According to psychologist Margaret Chesney, deputy director of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, the effect of positive attitudes on health deserves further study.
“There are pathways by which positive emotions influence health and well-being,” said Chesney, deputy director of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Most of the mind-body research to date, she said, has focused on the impact of negative emotional states — anger and depression, for example — on bodily health. “We don’t have nearly enough research on (the bodily effects of positive states) because we haven’t focused on it,” she said.
Chesney, who conducted research on the power of positive thinking among 200 HIV/AIDS patients when she was a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, spoke recently at the University of Connecticut’s Center for Health/HIV Intervention & Prevention, an interdisciplinary center focused on health-risk behavior. Throughout her talk, she urged the researchers who filled the UConn conference room to look at how a positive state of mind — or “positive affect,” in the parlance of psychologists — influences wellness.
Medicine mainly aims to fix what is broken, she explained. She said that the National Institutes of Health, of which her center is a part, could be called “the national institutes of disease” because of their focus on illness rather than on health. Even the world of clinical mind-body medicine focuses on the dark side of the force. Chesney said that the emerging field of what she called “positive psychology” could learn from the work that has been done on the toxic physical impact of anger and depression, especially in starting to identify the pathways that link the mind and the body.
The field of brain imaging and emotions is still fairly new, she observed, but there appear to be clear distinctions between the way negative state and positive states “light up” the brain in functional magnetic resonance imaging. Negative states are associated with right side activity, while positive states are linked to left-side activity.
How the brain interprets various events, said Chesney, has everything to do with how the body responds. What one person thinks is funny could be perceived as a threat by someone else. Depending on that response, she said, the brain responds by sending a cascade of signals to the body, triggering response in the immune, endocrine and autonomic nervous system ( higher heart rate, higher blood pressure).
In one study, she said, people with right-side (negative) brain activation showed lower immune system activity. Another research project found that participants with a positive outlook were less likely than others in the study to catch cold when exposed to a cold virus.
Health behavior is another pathway between mental state and physical health. Depressed people are more likely to drink heavily, live sedentary lives and ignore needed medical care, she said, which worsens a host of medical conditions. Individuals with positive outlooks are more likely to take care of themselves.
And, not surprising, people who are angry and depressed are often socially isolated, which has been shown to be unhealthy. In one study of patients with coronary heart disease she cited, those who were unmarried and without a confidant had three times the risk of death of those who were not isolated.
Chesney said that people can be trained to find the sunny side of the street.
Source: Akron Beacon Journal, http://www.ohio.com/mld/ohio/living/11777297.htm.