Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Positive Psychology

Here's a re-issue of a past blog. Optimism is powerful stuff!

One of the ways I am improving my acupuncture practice is through the use of Positive Psychology.  Most days, I see patients who have all manner of health problems aggravated (and sometimes caused) almost entirely by stress.  IBS, anxiety attacks, migraines, depression, pain of any and all types, PMS, hypertension--any health problem can be rendered worse by stress, worry, disappointment or frustration, and many problems can actually be caused solely by your mind's interpretation of the events around you.

Positive Psychology is a branch of psychology that seeks the ways people are happy and mentally healthy instead of focusing study on how people can be mentally unhealthy. 
Subjects include optimism, use of exercise and proper diet, specific outlooks and exercises that promote mental well-being, and studies to determine which methods yield the best result.  Everything from married life to work life to the way people cope with obstacles are discussed.

I am not a psychologist, and hold no degree related to the field of psychology, so my steps into Positive Psychology are purely as they intersect with Chinese medicine and my own personal philosophy.  But I have found many of the ideas that come under Positive Psychology helpful in my life and the health of my patients.  Here are a few of the best tips I use:

  1. Change your thoughts, change your life.  Most people do not realize just how much they "talk to themselves" every day, nor do they realize how often this "self-talk" is negative or damaging.  Thoughts like "something always go wrong," "maybe I'm just not smart enough to be good at [name your desired activity]" or "I'll always be poor/sick/unattractive/alone" shut down happiness and creativity before they can even start.  Because these thoughts are usually repetitive, and have been in your mind a long time, you may not even be aware you use them. When you encounter an obstacle, listen to what you say to yourself.  If you don't like it, give yourself some better thoughts to counter the negative.  One of my poor self-talk phrases was "I have to" do whatever thing I didn't want to do.  While certainly I had obligations that needed to be kept, or proactive activities that I would be wise to pursue, phrasing them as "I have to's" certainly did not help me feel good about how I spent my time.  I began consciously changing that phrasing to "I choose to" do whatever it was I wanted to accomplish.  Immediately I felt a lift in energy.  Choosing something, even if it ends up having negative consequences, puts you in control.  You can always choose to change what you are doing if it doesn't work.  "I have to" implies you are trapped."
  2. Never use phrases that are images of poor health, or use poor health as a reason to avoid issues you need to address.  My father died when my mother was 54 years old.  At the time, she was in fairly good health, but she became depressed after his death, and began telling anyone who would listen that she "wouldn't live to see 60." She died a few months before her 60th birthday.  I had a patient once who said she'd "rather get a root canal" than have to do something the following week.  Although she had no dental problems that she knew of, she had to cancel her next appointment with me because she needed a root canal.  When I reminded her of her comment, she was surprised--she had forgotten about her remark.  I also had a patient I treated for migraines.  The day she said she was pain free for the first time in 40 years was the last time I saw her.  She had family issues, and the only way she knew of to get away from her family stress was to lock herself in her room when she had a migraine.  When our treatment helped her migraines, she had lost her escape hatch.  I do not believe all illness has a direct link to our words; however, I have seen to many cases where people's health problems were so exactly like their words or mental outlook that I do not believe it is always coincidence. Look at what you say when you are stressed--are you "torn up inside?" Are stresses a "pain in the neck?" Do things "make your blood boil?" Look at your health problems--hypertension, chronic pain, and chronic digestive ailments all respond to stress, and I've seen plenty of indications that stress alone can be the cause of many chronic problems.  While changing how you describe your problems may not cure your ills on its own, being more mindful of how you see your problems will certainly help your body's reaction to them. Here are some more information and ideas on improving your skills at optimism.
  3. Remember your body responds to food on both a physical and emotional level.  I am very sensitive to corn syrup, especially in sodas.  On the very rare occasion that I have one, I usually spend the next day feeling grumpy, anxious, irritable, and depressed.  At the time, all my reactions seem completely rational and correct, and it is only in hindsight I realize I was responding to reality from a chemically changed body. I often see this phenomenon in my patients as well.  Many times a patient will be doing well with emotional symptoms, and then go out of town and eat differently than they are used to.  I am rarely surprised to hear that everything in their life is going wrong, and that they don't believe their treatment with me is helping at all.  When I remind them of the improvement they reported in the usually recent past, they are surprised because their emotions of the moment are so strong they can't remember when they were better.  When I ask them about their diet over the preceding 2-3 days, usually they've had something overly processed, overly sweet, or with artificial ingredients like sucralose, food coloring, or nitrates.  I tell them to eat healthfully for a few days and get plenty of water, and to see how much their outlook on life changes.  If you have emotional symptoms and feel you have dealt with the big emotional issues in your life, look at your diet.  It may be the key to improvement.
  4. Moderate exercise is your friend. People who exercise regularly know that a few days off from their workout routine will leave them cranky, stiff, and frustrated with life.  For those who do not exercise regularly, it is often a surprise how good a walk can feel, and how much the stress of day-to-day life dissipates with a little movement.  In Chinese medicine, we call those frustrations "qi stagnation" and say that even gentle exercise can move the "stuck" energy and improve your health.  You don't have to run a marathon (indeed, such overexertion can sometimes deplete your reserves to a point that it isn't healthy); a walk around the block or a quick swim can be enough.
Positive Psychology can be a useful tool to improve your outlook and your health.  I encourage you to monitor and change negative self-talk and the way you describe your obstacles and stressed, and to eat and exercise healthfully.  Please feel free to comment if the article inspires thoughts!  

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