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The Health Benefits of Hope

Seeing the light in dark times has important positive implications.

The implications of the COVID-19 pandemic are far-reaching, and although the health concerns about the virus itself are paramount in news coverage, the interaction between physical and mental health is well-documented.

Your mental health matters immensely, too. And though times feel dark, and daily life feels uncertain in unprecedented ways, one psychological factor that can help us immensely is hope.

Hope as a construct exists in both state forms (the hope you have in the present moment about specific things), and trait forms (the hopeful outlook you carry more generally, in a stable way, as part of your temperament).

When you summon it in either form, it can help not just your mental health, but your physical health as well. Optimism, a related construct where you are able to see more positive potential outcomes and not overgeneralize the negative, has additional benefits. Let's look at some of them.

Hope can reduce physical pain. Several studies have shown that those who have higher dispositional (trait) hope have lower perceptions of pain. This could be in part because people with higher hope are less likely to catastrophize about the pain, which in turn diminishes its mental hold on them. And when pain seems less powerful cognitively, it takes up less of your attention, allowing you to view it as less debilitating. The perception of pain is the classic example of a process that seems objective and physiological, but instead has much to do with our emotional and cognitive interpretation.

Hope may boost circulation and respiration. Hope, optimism, and a positive outlook, in general, have been associated with protection against chronic illnesses. This may be in part because the absence of depression or chronic negative emotions is important in its own right—we know that those can be detrimental to overall health. It could also be that people who are more hopeful and optimistic are more likely to engage in positive health behaviors and take better care of themselves. That said, it is still strongly suggested that hope in and of itself has a positive effect on physiological processes like circulation and respiration, most likely because of its stress-reduction properties—which in turn help keep the nervous system from being overtaxed.

Optimism improves cardiovascular health. The data is convincing: Optimism is good for your heart health. Large-scale meta-analyses have shown that an optimistic outlook reduces your risk of heart attack, and the data is so significant that many cardiovascular experts believe that improving mental health outlook is a crucial part of preventative treatment for heart disease. The connection should not be considered surprising, given that the stress response—a direct link between emotional health and physical health—plays such an important role in long-term heart health.

Another factor in this connection is blood pressure. Hope and optimism can have positive effects on blood pressure, boosting treatment efforts for hypertension. When blood pressure is managed and maintained within healthier levels, the benefits extend beyond your heart, helping prevent your risk of stroke as well.

So, as you observe your thoughts during this stressful time, try to catch yourself in thinking that is unduly catastrophic. Make a plan to manage your anxiety on a daily basis in ways that help you feel more in control and increase your sense of predictability and controllability. For more on managing your anxiety during this challenging time, see my tips here.

Have something else that works for you? Let me know in the comments!

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