Do Optimism and Pessimism Impact Health Outcomes?

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Do Optimism and Pessimism Impact Health Outcomes?

The concept of something being “all in your head” has long been associated with imagining pains or illnesses. However, it may turn out that this statement may have more basis in fact than was previously thought. There have been numerous medical professionals who state that our mental state can profoundly impact our medical care. Ongoing studies and reports from those in and adjacent to the medical field support the benefits of a positive attitude about our health care. So does being optimistic about our treatment really help improve outcomes?

The Potentially Deadly Consequences of Pessimism

Evidence for being pessimistic or optimistic about your care having an effect has always been in the realm of anecdote. One example was Dr. Pauline Chen’s article, covering the unexpected results of treating a diabetic patient’s infection with IV antibiotics. All signs pointed to the outcome being a successful elimination of the infection. Instead, the patient experienced an aggressive and recurring infection resulting in multiple amputations. Every successive amputation removed a little more of the affected foot. Eventually, the patient began to unexpectedly lose weight and was put on nutritional support. All of these efforts proved for naught, with the patient eventually passing from complications.

Throughout the treatment, Dr. Chen had noted a particularly dour attitude in the patient. This observation ultimately led to her contacting the patient’s psychiatrist to ask if they were clinically depressed. The mental health professional indicated that a diagnosis of depression didn’t fit the patient. However, they were known to have a particularly pessimistic view of life. Stories like these often highlight the correlation that exists between pessimism, optimism, and medical outcomes. However, they only prove correlation. The actual cause of these trends requires deeper study.

What is undeniable is that there is a connection between the two. Ongoing studies continue to produce examples of our mental state affecting our health, such as:

  • Optimists tend to experience greater cardiovascular health. (Rosalba Hernandez, University of Illinois)
  • Optimists recover faster from myocardial infarction and bypass surgery than others.
  • Stress hormone and cancer levels are elevated in pessimists, while immune response is lower. (Edna Maria Vissoci Reichi & Co.)
  • Superior survival rates, reduced distress, and slower disease advance in optimistic HIV Patients. (The Unfortunate Consequences of Disbelieving in Free Will)

These results point to a definite link between attitude and our health. Optimists have long been known to have longer lifespans than those who are pessimistic. A nine-year study by Dr. Giltay showed that there was a 55% difference in death from general causes in optimists. This accompanied a specific 23% reduction in death from heart disease.

However, there is a significant point to consider regarding these studies. All of them were done with an eye to discovering if there was, in fact, a link between attitude and outcome. While the resulting data supports this assertation, it doesn’t create a causal link. A randomized study would be necessary to determine if there are habits that optimists have that differ from pessimists. Perhaps they exercise more, use drugs less, or have healthier diets or lifestyles than the average pessimist. These studies do accomplish setting the groundwork for future research to find the cause.

Mental Health Care Can Help Improve Your Outlook

If you have a dour outlook on life and want to reap the benefits of being optimistic, there’s good news. Studies of patients undergoing mental health treatment have shown that it’s possible to change your outlook. Mental health practitioners have techniques that can help you take a more positive outlook on life.

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April is the founder of Prestige Mental Health and is a board certified psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner (PMHNP-BC) who is qualified to practice primary care and psychiatry. She is passionate about providing quality, compassionate, and comprehensive mental health services to children, adolescents, and adults. April specializes in psychiatric illnesses including but not limited to depression, anxiety, ADD/ADHD, PTSD/trauma, bipolar, and schizophrenia.