Most of us know that positive thinking is supposed to enhance our lives but thinking positively, especially for some personalities, can be easier said than done. Life can be hard. If you have dementia or another terminal illness, or if you provide care for someone who does, thinking positively can seem impossible.
Yet, many studies have shown that negative thinking can cause havoc with our health. An article from a University of Minnesota newsletter about how negative thinking affects the body states:
“Chronic stress from negative attitudes and feelings of helplessness and hopelessness can upset the body's hormone balance and deplete the brain chemicals required for feelings of happiness, as well as have a damaging impact on the immune system. New scientific understandings have also identified the process by which chronic stress can actually decrease our lifespan by shortening our telomeres (the “end caps” of our DNA strands, which play a big role in aging).
“Poorly managed or repressed anger (hostility) is also related to a slew of health conditions, such as hypertension, cardiovascular disease, digestive disorders, and infection.”
How do we think positively when faced with negative life events?
Hospice has found that many people wish at the end of life that they had allowed themselves to be happier. Happy doesn’t necessarily mean we are happy with every circumstance. It simply means accepting where we are in life and making the best of it.
Yet it’s hard to accept what we fear, so people resist. Even with the knowledge that depression increases our risk of Alzheimer’s disease, as do stress, lack of exercise and poor nutrition, it’s difficult to stay positive when we face daily struggles just coping with a devastating illness.
I have a few suggestions that I’ve gleaned from two decades of caring for multiple people with chronic diseases including dementia. I’ll add that I, too, live with chronic pain from arthritis. The following are steps that I strongly believe help:
- Faith: For me, faith is paramount. My own faith is unique to me as others' faith is to them. However, faith that there is a reason we are here on earth is an enormous help. Faith that we aren’t alone because of some type of higher power is also powerful.
- Forgiveness: Holding onto resentments simply eats at the person whom it consumes. It’s often said that not forgiving is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. It backfires. Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting. It simply means that you are letting go of the grudge or resentment that is eating at you. Forgiveness takes practice but is well worth the effort.
- Meditation: Meditation can simply mean time alone to pray, to clear your mind, to run a few miles and feel the stress melt away or to practice a formal meditation such as transcendental meditation. Brain scans before and after meditation have shown the positive effects of this practice on the brain.
- Gratitude**:** Gratitude is my favorite when it comes to attitude changes. While making a gratitude list – and I recommend a physical list – I know that I will find many things to be grateful for. Often we have to start with basics. We have food. We have a place to live. Then we can move forward to less tangible things as we drag ourselves out of our self-pity.
None of these beliefs and/or exercises change the reality of the world in which we live. What they do is change our attitude. That change in attitude can lower our blood pressure, enhance our immune system and lower our stress levels. Working to rid ourselves of chronic negative thinking can make us easier to be around and can make us better caregivers, as well. Baby steps are clearly needed in learning this alternate way to view life, but the results can be priceless.
Carol is a newspaper columnist and the author of Minding Our Elders: Caregivers Share Their Personal Stories. She runs award winning websites at www.mindingourelders.com_ and_www.mindingoureldersblogs.com. On Twitter, f_ollow Carol @mindingourelder and on Facebook:_ _Minding Our Elders_