Chances are you’ve heard the phrase “think positive!” at least once or twice in your life. When you’re feeling down or things aren’t going the way you thought, well-intentioned friends and family often give that advice. And while it doesn’t always seem helpful at the time, it’s actually a great thing to do if you want to improve your health.
Studies have shown that focusing on the positive rather than dwelling on the negative emotions can lead to a variety of health benefits. But sometimes thinking positive is easier said than done. Even in everyday situations, negative emotions can easily pop up and take hold. So, if you or your parent are experiencing health issues or you’re feeling the stress of being a family caregiver on an ongoing basis, it might take more effort than normal to harness the power of positivity.
The good news is that it can definitely be done with some education on the why and how of it all. And once you’re equipped with the right knowledge and tools, you’ll be better able to help yourself and your loved ones apply it. In this article, you’ll learn the benefits of thinking positivel the science behind it, and what you can do to increase your positive thinking for better health for you and your family.
The benefits of positivity
Researchers around the world have studied the possible connection between mental state and health. Here are just a few of the possible benefits that have come to light as a result of these studies.
Those who have a positive outlook:
- Are healthier in general, including lower blood pressure, reduced risk for heart disease, healthier weight, and better blood sugar levels
- Can have an increased life span
- Are better protected against damage of stress
- May have a stronger immune response
- Experience lower rates of depression
- Cope better during hardships and times of stress
- May make better health and life decisions and focus more on long-term goals
Additional studies have found that a positive attitude improves outcomes and life satisfaction across a range of conditions—including traumatic brain injury, stroke, and brain tumors. So, as you can see, there are lots of reasons to try positive thinking. But it’s also important to know why it works.
The science behind positivity and health
There are many ways the link between health and positivity has been studied, from how the brain works on a scientific level, to measuring the impact in specific situations.
Dr. Richard J. Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, used brain imaging to explore the link between emotions and brain pathways. He and his fellow researchers found that positive emotions can trigger “reward” pathways located deep within the brain. On the opposite side of the spectrum, negative emotions can activate a brain region associated with fear and anxiety.
When the reward pathways of the brain were continually activated, there were links to healthy changes in the body, including reduced levels of a stress hormone. However, if the fear/anxiety region is continually activated, it may increase the risk of additional health conditions.
Positivity may also hold the power to help mitigate the family history in certain cases. In a study at Johns Hopkins, people with a family history of heart disease (even if they had many risk factors) that had a positive outlook were one-third less likely to have a heart attack or other cardiovascular event than those with a more negative outlook.
So how can we think more positively? It first helps to understand where negative feelings come from.
Causes of Negative Thinking
It’s very common to feel worried or afraid during the aging process – whether it’s you or your parent or loved one. You may feel unsure of what the future holds or that you’re losing control. While having these thoughts is natural, dwelling on them too much can actually lead to physical health issues (which will only make matters worse!).
One way to help squash negativity is to consider the root cause. A common issue with the aging process is changes to the body and general health. It’s common to feel anxious because it’s unknown. Not having enough information, receiving conflicting information, or feeling alone are all common sources of anxiety and negative feelings. And if you’re dealing with an aging parent, the stress of being the caregiver can add another layer of emotions to deal with.
Fortunately, there are strategies for dealing with negative thinking, including seeking out support from people in the same situation as you are. But identifying what may be causing your negative thoughts is a good first step to help you determine the best ways to mitigate them.
How to Increase Positive Thinking
First, it’s important to note that having a positive outlook doesn’t mean you never experience negative emotions. Positive thinking is more about changing your perspective rather than trying to stop negative thoughts altogether. One of the most powerful ways may be to actively focus on things that hold the greatest meaning in your life.
Dr. Emily Falk, a neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania, studied how self-affirmation and reflection, such as thinking about what is important to you, impacted health. She found that a certain region of the brain was activated when people thought about meaningful things, and that brain activity changed how they responded to health advice. If a person had these positive thoughts, they were less likely to become defensive or make an excuse as to why the health advice didn’t apply to them and were more open to making positive changes.
Positive thinking can also be improved by focusing in on what you can control, rather than dwelling on what you cannot. Here are some additional ways to keep the negative thoughts at bay:
- Laughing and smiling more – A study conducted at the University of Kansas found that smiling reduces heart rate and blood pressure during stressful situations.
- Stay active through exercise (clear with your doctor first!)
- Surround yourself with positive people, including others who may have been or are currently in your situation that you can relate to
- Stay active socially
- Engage in positive self-talk, such as “I can get through this”
- Practice reframing – Find something to be grateful or appreciative for in every situation
- Build resiliency by taking action on problems rather than just hoping they resolve themselves
- Maintain relationships with friends and family
While research is still underway and there are no definitive answers that apply to everyone, there’s “a strong link between positivity and health” (Johns Hopkins Medicine). So while positive thinking may not be a cure-all, it’s likely that it can help you better manage your stress and health on a daily basis. So why not try it?
- Positive Emotions and Your Health – NIH News In Health
- Positive thinking: Stop negative self-talk to reduce stress – Mayo Clinic
- The Power of Positive Thinking – Johns Hopkins Medicine