Wanda Behrens-Horrell

Wanda Behrens-Horrell L.C.S.W., N.C.P

In the Trenches

I'm Not Planning on Dying!


Posted Dec 08, 2009

I want to believe that positive thinking, spiritualism and meditation will one day save my life.   Lance Armstrong claims positive thinking and sports saved his life.  The Dutch Olympic swimming champion and cancer survivor, Mararteen van der Weijden disagrees,

“I even think it [the idea of positive thinking] is dangerous because it implies that if you are not a positive thinker all the time you lose… The doctors saved me. I am just lucky.”

Presently, the field of neuropsychology has advanced our understanding of the brain and its neuroplastic ability to change structurally by interactions, thoughts and actions. The discovery of neuroplasticity and the use of technology ushered in new concepts that define psychology today. The theory of mindfulness, or mindsight, is a result of these recent discoveries in neuropsychology.  Along with these advances came claims that our health will improve by changing the structure of our brains through smiling, meditating, praying and chanting.

I’m interested in interviewing others and learning directly from their lives. I want to know what other people have learned, as a result, of their illness and other life events. Will personal accounts about their lives validate current theories, or give us additional information to assist us in better understanding our own lives and choices?

Recently, I met with Dawn Silverstein, a nutritionist and wellness consultant practicing in Scarsdale, N.Y. Seven years ago, after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, she was forced to change her life.  She changed her career from a paralegal to a nutritionist, dedicated herself to exercise and becoming healthy.  Dawn has been successful in stopping the progression of the illness and believes she is healthier now than before her diagnosis.  I was interested in learning how she accomplished this and how this information could help others faced with illness.

“I found out I was a much stronger person then I ever thought I could be. In the past, I had difficulty following through on an exercise program. I needed to follow-through, and the diagnosis gave me that motivation.  I have physically become stronger than I ever imagined.   I could have been depressed and complained about what life had thrown my way but I couldn’t do that! I don’t encourage people to complain because it just doesn’t help.  Yes, you can be upset, angry and sad, but then it is time to take control. I believe what happens in someone’s life is for a reason.”    I found this fact interesting and wondered how much influence this may have had on her positive response towards her illness.

Can people really get better through positive thinking?  Some experts believe that the American public has largely accepted this as a fact.   “I think its part of the American spirit,” said James Coyne, director of the behavioral program at the Amberson Cancer Center and professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. “There’s this idea that you can succeed and conquer anything, even illness, on the basis of your character.”  But the truth is a bit more complicated.

For instance, work by researchers at Ben-Gurion University in Israel suggested that women who’ve faced several life challenges, such as death in the family or divorce, are more likely to be diagnosed with breast cancer than peers who’ve had more stable, happy lives. The results were detailed in the August 21 issue of the Journal BMC Cancer. Ron Peled, one of the Ben-Gurion University researchers, said this was evidence of a relationship between emotional well-being and the risk of contracting cancer.  Peled and Coyne both say that there is no clear-cut answer yet on whether being upbeat can keep you healthy or cure anything. Coyne is particularly skeptical of the power of positive thinking over cancer.

For other diseases, the outlook is sunnier. Scientists know that the brain and the immune system communicate with one another. We also know that the immune system plays a role in inflammation of the arteries, which can play a role in a heart attack. Interestingly, the most evidence for emotions affecting health is with the negative emotions not the positive ones. What positive thinking does help with is the adherence and willingness to stick with treatment plans. Patients who are more positive are more likely to exercise and have a better diet.

Research out of The School of Occupational Therapy, Curtin University of Technology, Perth, Western Australia, followed 35 informants and 14 autobiographers representing a wide range of disability and chronic illness.  The aim of the research was to add holistic understanding of how individuals with disability and chronic illness survive and cope successfully with their lives in spite of overwhelming odds.   They found five factors that facilitated coping and adaptation. These factors are as follows: spiritual transformation, hope, personal control, positive social support and meaningful engagement in life.  These factors enabled individuals to empower themselves and come to terms with their conditions.  An overall model of wholeness and reconstitution was developed which identified the process by which people reconciled their illnesses and discovered their own inner resources and strength.

When I found the Curtin University of Technology research, I was pleasantly surprised because Dawn had spoken of the very same five factors that help her to adapt successfully to her illness. Her terminology for the five factors is as follows: First, spiritual transformation: Dawn speaks about things happening in someone’s life for a reason. There is a sense that her illness is seen as a deeper cause or challenge. Second, hope: Dawn feels she is healthier now than before the diagnosis. Third, personal control: She has little tolerance for self-pity and is a strong believer in taking control of her life. Fourth, positive social support: She has a very loving and supportive family. Fifth, meaningful engagement in life: One of the changes she made in her life was to focus on nutrition and the well-being of others.

Multiple sclerosis is an immune disorder.  As stated previously, there is evidence that suggests the brain and immune systems communicate and therefore it is possible that positive thinking can impact the nature of the illness.   

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