Since the beginning of my affiliation with the Vasculitis Foundation, and as a regular contributor to the newsletter, I have received many phone calls and emails from patients who struggle to find hope and optimism needed to effectively cope with their illness. As a patient myself, and one trained to help others see the silver lining, it is a difficult task to remain optimistic in the face of the daily reminder of one’s illness. However, as I teach my clients and athletes with whom I work, learning to be optimistic can change your life for the better.
Optimism is a positive explanatory style in which a person views a life event. This definition implies that you have a choice over what you think, what you perceive, what you see or visualize, and ultimately how you react to or explain events that take place in your life. The good news is that optimism can be learned even if you historically have been a glass “half empty” type of person.
Here is one example of trying to remain optimistic. We all take many medications on a daily basis, and for me, I try to organize the cluster of meds I take in a seven-day pill box.
From the first day I began this little system of mine, I wrote with a sharpie on the side of the box in clear view “I AM HEALTHY.” To this day, almost two years later, I see this message each and every time I open that box. This helps me stay extremely positive as I attempt to convince my subconscious mind, which by the way controls the functions of the body, that I am in fact a healthy person.
There is a plethora of literature on optimism, much of it written by a psychologist named Martin Seligman, the author of the bestselling book “Learned Optimism.” As he writes in this book, “Optimists resist helplessness. They do not become depressed easily when they fail. They do not give up easily.” Optimism, he writes, “strengthens our immune system.” In a study of beast cancer patients, the research shows that those patients who did not relapse tended to be those who responded to their cancer with a “fighting spirit,” whereas those who initially responded to their diagnosis with helplessness tended to relapse or worse yet die due to their illness. This is certainly not to imply that all those who are optimistic will never have a relapse or become ill. This is simply to suggest that when you have a choice to think a certain way, optimism will always beat pessimism if you want to help yourself.
Thinking this way does not guarantee successful outcomes, but it certainly increases your chances at your desired outcome. Think of the alternatives…
“There is no way I am going to be healthy again”
“I will always feel this way”
“I’ll never get better”
“I give up because my life will never be the same”
These statements are almost 100% effective, so why wouldn’t the reverse be true as well. If you think of the worst, it will happen, but if you think of the best, at least you put yourself in a position for healthier outcomes and better lifestyles.
Below are a few tips to help you change from pessimism to optimism:
1) Adjust the way in which you explain your illness and symptoms: Better to think about the negatives as “having a bad day” and “tomorrow will be better” versus “this is going to last forever” and “my entire life is ruined because of this.”
2) Avoid negative influences: Misery “doesn’t love company,” it actually loves miserable company. Stay away from negative people, places, or things that perpetuate your own tendencies toward negativity.
3) Fake it—even if you don’t feel like it: the more you act like you want to feel, the better the chances you’ll feel that way. Act “as if.”
“A pessimist is one who makes difficulties of his opportunities; an optimist is one who makes opportunities of his difficulties.” Truman
Dr. Jeffrey Fishbein is a licensed clinical psychologist and a partner in the practice of Drs. Gault, Fishbein and Associates and also as a sport psychologist for the Chicago White Sox professional baseball organization. He was diagnosed with non-systemic microvasculitis with multiple neuropathies.