my leg, I burst out in frustration: “Stupid body!” The problem, my physiotherapist informed me, was not physical, it was mental. My bad attitude about my body was the source of my pain. If I could learn to let go of my negativity, then my chronic pain would be resolved. Basically, positivity was the cure. I left her office both angry with her for dismissing my very real, body-wide pain, and riddled with self-doubt over whether my outlook on life was in fact the source of my illness. I wasn’t alone in my experience:

The idea that optimism is all you need to achieve anything you want, even recovery from illness, is now conventional wisdom. In her article Smile! You’ve Got Cancer, author Barbara Ehrenreich writes about her experience with breast cancer. Ehrenreich (2010) describes that, when she went online to learn from the experience of other survivors: “The first thing I discovered as I waded out into the relevant sites is that not everyone views the disease with horror and dread. Instead, the appropriate attitude is upbeat and even eagerly acquisitive.” She recounts examples of this kind of thinking, including quotes like this one from Jane Brody: “breast cancer has given me a new life. Breast cancer was something I needed to experience to open my eyes to the joy of living.” Ehrenreich calls this message “the tyranny of positive thinking.”

But, Can a Positive Attitude Actually Improve Chronic Illness?

Is Ehrenreich too fast in dismissing the potential benefits of optimism? Research consistently supports the idea that having a positive outlook can lead to positive health outcomes. In fact, a number of studies have:

…shown that a high level of optimism is linked to both enhanced physiological recovery and psychosocial adjustment to coronary artery bypass surgery, bone marrow transplant, postpartum depression, traumatic brain injury, Alzheimer’s disease, lung cancer, breast cancer, and failed in vitro fertilization (Goodin and Bulls, 2013, p. 329).

Before we go any further, I think it is helpful to define what it means to have a “positive attitude.” Researchers commonly equate positive thinking with optimism. Optimists are defined as “people who expect positive outcomes to occur in their future” and who are “likely to persist in their goal-directed efforts, where as those low in optimism are more likely to withdraw effort, become passive and potentially give up on achieving their goals” (Goodin and Bulls, 2013, p. 329).

The rationale for urging patients to develop a positive attitude is, essentially, that it will enable them to recover from their condition, and improve their quality of life along the way. I think there is a crucial difference between these two claims. The first claim is that a positive attitude will actually change the course of your disease, while the second claim has to do with an improved quality of life while living with illness.

Stop Blaming the Victim: Chronic Conditions Are Not Cured by Positivity

When it comes to the first claim, Ehrenreich (2010) shares her frustration that  “it remains almost axiomatic, within the breast cancer culture, that survival hinges on ‘attitude’.” This message also happens to be wrong – researchers have found that optimism does not increase survival rates for cancer (Medical News Today, 2004).

The positivity dogma shifts the cause of disease from being a physical malfunction to a character flaw – if only you were positive enough you wouldn’t have developed fibromyalgia or your cancer wouldn’t have metastasized. It is the worst kind of blame-the-victim thinking.

And while it might seem easy for people living with illness to dismiss comments suggesting they developed their condition because of their bad attitude, the problem is that illness makes people prone to feelings of guilt. Not only are our own lives changed, but so are the lives of family, friends and colleagues who depend on us. We feel guilty for the burden that our illness places on others, and that makes us vulnerable to self-blame. As the American Cancer Society explains, positivity-as-cure can be a deeply destructive message because it makes the patient culpable for getting sick in the first case and places the burden of recovery on their ability to be cheerful about it along the way (Edmonson, 2017).

The pressure to be optimistic invalidates the normal and natural feelings of grief that accompany illness. To suggest that grieving itself worsens illness, that these feelings should be repressed in favour of positivity, actually makes learning to live with the condition more difficult. If you are a friend or family member of someone living with a chronic illness you should know that attempting help by saying “you should be more positive” dismisses the very real feelings of the person you care about. In fact,

“A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine that analyzed the effects of expressing authentic emotions among breast cancer patients. And guess what? The researchers found that women who were able to reveal honest feelings showed overall mental-health improvements and reported less physical pain than the women who kept things bottled up” (Edmonson, 2017).

If you are a person with a chronic condition, let me be clear – your illness is not your fault, your feelings of grief and anger are natural, and recovering or managing your illness does not hinge on being happy all the time.

