Optimism, Pessimism, Mental Health & Chronic Illness

“Positivity is not about how to maintain a positive attitude, but how to produce positive emotions.” – Frederickson, 2009.

“Research indicates that pessimism correlates with depression, lowered achievement, and health problems.” – Martin Seligman, 1998.

If you don’t know who Seligman is, that’s totally okay and to be honest totally normal if you haven’t studied psychology. He’s the founder of positive psychology (which does not say that positivity is the cure to mental health, just to be clear) and has done a lot of research in this area. For me, the interesting part of the statement isn’t the mental health aspects, which are a bit less surprising, but the physical health part, because what does that mean for people with a chronic illness?

Are you an optimist or a pessimist?

Okay, so here’s a quick overview of some research of optimism vs. pessimism and chronic pain or illness. According to Forgeard and Seligman (2012) disease may progress slower for optimists than for pessimists. Optimists typically have better cardiovascular (heart) functioning and less heart disease, and they may have better immune functioning (though the research is more mixed on that the later). They also found that cancer patients had better survival rates one year after diagnosis if they were optimists, and that in general optimists are about half as likely to die from whatever disease they have than pessimists are. They do caution that some studies don’t show this effect and/or the results are negative, but it’s theorized that the stage of disease may play into this. They also theorize that unrealistic vs. realistic optimism plays a role. (I’ve often said that you can be – and that I am – a realistic optimist).

Life of a realistic optimist.

In terms of chronic pain, Ramirez-Maestre et al. (2012) found that optimism leads to better overall well-being and this might have to do with coping strategies that optimists and pessimists use. Basically, pessimists are more likely to use passive coping strategies such as avoidance and optimists are more likely to use active coping strategies such as acceptance. Active coping leads to lower pain severity, less depression, and better daily functioning.

I don’t know about you, but less pain always sounds good to me!

I can hear some of you saying, “But I’m naturally pessimistic! I can’t help it!” Positive psychology actually shows that we can have learned helplessness and learned optimism – yes, I said it, we can learn optimism. It’s not necessarily a fixed part of personality and there is research to support that. Basically, if we learn to combat negative self-talk, we can become more positive. Pessimism is caused by selecting our attention to certain things as well as a lack of internal confidence in our abilities to control or change parts of our lives (learned helplessness) so when we fail at something, we blame it on something within us we can’t change. I hope I didn’t lose anyone during this.

Seligman explains this way better than I do.

If you want to be more optimistic here’s something things you can do, according to Seligman:

  • utilize gratitude (maybe use a gratitude journal or write a gratitude letter)
  • help others in need (by volunteering for example)
  • challenge your negative thoughts and believes (what’s the evidence for and against them)
  • tackle your negative self-talk (trying changing it)

In the Science of Well-Being course taught by Yale professor Laurie Santos, she explains that only 50% of our happiness comes from genes. So, if you’re still believing that you can’t change from being a pessimistic to an optimistic because it’s how you are born, then remember that. 10% of our happiness comes from our circumstances, and the last 40% comes from our actions and thoughts. Which means, you can still improve your levels of happiness (and thereby some aspects of your health) even if you’re not naturally inclined to optimism.

If you haven’t checked out The Science of Well-Being course yet (it’s free), then I highly recommend it!

I hope this was helpful for some of you! Let me know how it goes with those four techniques to learning optimism! Keep on making the most of it!

Mental Strength & Resilience for Spoonies

My mom actually suggested I do a post on mental strength and I thought about it for a bit because I find that it is very similar to resilience, which I’m fairly certain I’ve posted about before. However, I did some research and found that while there are similarities there are differences as well and to be honest, both are pretty essential when you’re a chronic illness warrior and can increase positive mental health. I’m going to give you an overview of each concept and how they tie together and some ways that can help you increase them (many of which I have personal experience with) so that we can all grow stronger together in our own separate battles.

It’s not easy to find strength in illness.

First, let’s define resilience. Resilience is our ability to respond positively and to adapt to negative, traumatic, and stressful events, in a way that is constructive. Now let’s define mental strength. Mental strength is our ability to effectively handle stressors and challenges in our lives the best we can despite the situation we find ourselves in. As you can see there are similarities, what I think the biggest difference in is that resilience occurs in the face of significantly impactful events such as trauma, whereas mental strength helps us with less significant (yet still impactful) stressors. We often hear of mental strength in regards to athletes and their ability to practice the same thing over and over. People who are mentally strong like adversity because it’s a challenge not a threat.

