The Power of Positive Thinking
You can if you think you can!
Just look on the bright side!
Smile - the world smiles with you if you smile!
A frown turned upside down is a smile!
Things couldn't possibly be that bad!
Fake it until you make it.
Just put mind over matter!
One of the best greeting cards I ever received contained a number of platitudes of this sort on the cover and on the inside it said "The preceding lies were brought to you by the National Federation of People you run into when you're having a rotten day." The card caused me to laugh not so much because it was so funny but because it was so true!
For those of us with chronic illness and pain, there are always going to be people who try to help us with "cheer up" messages. I don't know about you, but the response I frequently want to say with deep sarcasm is "Oh, thank you so much for your words of wisdom. I would have never thought of that. Just imagine how much money I could have saved from all of my doctor visits if you had just come along and said that a little bit earlier." Of course, I don't say this to them because I know that most people are speaking out of a genuine desire to help or express caring or out of an astounding lack of knowledge, tact and empathy. I also know that regardless of why they say it that there are few whose minds I can change by a single sarcastic remark.
On the other hand, I have found that practicing positivity does help me in my day to day struggles with pain, worry and depression. A study published in Health Psychology (2012) by Gillam (et al.) found that people who publicly state that they are coping successfully with their chronic pain actually tend to cope much better than those who do not. In this study, 89 individuals with a history of chronic pain were divided into two groups. One group was provided with scripts which contained positive affirmations regarding the individuals' ability to cope. A part of their task was to present themselves as "good copers" to those around them. The other group, on the other hand, portrayed themselves as "poor copers."
Even though both groups of people had significant levels of chronic pain, it was found that those who practiced positive affirmations and saying that they were "good copers" had statistically improved levels of self efficacy (the belief that one is competent and able to meet their goals), depression, and positive coping. In essence, there was a self-fufilling prophecy whereby individuals who focused on a belief in their own ability to handle pain actually experienced positive change in their ability to cope.
The take-away from this study is not that one must deny his/her pain, but that by using positive affirmations and self-talk, we can actually increase our own belief in our ability to manage pain. As our belief increases, it is only natural that hope emerges. In my opinion, it is this experience of hope that allows us to be resilient in the face of chronic pain, anxiety and depression. When we focus on our inability to cope, we find ourselves with the belief that we have limited options and are thereby "stuck" with little hope. On the other hand, when we develop the belief that there is hope, we are then able to think outside of the box when it comes to problem solving and coping skills.
Based on this study, hope, resilience and self-efficacy are not a state of mind or a personality characteristic, but a trait that can be learned through positive affirmations. I have long had a list of positive affirmations and Scriptures to which I turn when I am having a particularly difficult day. When I take the time to read these things, they are powerful reminders to me of what can be. I don't believe that one can necessarily use another person's positive affirmations; however, if it would help any of my readers, I'd be glad to share mine with you. My list is one that has been compiled over a number of years during (what I like to call) my "sane" moments. Those "sane" moments are the times when pain is not so oppressive that I can see no way out. These were not written during pain free moments as I don't have those. However, they were written during times when pain was at a lower level or when circumstances were such that I could see beyond the fog of pain.
In my life, I have truly seen the truth of the principles of this study. When I focus on what I don't have or how I am feeling, I inevitably feel worse and begin to despair. When I focus on hope, I inevitably feel better. This does not mean that I don't share my struggles, my pain or my fears with others. In fact, the ability to share these issues with others in the same situation who help me practice positive and proactive strategies is a huge part of my coping mechanisms. At other times, I reach out to friends (who know better than to utter trivial and trite cheer-up messages) and ask them to hang on to hope for me. There is something very powerful in knowing that others believe in my ability to cope and to get better. The key for me is to not get bogged down in the belief that chronic pain defines my life and means that I have no hope and no control.
"For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord. Plans for good and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope." Jeremiah 29:11