Optimism is Good for You and Your RAby Marianna Paulson, B.Ed., B.P.E.-O.R. Patient Advocate
There’s a benefit to feeling upbeat when you have rheumatoid arthritis (RA): A positive mindset can help keep you stronger both psychologically and physiologically. As the fourteenth Dalai Lama proclaimed, "Choose to be optimistic. It feels better." When you feel better, you do better.
The benefits of optimism
“Being more optimistic is good for your health,” claim Mehmet Oz, M.D. and Mike Roizen, M.D. They explain that optimism helps in a number of ways: It promotes resilience, leads to faster wound healing, lowers the risk of heart disease and stroke, improves immune function, and reduces inflammation. I'll buy that. You?
Optimism builds resilience
Having a chronic medical condition is like riding a roller coaster. There's the anticipation of waiting for the ride to start, which can be equated to the wait for a diagnosis. The climb is similar to your efforts at making health improvements. The roll down the hill can be the feeling of fear that your health is deteriorating, or the thrill of knowing that a treatment is working. Resilience, or “bouncebackability,” helps you maintain equilibrium throughout the ride.
Optimism improves heart health
“Optimistic people have healthier hearts, study finds,” proclaimed the headline of an article about new research from the University of Illinois. During the study, 5,100 adults between the ages of 45 and 84 underwent tests for blood pressure, body-mass index, fasting plasma glucose and serum cholesterol levels, dietary intake, physical activity, and tobacco use. Participants also answered questions about their emotional and mental health. At the end of the 11-year study, the researchers found that the most optimistic people had higher health scores.
Optimism increases longevity
As a person living with RA, you probably get regular C-reactive protein (CRP) tests to measure the amount of inflammation in your body. Becoming more optimistic can positively influence those levels. A New York Times article entitled A Positive Outlook May Be Good for Your Health cited a study in the Journal of Gerontology of more than 4,000 people that identified optimism as one of several factors that promoted longevity.
Optimism decreases stress
A more positive view of aging can enhance the belief in one’s abilities, decrease perceived stress, and foster healthful behaviors. In the Journal of Gerontology study, people with positive views of aging had lower levels of C-reactive protein, a marker of stress-related inflammation. Perhaps stress is contributing to the increase in your CRP readings. Do what you can to lower the “temperature.”
Optimism vs. realism
“I always like to look on the optimistic side of life, but I am realistic enough to realize that life is a complex matter,” said Walt Disney. The “ostrich in the sand” view can be detrimental to your health, as shown in this study: Unrealistic optimism promotes unhealthy behavior. Of 800 college-aged drinkers, those who took an overly optimistic view of whether their drinking habits were harming their health and grades experienced more problems. The moral: Be realistically optimistic.
From pessimist to optimist
I am a reformed pessimist. For decades, I chose to look at life from the dark side. It prevented being disappointed or hurt when things didn't go as planned. While that was true, there was something far more sinister occurring. On the surface, I protected myself, or so I thought, but deeper down that pessimism was harming me. It triggered the stress response, which contributes to the inflammatory response. Yes, there was something wrong with that picture!
Gratitude breeds optimism
In the documentary Adventures of an Incurable Optimist, Michael J. Fox, who lives with Parkinson's disease, says, “Since I’m not sure of the address to which to send my gratitude, I put it into everything I do.” The uncertainty of life with a chronic health condition can fan the flames of fear. Adopting an attitude of gratitude mitigates those fears, and helps transform your stress. Turn the searchlight on to illuminate the positives in your life, regardless of size or scope.
How be more optimistic
New behaviors take a while to develop, and may not be evident for some time. It's important to carefully monitor how you feel, as the improvements can be subtle at first. To become more optimistic, work on the following skills: Regularly transform your stress; practice mindfulness; change your perspective; identify your strengths; temper your perfectionism; keep a gratitude journal; perform small acts of kindness; get creative; set attainable goals; celebrate your successes.
Optimism is a choice
“Attitude is a choice. Happiness is a choice. Optimism is a choice. Kindness is a choice. Giving is a choice. Respect is a choice. Whatever choice you make, makes you. Choose wisely.” ~ Roy T. Bennett, The Light in the Heart.
Don't wait for your condition to change in order to feel better. Instead, learn to feel better and change your condition. Feel better by choosing an attitude of optimism.