But Cultivating Optimism Can Improve Quality of Life for People with Chronic Conditions

The second claim about the benefit of positivity is that your perspective will influence your experience of illness – that being optimistic will help you cope better with your symptoms.  Since symptoms like pain and fatigue are ultimately subjective (based on personal feelings), it seems intuitive that your mental outlook might colour your experience of symptoms. This is not to say anyone should try to be positive all the time, or at the expense of expressing authentic emotions, but that working towards optimism, hope and acceptance can reduce suffering and pain.

It turns out that there is a large body of evidence which supports this notion. Greater optimism has been linked to reduced pain levels in people with different types of cancer, as well as arthritis (Goodin and Bulls, 2013). Interestingly, optimism has also been associated with adjusting better to life with a pain condition because of factors like paying less attention to pain symptoms, better daily mood, and less catastrophizing (thinking the worst; assuming every negative event will be an overwhelming disaster).

The idea that a positive attitude could improve my quality of life with chronic illness feels less blaming and dismissive to me than the dogma “survival hinges on attitude” which Ehrenreich describes . First of all, it doesn’t suggest that developing fibromyalgia was my fault because it makes no claims about cure or recovery. Secondly, it makes positive thinking more of a goal to work towards, if I choose. Grief and acceptance come in waves and learning optimism is not about repressing sad or angry feelings.

The idea that a positive outlook might improve everyday life doesn’t dismiss the reality of grief or other negative feelings, but it does provide an option for cultivating a better relationship with my pain and illness, if I decide that my current state of mind is not helpful to me anymore.

Is a possible to cultivate optimism, hope and acceptance? It appears that optimism, and its related traits of hopefulness and acceptance, can be learned. Our brains have the ability to change by forming new neural connections with repeated practice, a phenomenon called neuroplasticity. I have listed a few resources below if you are interested in science-backed strategies for learning greater optimism.

  • An app called Bliss has a number of proven exercises that can increase optimism, such as expressing daily gratitude, visualizing your best possible future and purposefully savouring the good things that happen each day.
  • One of the most powerful tools that has helped me to cope with my illness is practicing mindfulness, usually defined as “non-judgemental, present moment awareness”. I attended a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course at my pain clinic that introduced me to how cultivating presence could help me manage my pain.  Much of our anxiety comes from worrying about the future or reliving difficult moments from the past, rather than from anything going on directly in front of us at this moment in time. You Are Not Your Pain is an excellent book on learning mindfulness for people living with pain and illness.
  • Buddha’s Brain by Rick Hanson is a wonderful book with practical advice on how to retrain your brain to strengthen positive brain states like calm, joy and compassion.

So, How Does Positive Thinking Affect Chronic Illness?

  • Having a negative perspective does not cause illness.
  • Having a positive attitude will not cure you.
  • Saying otherwise to people living with chronic conditions invalidates their experiences and feelings.
  • It is natural to feel grief and anger over the onset of illness and healthy to express these emotions.
  • Working towards greater acceptance and cultivating optimism can improve your quality of life, and help you to live better despite the challenges of having a long-term illness.

References:

Edmonson, J. (2017, Sept 3). A positive outlook not always in your best interest. The Star.

Ehrenreich, B. (2010, January 2). Smile! You’ve Got Cancer. The Guardian.

Goodin, B. and Bulls, H. (2013). Optimism and the experience of pain: benefits of seeing the glass as half full. Curr Pain Headache Rep, 17(5): 329. doi:10.1007/s11916-013-0329-8.

Medical News Today.(2004, Feb 9). A positive attitude does not help cancer outcome.

 

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6 thoughts on “Optimism and Chronic Health Conditions: Is ‘Think Positive’ A Cure, A Daily Boost, Or A False Promise?

  1. Rosalind Pearl says:

    Yes, yes, a thousand times yes! Been wanting to write about this for a while now as I’ve been experiencing a lot of guilt around this lately. This essay is so well structured and thought through, thank you so much for your thoughtful and helpful work! Xx

    • Katarina Zulak says:

      Thanks so much for your kind words and I’m glad you found the post a helpful read! It’s a difficult subject because, for me anyway, there are a lot of internalized judgments about how we should respond to illness by having a ‘good attitude’. Writing it out was cathartic! xx

  2. Julie Jensen says:

    Bravo! Well written! Being positive is only part of the equation and certainly not the end all. I look at it as greasing the wheels. Being positive gets me in motion and enhances treatments.

    • Katarina Zulak says:

      Thanks for your comment and sharing your perspective. I think the way you put it- positivity as an ‘enhancer’ is a really good description versus the way it is sometimes presented as a ‘cure’. xx

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