Friday, September 21, 2012

Positive Psychology

As many of you are aware, I am a mental health therapist. I can't tell you how many times, I have said "doctor, heal yourself!" as I walk through my current storm of chronic pain.  You know as well as I do that it's just not that easy, and many of us have a choir of people who are ready to tell us what we need to do in order to feel better.  

However, as I was reflecting on this, I thought of one of my favorite models of psychology.  It is called Positive Psychology.  Positive Psychology, as a branch of psychology, wasn't formalized until 1988 so it is fairly recent.  It is based on the scientific study of individual traits that allow people to thrive and carry on in the midst of life's storms.  It is based on the belief that people want "to lead meaningful and fulfilling lives, to cultivate what is best within themselves and to enhance their experiences of love, work, and play." (University of Pennsylvania)  I would like to also add that it can enhance our experience with pain management.

Positive Psychology focuses on happiness and contentment in the present and hope for the future.  It specifically addresses good ways to handle disappointment, stress and those inevitable storms in life.

To a large degree, Positive Psychology is based on the premise that how we think shapes how we feel.  This is not to suggest that if we engage in some denial of our pain that it will cease to exist.  Rather, it offers coping mechanisms that are intrinsic to most individuals.  For example, have you ever noticed that if you focus on your blessings, things that make you happy, and things that are humorous, that your experience of pain is not as all-consuming?  This doesn't mean that your pain is any less.  It is just a shift of focus. 

I know that when I watch my silly puppy throwing his toys in the air, spend time with someone I love, watch a funny movie, have a belly laugh with someone over something ridiculous that I've done (you know who you are and you better not be talking), and spend time in prayer praising God rather than asking Him for things that something shifts inside of me.  The pain is still very real, but I am able to move my attention from looking at it so intensely that it cripples me to allowing myself to enjoy life in spite of the pain.  It doesn't make me any less physically disabled but it does help me to become less emotionally disabled.

If I focus on my pain, it drives me mad.  I become anxious; I become frightened; I become hopeless.  And I will confess that I do this plenty of times and that I then go into the "oh my goodness, what can I do" panic mode!  Having gone back to think about what I know about Positive Psychology has reminded me that while I might not have a choice over what my body does, I do have a choice over where my mind dwells.  It's not an easy or simplistic thing to do, but for me, it makes a huge difference.
I'm going to be focusing on Positive Psychology for the next few blog entries and how one can incorporate it into their life.  Before I do, however, let me stress that it is not meant to diminish the reality of both physical and emotional suffering.  These are both physiological functions, and thought alone is not going to "cure" anything.  Positive Psychology, in my opinion, is just another tool in my Migraine toolkit.  It is not a substitution for medical treatment, for medication or for honesty about what is going on in one's life.  I hope you will join me in exploring Positive Psychology.