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Affirmative Thinking: How Can It Help You as a Caregiver?

When you learn to accentuate the positive, your health and well-being can reap real rewards.

Positive Thinking at the Grocery Store

The philosopher and psychologist William James believed that by regulating action, we can indirectly regulate feeling. James, who is often referred to as the father of American psychology, wrote: “The sovereign voluntary path to cheerfulness, if our spontaneous cheerfulness be lost, is to sit up cheerfully, to look round cheerfully, and to act and speak as if cheerfulness were already there.”

The motivational speaker and author Louise T. Hay believed that “the thoughts we think and the words we speak create our experiences.” In her book You Can Heal Your Life, Hay wrote about the transformative value of present-tense positive thinking. She touted a steady diet of affirmations, including her typical daily recitation before the mirror:

Louise, you are wonderful, and I love you/

This is one of the best days of your life.

Everything is working out for your highest good.

Whatever you need to know is revealed to you.

Whatever you need comes to you.

All is well.

Can you really fake it ’til you make it, or should we dismiss this all as airy-fairy babble?

Research indicates that positive thinking can actually be very beneficial. Even when circumstances are impossible to change, or when caregiving challenges feel overwhelming, your physical and mental well-being can benefit from crowding out negative thoughts.

A few health benefits of positive thinking include:

Protection from heart attacks. People with a family history of heart disease, who also had a positive outlook, were one-third less likely to have a heart attack or other cardiovascular event than those with a more negative outlook, according to Johns Hopkins researcher Lisa R. Yanek, M.P.H. and her colleagues. The study also found that positive people from the general population were 13 percent less likely than their negative counterparts to have a heart attack or other coronary event. One theory is that a positive outlook may protect against the inflammatory damage of stress. Another factor may be that more positive people make better health and life decisions.

Longer life span. A study from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that women who were optimistic had a significantly reduced risk of dying from several major causes of death—including cancer, heart disease, stroke, respiratory disease and infection—over an eight-year period, compared with women who were less optimistic. Healthy behaviors only partially explain the link between optimism and reduced mortality risk, the study surmised. One other possibility is that higher optimism directly impacts our biological systems, said Eric Kim, research fellow in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences and co-lead author of the study. Additional research has tied optimism to longer life span and even “exceptional longevity,” or living to the age of 85 or beyond.

Boosted immunity. A positive attitude was shown to play an important part in healthy aging. A University of Queensland study followed 50 adults ages 65 to 90 for over two years and found those who focused on positive information were more likely to have stronger immune systems. Optimism appeared to enhance immunity at the other end of the age spectrum, as well, in a study of first-year law students by University of Kentucky researchers. Researchers there found that as each student’s expectations about law school waxed and waned, their immune responses followed.

Overall psychological and physical well-being. Positive thinking also contributes to lower rates of depression, lower levels of distress and better coping skills during times of hardships and stress, according to Mayo Clinic. Optimistic people are also believed to have healthier lifestyles. They tend to get more physical activity, follow a healthier diet and avoid smoking or drinking alcohol in excess, Mayo reports.                                                                                        

How can you make your thinking more positive? It can help to start small, by selecting one area of your life you’d like to be more positive about. Then build from there. Here are a few tips:

  • Practice replacing worrisome thoughts with images or verbal thoughts of positive outcomes, or even with positive images that are unrelated to your worries. In a study of people with generalized anxiety disorder, focusing on both forms of positive ideation worked to significantly reduce anxiety and worry.
  • Speak to yourself as you would to another person you care about. Positive self-talk is important. If you find that you’re thinking about yourself in a negative way, evaluate rationally what you’re thinking and then tell yourself what’s good about you.
  • Steadily train yourself to cut off negative thought patterns by blocking them with positive affirmations. This gradually enables you to stop thinking in a negative way and avoid getting swept up in a pattern of negative thoughts, according to life strategist and author Tony Robbins. “If you’re able to cut off a negative thought pattern before it gets out of hand, you can shift to recalling positive affirmations instead,” Robbins writes. “By training your mind to block negative thoughts with positive thinking, you’re steadily training yourself to stop thinking in a negative way. Fear won’t rule you anymore.” Robbins also suggests jotting down negative words you find yourself using throughout the day and writing a positive alternative next to it. Keep the alternatives in the back of your mind to use next time.
  • Avoid people who are negative. Surround yourself with positive people. Keep in mind others you admire—either famous people or those you know—who have used the power of positive thinking. Write down quotations from these people and look at them when you feel yourself spiraling into gloom.
  • Adhere to a healthy lifestyle. Aim to get a half hour of exercise every day, fresh air and nutritious food, all of which have mood-boosting effects.
  • If stress gets overwhelming, reach out for help, either from family members and friends or professionals. If you need breaks from caregiving, you may want to consider hiring an in-home care aide to bring some additional positive vibes to your loved one while you focus a bit on your own happiness.
  • Smile more. Having a grin on your face may not necessarily change your thoughts, but even a fake smile has been shown to reduce the intensity of the body’s stress response. Participants in a University of Kansas study who smiled during stressful tasks had lower heart rate levels after recovery from the tasks than did those who had held a neutral facial expression. This was particularly true for the study participants who held a genuine, or Duchenne, smile, in which the muscles around the mouth and eyes shape the smile. But those who held standard smiles, where only the mouth shapes the smile, also benefited.

There is no question that, especially today, you may feel you’re steering a boat in very troubled waters. When caregiving is added to the mix, the challenges can be even greater. Reframing your thoughts in a more positive direction can help you to navigate in a way that benefits your health and well-being and, in turn, that of your loved one.

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