THE BLOG

Is Positive Thinking Undermining Our Health?

05/07/2014 11:05 am ET | Updated Jul 07, 2014

When it comes to diseases and health, we're obsessed with the physical side of things. We have to admit, scapegoats are convenient. If we can blame a specific bacteria, virus, chemical, or food for causing our illness, we're happy to get on board with the treatments, even lifestyle changes.

But when it comes to dealing with "our issues" (unpleasant emotions, events, or thoughts) many of us believe we should just sweep that under the rug and remain positive. "Keep calm and carry on," right? Unfortunately, this kind of attitude can have terrible consequences on our health.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not advocating that we express every frustrating, depressing, or anxious thought the moment it passes through our minds, far from it. Situations don't allow it, and it could bite us. But we need to acknowledge those distressing feeling in our minds and make a sincere effort to explore them, for the sake of our health. So called "positive thinking" for the sake of appearing "positive" isn't helpful. All those thoughts and emotions we sweep under the rug? They're still there. And if we continue to ignore them, they will find ways to remind us.

I see the effects of emotional suppression with patients regularly (and have experienced it myself). Many times my patients have had a thorough workup. Their blood tests and medical imaging might show some abnormalities, but still nobody is quite sure why they're having symptoms. If they have a diagnosis (they often don't), little effort has been put into treating them. Or their medications "aren't working." Sometimes these patients are written off, told "it's all in their head."

When any patient comes in, I need to get the basic history of their illness, but we can't just stop there and call it a day. I want to know the situational context of their illness as well.

Most patients are comfortable sharing their physical symptomology, but when questions get too personal, answers don't come as quick and easy. A patients' subtle signals can tell me there's more than meets the eye. It's tricky territory, but the exploration of tough questions is when healing occurs.

An Example: A 50-year-old woman with digestive problems and high blood pressure.

When Suzie* came in to see me, she reminded me of a younger version of my grandmother. She was cheerful, warm, and talkative. Without too much digging, she told me she had painful digestion, bloating, and some other (not so nice) symptoms daily for over 20 years. In addition, her blood pressure was elevated, and she regularly suffered from migraines. After visiting her primary care doc, she'd been given two diagnoses: irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and hypertension.

She came away from all this with a prescription for anti-depressants and a medication to lower her blood pressure. She had a mild decrease in her blood pressure, but reported feeling more fatigue and emotional dullness since starting her medications. She wanted to know what else could be done.

At our first visit we addressed her physical symptoms. It was clear emotions were a component, but we needed to build rapport before we went there.

At her next visit, Suzie's IBS symptoms were significantly improved. This helped build rapport and she opened up. She revealed the trauma of her past and the stressful situations she was dealing with. She had been putting up an appearance of "being okay," even agreeable, with many things she was not okay with for a long time. Over time, those buried feelings took their toll on her health.

Together, we worked using some mind-body therapies (breathing exercises, and meditations) and her healing took off! For the first time in DECADES her daily digestive symptoms were gone, once for a period of six weeks. Her migraines became much less frequent, and she found she could often stop them in their tracks with a meditation she learned. Her blood pressure normalized, too. During the nine-month course I saw her, her IBS symptoms came and went every now and again, but never with the frequency or severity of what they were like before.

Examples like these point out why "positive thinking" can undermine our health. Simply ignoring uncomfortable thoughts, events, and emotions, and replacing them with "positive" ones suppresses our actual feelings. It inhibits therapeutic moments, and actually has an opposite effect.

It takes some courage to get to the point where it's okay to feel anxious, sad, angry, and other "negative" emotions. It takes even more courage to look at emotions and understand where they came from. Feelings should be transitory, and experiencing a full range of human emotion is normal. A wise teacher once told me, "The degree to which we resist is the degree to which we suffer."

Let's not avoid one whole side of that spectrum of emotion, just to put off the appearance of being positive. Let's live as authentically as we can, for the sake of our own health, and the health of those around us.

In health,

*Patient details have been changed to protect their privacy.