Kids are the most resilient of us all – me as a baby circa. 1986/87

The great thing is that both resilience and mental strength can be learned! According to the American Psychological Association (APA), the thoughts, and behaviours involved in resilience can be learned. They state that what makes up resilience includes:

  • your ability to make “realistic plans” and accomplish them
  • self-confidence and self-esteem
  • problem-solving and communication skills
  • emotion regulation

How does this apply to chronic illness? I see it as (1) making realistic plans is including limitations you do have because of your illness but not letting your illness limit you; (2) you can still have self-confidence and self-esteem with a chronic illness; (3) problem-solving and communication actually become more important when you have a chronic illness; and (4) emotion regulation is essential for everyone.

Everyone can build resilience and mental strength.

What are some ways we can build resilience? Let’s break each of these down further:

  • making realistic plans & accomplishing them: includes gaining skills (like going back to school or just learning something new in general); and taking action toward the goals you make for yourself while keeping a positive and hopeful outlook on your ability to accomplish them!
  • self-confidence and self-esteem: accepting change because nothing stays the same, including your illness; engaging in activities that help you learn more about yourself (try something new, be creative, get as active as you can, etc.); view yourself in a positive way (stop the negative self-talk and write down things you like about yourself); and of course, self-care!!!!
  • problem-solving and communication: setting goals for yourself; and making connections with friends, family and colleagues because support is important.
  • emotion regulation: controlled exposure (I would suggest with the help of a therapist); taking a realistic view of crisis situations (I like the phrase, “if that happened, then what would I do?”); and activities such as journaling, meditation and other spiritual practices can help with emotion regulation (I’ll probably do a longer post on emotion regulation at some other time).

So if that’s how we build resilience, what can we do to build mental strength? Turner (2017) states that the elements of mental strength include having a sense of control and purpose of your life and emotions; making a commitment by setting goals for yourself; challenging yourself when necessary; and having that self-confidence. Very similar to what we just talked about for resilience. I’ve got to say that I possess all of these, and I’m not sharing that to make anyone feel like they aren’t enough because they are currently not mentally strong. I’ve had times when I haven’t been strong, it takes a lot of work to get here. My point in sharing is that you can come from a place of anxiety and stress over your health condition and get to a point where you can deal with most things that come your way (I say most because no one can deal with everything perfectly). It just took me a few years of hard work to get here. Here are some ways you can develop your mental strength:

  • gratitude – write down 5 things every day that you are thankful for. I also recommend taking the free Science of Well-being course offered by Yale University. Here’s the link!
  • practice mindfulness – in whatever way you like. I prefer meditation and body scans, and throw in the occasional mindful walk.
  • act “as if” – this is an interesting concept developed by psychologist Alfred Adler. He stated we should act as if things are the way you want them to be (essentially you get to reauthor your life). This one is a bit more complicated and may also deserve its own post.
Image from the Science of Well-Being course.

Before I wrap up this very long post, I want to share research by Pickering & Holliday (2010). They stated that “mental strength contributes to resilience processes and resilient behaviour.” So basically develop your mental strength and you’ll develop your resilience. I mean as we’ve seen there is a lot of overlap between the two so it totally makes sense!

Also, from the Science of Well-Being and I thought it’s great to end on.

Let me know what you think of mental strength and resilience! Comment on the post or shoot me a DM on Instagram (@janeversuspain). I would love to hear from my readers! For now, keep making the most of it!

The Power of Words

I know most of us are probably familiar with the phrase, “the pen is mightier than the sword,” and I definitely think that is true. Not just because I’m a writer (I love to write everything – this blog, self-help books, fiction novels and short stories, poetry, screenplays/teleplays) but because there is research that shows that writing (and very specifically journaling) is good not only for our mental health, but our physical health as well. This is one reason Chronic Illness Warriors might want to jump on the journaling bandwagon.

Apparently I’ve always been a writer.

