By Kristen Carter
Dear Kristen, I’ve always been a positive person and I’m trying to stay positive since my recent cancer diagnosis, but it’s hard work. I believe our emotions and thoughts help create our reality, and that my positive thoughts will help me with healing. How do I stay upbeat instead of giving in to fear and anxiety and other negativity?
You’re right that our attitudes play a large part in our healing, and I thought I’d give you some good hard data to back this up.
In one study, Johns Hopkins researcher Lisa Yanek and her colleagues explored the effects of positive and negative thinking on patients with a family history of heart disease. Her findings concluded that people with a family history of heart disease who also had a positive outlook were one-third less likely to have a heart attack or other cardiovascular event within five to 25 years than those with a more negative outlook.
Yanek’s findings are relevant to those of us with breast cancer because positive thinking offered protection from the inflammatory damage of stress (inflammation is a factor in cancer as well), and the more positive people also made better health and life decisions.
On the flip side, the researchers found that negative emotions can weaken immune responses.
Much research on the link between our emotions and our health has also been done by scientists in the field of positive psychology as well. In a number of different studies, people who reported having the highest levels of happiness also had:
Improved heart health (Steptoe & Wardle, 2005)
The ability to combat stress more effectively (Zautra, Johnson & Davis, 2005)
Reduced risk for stroke (Ostir, Markides, Peek & Goodwin, 2001)
A stronger immune system, leading to greater health all around and the ability to fight off illness and disease more effectively (Stone et al, 1987, Cohen et al, 2003, Marsland et al, 2006).
An overall healthier lifestyle including eating a healthier diet (Dubois et al, 2012), engaging in more physical activity (Sapranaviciute-Zabazlajeva et al, 2017), and overcoming poor sleeping habits (Steptoe et al, 2008).
A better ability to mitigate pain (Zautra, Johnson & Davis, 2005)
Increased longevity: Researchers believe that because of the impact happiness has on all of the above health benefits, it can ultimately help you live a longer life (Carstensen et al, 2011, Lawrence, Rogers & Wadsworth, 2015, Chida & Steptoe, 2008).
So, there are plenty of reasons to lean into your positive emotions and to cultivate as much positive energy as you can.
But all this doesn’t mean we should try to be only positive all the time. Doing so would be to ignore reality when you’re living with something as serious as breast cancer. All your thoughts and feelings are valid, and trying to suppress the negative ones is like trying to hold an inflated beach ball underwater: exhausting and futile. It’s gonna pop up sooner or later.
The trick is to not dwell on those negative thoughts, ruminating on them and letting them take over our whole lives.
To process negative emotions, try this technique:
Take one negative emotion at a time and imagine it as a tiny human or creature standing in the palm of your left hand. What does she/it look like? A monster? A dictator? A scolding parent? A wild version of yourself?
What does she have to say? Let her say everything that’s on her mind until she grows quieter and more still.
Thank her for sharing all that valuable information with you, and sympathize with her emotions by saying something like, “I totally get what you’re telling me and I empathize with what you’re going through. It isn’t easy.”
Ask her what she needs most. Can you grant this wish? If yes, promise to do so. If not, tell her you will do your best to find the solution.
Ask if there is anything more this small person wants to say to you, and repeat the last few steps until she feels fully seen, safe, and supported by you.
Invite her to return to her place within your body/ mind/ system and promise her you will check in on her regularly to ensure she is still feeling okay.
Check in with her daily for a few days, see if she needs to talk to you, and repeat this process if things come up.
A couple of years ago I created an evening journaling process that helped build my positive emotions and also allowed me to touch base with my negative emotions. On one page of my journal, I wrote three things I was grateful for and what I did to make those things happen (this builds a sense of empowerment and agency), and then wrote down one thing that was really bothering me that day. It allowed me to get that thought out of my head and onto paper, and sometimes that was all I needed to move on. Other times, I used the seven steps above as journaling prompts and wrote until I felt I understood the problem well and had taken some of the intensity out of it.
Finally, the best way to boost overall happiness is to experience more moments of happiness; happiness is fleeting, so plan ways to experience small doses of it as often as you can.