Health Bytes

Negative attitude may affect health, studies show

Tuesday morning blues. It’s still dark in my room. No slits of pale yellow between the blinds. That must mean it’s either cloudy or still night. I lift my head, not too far, but just enough to see the clock. Through bleary eyes, I can make out 8 … 30. Crap. Class started 30 minutes ago. Now, I’m on overdrive; I jump out of bed and immediately start coughing from dry mouth—open mouth breather, what can I say? I reach down and grab the cap of the water bottle beside my bed. Unfortunately, the lid had not been screwed on properly—to say the least, no more water in bottle, no water for my throat, and a wet carpet and power cord. Smooth. At least I didn’t get electrocuted.

I finally make it outside of my room. It’s pouring. Falling water seems to be the trend this morning. I race toward the shuttle, splashing puddles out of my way. I’m soaked. My thoughts become as clouded as the ominous sky above, and I begin to stress. I have too much work to do. I am not going to be able to finish it all! I have to get my car fixed. Who knows, watch the dealer be closed by the time I get there, or better yet, watch them overcharge me, those—My shoes are ruined. Fabulous … $100 down the drain; my favorite pair.” And on and on … With each step toward the shuttle and school, I become increasingly negative, and suddenly, I find myself very unhappy and lost in my thoughts. I can feel my body responding, the stress and negativity coursing through every artery, vein, and capillary in my body. Bad news. I’m shaking with anger and even the slightest irritation perturbs me. I’m tense. My heart is pounding and the frown on my face deepens as my headache worsens. What a day!

So, what can we take from this lovely, comforting vignette? The message is clear: Negative thinking is unhealthy. It can lead to mental, physical, and emotional distress both for the unhappy person and all of those unfortunate souls who happen to run into him or her during the course of the day. It’s contagious. Studies have shown that negative thinking can also have serious impacts on the health and well-being of patients suffering from disease. Patients fighting terminal illnesses, cancer, and other diseases have always been told to keep a positive outlook. Negative energy feeds the disease and can make the prognosis worse. To quote the cliché, “The mind is a powerful thing.”

However, a recent CNN article noted that “Surveys of the leading research in the field conclude that recovery rates from cancer, for example, are not higher among patients who take a positive attitude about fighting their disease. Studies that show the reverse have been small and, according to their critics, flawed in serious ways.”

So what are we to believe? Should we walk around scowling and breathing fire or should we turn that anger into positive thinking? Should we, as they put it, “turn that frown upside down?” I believe in the latter and, though I cannot say I follow the advice, positivity should be the goal. As human beings, we are wired and attracted to smiles; it is a comfort even to the stranger walking down the street, to see a friendly face; a smile implies happiness, comfort, security, and a vast array of thoughts and intentions. In clinic, medical students are taught to develop rapport with the patient, and this involves empathy and a reassuring, safe physician-patient interaction. I mean, can you honestly say that you would prefer the care of a grumpy, apathetic doctor, irrespective of his or her medical competence?

Positivity may not appear to show any statistically significant change in the health care status of the terminally ill. However, it may be very important for preventing illness. Angry, negative personality types can predispose and increase the risk of depression and a variety of other psychiatric illnesses. We are bombarded with negativity from the media and the stresses of everyday life. It takes a great deal of energy to maintain a happy disposition 24/7, and this is not necessarily healthy either. It is important to allow oneself to experience emotion and react to situations and interactions. What is most important is the ability to cope and control those emotions in an adaptive manner. Furthermore, our genes are not simply a function of inheritance, but are also capable of responding to environmental factors. Physiologic states such as stress resulting from negative thinking could impact poorly on overall health and increase the risk for developing disease in the future.

So the next time you are having a bad day, just “put a smile on.”