Do You Have a Healthy Attitude?
Having a positive outlook, a foundation of faith, and healthy relationships with loved ones can improve your health. No one's sure exactly how some of these factors contribute to good health, but study after study shows they do.
"People who are basically optimistic feel better and live longer than those who aren't," says James S. Gordon, M.D., founder and director of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington, DC.
A positive attitude depends on genetic influences, upbringing, health habits, social connections, emotional support, and spiritual involvement. You can't change some of these factors, but you can learn new ways of thinking and behavior to help maintain a positive mind-set—and live a healthier life.
"Your beliefs about a particular situation are very important in terms of your immune system's response to stress. The more optimistic you are, the higher the level and function of key immune cells in your body," says Suzanne Segerstrom, Ph.D., a psychologist in Lexington, Ky. "While a stronger immune system doesn't necessarily mean you feel better, it does affect how easily you get sick, or how well you respond to or recover from illness or surgery."
Support is important
So does having a good connection to family, friends, and acquaintances. In general, social ties guard against stress and contribute to a positive attitude. Researchers have proven that they also help you survive major illnesses and heal more quickly.
"A strong social support system encourages better health habits," says Redford B. Williams, M.D., a psychiatric and behavioral science specialist in Durham, N.C. Social interactions also can ward off depression.
Experts warn, however, that some people feel more comfortable being alone. If forging ties to family and friends actually stresses you out, you're better off respecting your need for solitude rather than trying to become someone you're not, suggests Dr. Segerstrom.
"As you practice healthy habits, you affect your health, positively," says Dr. Gordon. "You soon feel the results of your efforts. That reinforces not only a positive attitude, but also the control you now have over your life—to make it the best it can be."
A study of heart patients helped convince Dr. Williams of the importance of good social relationships. He looked at 1,368 coronary disease patients in 1998 and found:
Of the patients who reported feeling very isolated, weren't married, and had no one to confide in, 50 percent died within five years.
Just 17 percent of patients with a confidant or close spouse died in that same period.
The different mortality rates could not be explained by differences in the severity of the underlying heart disease. Dr. Williams' conclusion: "People without good social relations are at an increased risk for developing cardiovascular disease. Once they have the disease, they're apt to experience recurrent heart problems."
What about folks who like to be alone? Dr. Williams speculates that loneliness, like high cholesterol, may be just one risk factor for heart disease—not every person who is lonely or has high cholesterol will become ill.
How stress hurts
Some of us handle stressful situations better than others. When you succumb to stress, Ohio State University researchers say, you trigger a process that shows the link between your mental and physical health:
When you're under stress, your brain increases production of CRF (corticotropin-releasing factor).
CRF stimulates your hypothalamus to increase the production of ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone).
ACTH tells the adrenal gland to produce cortisol, an immune-suppressing hormone.
The more cortisol, the weaker your immune cell and the more susceptible you are to illness.
A positive attitude and healthy social behaviors can affect your health. Here's what you can do:
Evaluate and defuse stressful situations. Weigh what's important and what's not. Take a few deep breaths. Instead of getting upset, seek out a simple distraction.
Try meditation. It may be difficult at first to sit still and do nothing, but you'll be amazed at how relaxed you can feel.
Get in touch. Cultivate a network of friends and acquaintances. Make sure there's someone you feel close to, a confidant who can provide support.
Let go. Express your feelings. When you allow yourself room to feel and show emotions, you reduce stress and a tendency toward pessimism. But don't dwell on your emotions—move on.
Take care of yourself. Get plenty of sleep, follow a healthy diet, and exercise. All contribute to your overall well-being.
Team up with your doctor. When you're actively involved in medical decisions, you take control over your body and your health.