Is the world flat? Round?
Are people inherently good? Bad?
Are the odds stacked again you? Or in your favor?
Is the solution waiting for you? Or is it hopeless?
Science has shown us that what we believe and think from moment to moment and year after year have a profound influence on our lives and health. Studies have shown that the placebo effect is real, that thinking positively improves outcomes and broadens our mindsets allowing new possibilities, and that the nocebo effect and negative emotions have the opposite effect.
Lets look at how this might play out in someone – let’s call her Sally – who has chronic pain.
Sally has back pain that is slowly getting worse year after year. She has been to her doctor who never had a good explanation for the pain and only treatment plan was pain medication. Over the last couple months the pain has become unbearable and during a consultation with a new doctor, a battery of tests shows moderate stenosis, degenerative disc disease and arthritis in the lower back – all findings never mentioned before.
Negative emotional response: Sally could react with anger towards their previous doctor for never ordering the tests that would show these changes were happening and never figuring out what was causing the pain. Sally could also react with fear about being diagnosed with “scary” things like stenosis and a “disease”. Sally might also feel sadness and grief related the idea that this diagnosis will lead to disability and an end to the activities that have also brought her joy – golf, hiking, gardening.
These emotions are known to fuel other anxiety disorders and chronic stress that in turn create more negative feelings. And these emotions and feelings are linked to immunosuppression, loss of productivity, heart disease, cancer and even suicide. We also know these negative emotions can cause Sally to narrow her mind and focus her thought on one idea which can lead to paralyzation. Sally’s mind and body are in survival mode. To Sally the world is flat, people are inherently bad, the odds are stacked against her, and her future looks hopeless.
Positive emotional response: Sally could react with interest, contentment, and even joy toward the medical diagnosis. How and why? Let’s take a look. Interest is related to curiosity, wonder, and intrinsic motivation which means Sally wants to investigate and explore these new findings with an openness to new ideas, experiences, and actions. This intrinsic exploration has been shown to produce the ability to integrate and differentiate complex relationships and is the primary instigator of personal growth, creative endeavor and development of intelligence.
Contentment basically means accepting what is and not fighting with reality. To Sally this means being ok with the diagnosis and savoring every moment and day regardless of the diagnosis. Contentment involves full awareness of and openness to each and every experience as it happens and can create a new sense of self and worldview.
Joy might seem like the last emotion likely to be experienced by Sally in this situation but let’s explore it anyway. Sally might feel joy in response to the diagnosis because now she finally has an explanation for the pain after not knowing for years. Joy creates the urge to play, which is imaginative, unscripted, artistic, intellectual and inventive. Play is looking at what some might call an obstacle as an opportunity.
These positive emotions – joy, interest, and contentment – together create what’s called the broaden-and-build model. They broaden our mind and thoughts, build our intellectual, physical, and social resources and are the most enduring of emotional states. To Sally the world is round, people are inherently good, the odds are stacked in her favor, and the solution is waiting for her.
What set of emotions do you think will create the greatest possibility of Sally finding a solution to her chronic pain while at the same time giving her the perseverance, energy, and outlook necessary to overcome?