Positive thinking pitfalls and medical prognosis

I used to think that positive thinking, or the lack of it, had a direct effect on my own health and life circumstances.  Now I see things differently:

When we are relaxed and feel good about life our blood vessels relax and energy flows around our bodies in a natural fashion: blood, hormones and nutrients flow where they should and as a result we can think, move and exert ourselves comfortably and well.

When we are anxious, jittery or tired we tense up, and don't function as well.  Our muscles and nervous system become tense and jerky.  We simply can't function as fully.

If this state of tension and fatigue continues for long periods of time, without proper sleep and recovery intervals it's much more likely that we will develop health problems because of it.  In my own case I'm sure this was so, and once that circuitry is messed up it can be difficult or impossible to get it back.  So for me getting proper sleep and relaxation makes a big difference.  Not the whole difference, but it certainly helps a lot.

This much I'm clear about, at least for myself.  It makes sense.

In the field of classical Chinese and Japanese acupuncture there is a sophisticated set of concepts about how energy flows around the body and how problems in different areas are likely to indicate dysfunction of a less physical nature.  It all works together.  This is all well and good, and indeed can be helpful to understand.

Some years ago, a medical doctor skilled in Chinese acupuncture, made a very definite statement about an energy problem he found relating to my kidneys, which I had been unaware of.  According to him, it was this that was causing trouble further down the line, and he said indicated I had suffered a severe shock of some sort which had stayed registered in my system.  I had nearly been killed in a car accident when young, I responded.  That would be it, he affirmed.  Having this angle on things was helpful.  I stopped blaming myself for the other trouble.  My doctor wasn't giving me a psychological diagnosis, but explaining how the physical problem I'd come to him for help with had probably arisen many years after a traumatic event.  He then set to work in doing what he could for that - with needles - with a very effective and measurable result.  

So my reservations about the mind-body approach lie not with acupuncture, but in the borrowing of these principles by others, mostly Westerners, who use them to create their own mix of mind-body philosophy, usually accompanied by large doses of "Thou shalt think positively" maxims, and without any medical foundation.  Thus, heart problems are a result of issues to do with love, and digestive problems to do with not being about to 'stomach' things, and so on.  These will all be 'healed' if we can only learn to abandon old negative thoughts and replace them with positive ones.  If we can change our minds we can change our bodies - and our lives...

Taken at the level of superficial aches and pains this is a fairly harmless approach, but should never be applied to those who have serious or chronic conditions - unless you want a blood nose, that is.  If we take this approach to ourselves it is likely to lead to a lot of fairly useless self-castigation, and equally useless self-talk.  If we apply it to others we are likely to get a hostile response.  It may also mean that we don't pursue proper medical attention when we need it which can have fatal consequences. 

A surprising number of these positive-thinking 'practitioners' take their message one step further declaring that we create our own reality entirely, both the good and the bad, some going so far as to say that we even choose our own parents.  The implication of this is that if bad things happen to us it's our own fault.  These people would counter that it also means that we can then do something about them to make everything come right again.

My view is that taken by itself this attitude of total control shows a vastly inflated assumption of our own self-importance and abilities.  I now see this as a rather infantile attitude, one we are likely to have had when very young before the reality of further life experience set in.  While there are things in our lives that we can influence and control there is much that is dependent on a myriad of other factors which are well outside of that, like chronic illness and disability, for instance. 

Life is unpredictable: good things happen, but so do disasters, accidents and illness.  Those who don't have these experiences are likely to be fortunate both in having strong constitutions and exceptionally good luck.

Anyone who disagrees can open any history book at any place and see the wreck of suffering and disaster which occur all over the world all the time, impacting as much if not more so on very ordinary people, going quietly about their own business, while the tyrants of the world often rampage around unimpeded by what should be the immediate consequence of their bad behaviour.  

I used to read a lot of mind-body literature which I took very seriously.  I still own quite a few of these books.  Don't mistake me: there's some good and uplifting literature out there, but I hope you don't make my mistake and take it too literally.  If your efforts are not met with success these can too easily become the tools of self-judgement and failure.  

For me it has been vastly more helpful to accept my own very difficult situation for what it is, and to do what I can in small practical ways to improve things, to keep myself motivated and in good heart, to try to find answers of a more prosaic nature, without apportioning self-blame.

If I were to apportion self-blame it would be for my best qualities: loyalty, generosity, altruism, a strong work ethic, etc, and ... a rather large dose of naivety.  It's not my fault that people who were less than fair, honest and scrupulous took advantage of me.  What I needed to learn from it was to be a little more street-wise, that's all.  And to say NO a great deal more often than my inner mechanism suggests.

A study I read some years ago about women who had breast cancer examined their attitudes to their condition and whether positive thinking was helpful.  What the researchers found was that those women who had positive attitudes who did get better had a prognosis which indicated it was likely they would recover, whereas those who were depressed and unhappy about their condition had good reason to be concerned as their conditions were much more life-threatening.

In the article "The tyranny of positive thinking", by Dr Jimmie C. Holland, M. D., you will find a compassionate doctor's view of the harmful effect that the 'think positive' approach can have on cancer sufferers, as well as some sound comment and advice.

This article is in fact Chapter Two of her book "The Human Side of Cancer: Living with Hope, Coping with Uncertainty". She has generously made chapters one and two available on-line.

She quotes from Susan Sontag's book "Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors"
Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick.  Although we all prefer to use the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place. ... Illness is the night side of life, a more onerous citizenship.   
I include the link here to a particularly strongly worded review of Susan's book.  Look at the one which is entitled "This book changed my life".  Thank you Susan and Jimmie. 

Like Jimmie, I encourage you to follow your own natural bent for coping with whatever difficulties you have in whatever way suits you best.  Be yourself. 

Footnote: Regarding acupuncture I'm not recommending this treatment per se - practitioners and methods vary and the suitability of this method of treatment will be dependent on many things.  What I am saying is that that course of treatment with that particular practitioner was very successful for me. 


This is the end of Part 2. To go to the beginning of Part 3 click this link:
Part 3 ~ The Spiritual Wasteland ~ my personal reassessment

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