So the whole reason I wanted to write about this is because I was re-reading a textbook for my practicum (basic counselling skills, etc) and one of the interesting things that I read was that a researcher named Pennebaker found that people who record “troubling experiences in diaries showed better immune system responses and significantly better health than those who did not.” Now, I’m not saying I think that any kind of writing is going to suddenly magically cure any of us and we’ll just feel 100% better by doing so. The research though is super interesting. I think that most people can acknowledge the mental health is helped by sharing our story – through therapy, support groups, and writing/journaling. I personally find it just good for my mental health to do any kind of writing, including creative writing, whether or not it directly has to do with my struggles (let’s face it, every writer has a character who is more like them). It can feel good to journal because it can allow you to process, be reflective, and just get something off your chest, and it’s particularly effective if you are struggling with your mental health on top of your physical health.

This kind of journaling has many benefits including self-compassion.

In terms of physical health, researchers have found journaling to help with viral infections such as Hepatitis (so yes, potentially even Covid-19 as well). There was also a study that looked at gratitude journaling by those with heart failure, and found that morbidity was decreased and inflammation was reduced in the majority of patients. Now obviously more research always needs to be done but it is an interesting and promising start. How exactly does it all work? Well, that’s not 100% clear but journaling can lessen overall stress (for those reasons I stated for mental health) and stress and immune functioning are related, so it kind of makes sense that like some other mindfulness activities, journaling (or perhaps other forms of writing) can be helpful. I’m all about the “even if I just feel better today” (or for a few hours) attitude. Why not help ourselves in the present moment? All we really have is this moment, because the next one doesn’t exist yet, and the last one has passed. In this moment, if journaling helps me feel better and potentially helps my body and mind function better, than maybe that’s a good reason to make today the day you start a journal.

I think this tattoo of mine really sums up how important I think writing is (because why else would I have tattooed it on my body!)

Have a good week and keep on making the most of it!

Positive Psychology and Physical Illness

Before everyone starts hating on positive psychology, I’m going to give you a bit of a break down of it. As some of you know, I’m doing my Master of Arts in Counselling Psychology so I’m learning a lot about the different theories of counselling. Though I want to take an integrative approach in my practice, positive psychology is something that interests me. Here’s why:

  • the focus is on strengths, positive experiences, positive emotions (i.e., what’s good in life, not just what’s bad)
  • optimism and gratitude are encouraged (however, if you’re not an optimist then you shouldn’t be coerced into being one)
  • unrealistic optimism isn’t healthy, and neither is too much pessimism
  • emphasis on finding meaning in life and being authentic as it will lead to less stress and anxiety
  • there needs to be balance between positive and negative feelings and experiences
  • you can learn to shift your perspective from negativity to positivity
  • focus is finding ways to foster hope in your life
Word-ArtImage from: https://condorperformance.com/positive-psychology/

So what does this have to do with physical illness. Well, if it isn’t obvious already, positive psychology can help us shift our view of our illness(es) from being something that is terrible and completely disruptive of our lives, to something that we can draw strength and resilience from. Regardless of whether we are sick or healthy, we all have strengths (I would say mine are perseverance, optimism, and communication). We all still experience good things (fun times with friends and family for example), and positive emotions (unless you’re truly unhappy 100% of the time, you do experience happiness, love, contentment, etc.). This doesn’t mean we can’t have bad days or be unhappy, it means that we can choose to acknowledge the good days and the good things that happen as well.

XD0OdKzwQF2hBF41kefPEQEngaging in self-care kind of goes hand-in-hand with positive psychology.

I like the idea of meaning making (if you read my post on existentialism you’ll know this about me). So my original goal was to make movies and entertain. As my health deteriorated, I sought out new meaning and found that I want to help and inspire people (thus this blog, my podcast, and my new degree). The other part of this is finding ways to foster hope. I think that for people who are very sick, finding hope is difficult. I volunteer at a crisis text line for kids and teens. One of the articles I often send texters is on fostering hope. Here are some suggestions from the article: positive thinking, focusing on the future (and changes that will happen), look at the big picture rather than the details that are easy to focus on, remember your successes (however small – did you go for a walk around the block today? that’s a success), be patient with yourself because you’re doing the best you can, and reach out for support when necessary.

WsZ19goHSlyhimnYpy5C9QPursuing more education was an important step in finding my new life meanings.

Is positive psychology the only way to improve your mental health when you have a physical illness? Certainly not, but hopefully this was some food for thought.

Also, in case you haven’t heard, I have a podcast! It’s call Chronically Living and how to make the most of it. It’s available on Apple Podcasts! Check it out and please leave me a rating and review!

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Reference:

https://kidshelpphone.ca/get-info/8-ways-foster-hope-your-daily-life