Positive Psychology and Chronic Illness
Chronic diseases are becoming a bigger problem in our society. In fact, it is estimated that 70% of GP visits are concerning a chronic disease.1 There is a high co morbidity of chronic illnesses and depression and anxiety and recent research has suggested that the depression triggers chronic illness and that chronic illness exacerbate depressive symptoms.2 Additionally, women with a BMI of 30 or more are 50% more likely to experience depression at some stage within their lives. This makes diseases that contribute to weight gain even more of a strain on an individual’s mental health.3 Fortunately, recent research in the field of positive psychology has shed light on some tools that may help alleviate some of the symptoms of chronic illness.
As a society, we tend to focus on dysfunction and how to improve it. Dealing with chronic illness is no different and treatment is about ameliorating the negative symptoms. But what if, in addition to doing whatever can be done to reduce pain and discomfort, we focused on the strengths of the individual and what can be done to improve their wellbeing?
Often with chronic illnesses there are lifestyle changes we can make that will have a positive impact, but also sometimes because of the chronic illness, our mental state is such that we don’t have the mental resources to make the necessary changes. It’s a chicken and egg situation – we know that by improving our physical state we will feel better mentally, and we need to be in the right mental state in order to have the energy to make the physical changes.
So, what do we do? Fortunately, there are a number of things we can do that are relatively easy but have a huge impact on our mental state. For example, a recent Australian study found that gratitude is effective in improving the quality of life of those with chronic illness.4 The research found that gratitude, benefit finding and forgiveness all had a greater impact on quality of life than did the severity of the chronic illness, with gratitude having the strongest effect. Practicing the following positive activities increases positive affect, which improves quality of life.
Start a gratitude journal.
Before you go to bed at night, or as soon as you wake up each morning, take 5-10 minutes to write down 3 things you are grateful for. It’s important you do this at the same time each day so that it becomes embedded as a habit. This seems like a simple activity, but you may find after the first few days you struggle to come up with new things you are grateful for. The activity forces you to dig deeper into your daily experiences and reappraise events to find something to be grateful for. It may be as simple as the barista smiling at you when he handed your coffee, as your day had not been off to a great start and that cheered you up. If you feel up to it, you can take this activity one step further by doing gratitude visits. Here you tell the person you are grateful to, so you might tell the barista how he made your day. Not only does this make the person you are grateful to feel good for being appreciated, but you’d be surprised by how good it makes you feel. The findings of one experiment were that people who expressed gratitude were more optimistic and satisfied with their lives and had fewer physical health symptoms.5
As a society we’re so reluctant to forgive because we don’t want the person who wronged us to ‘get away’ with it. We want them to pay. We want them to experience our pain. But we can’t control what they experience. All we can control is what we experience and wasting any time at all on resentment has a hugely negative impact on our happiness. Forgiving is different from excusing what happened. You’re not saying it’s ok, you’re saying you forgive so that you can get on with your life. It’s not about them at all. The research shows that people who forgive are likely to be happier, healthier and more serene.6
In order to practice forgiveness, you can write a letter to someone you need to forgive. You don’t ever need to deliver the letter, though doing so will result in even greater benefits. Write in the letter what happened and how it made you feel, and how you continue to feel. Say what you had wanted to happen in the situation. Once you have it all on paper, express your understanding of why they did what they did and that you forgive them. This can be a very challenging activity to undertake so be kind to yourself if you are not able to complete it on your first attempt.
Try undertaking these 2 activities regularly for several weeks to determine if it helps with your happiness and if your chronic illness symptoms seem better able to handle. Remember that small steps, made over time, move mountains.
If you would like more help with improving your psychological wellbeing, please have a look at my health coaching services.
Note: I am not a medical professional and cannot provide advice on medical conditions
Veale, B. M. (2003) Meeting the challenge of chronic illness in general practice. Medical Journal of Australia. 179(5):247-9.
Chapman, D. P., Perry, G. S., & Strine, T. W. (2005). The vital link between chronic disease and depressive disorders. Preventing Chronic Disease,2(1)
Becker, E. S., Margraf, J., Türke, V., Soeder, U., & Neumer, S. (2001). Obesity and mental illness in a representative sample of young women. International Journal of Obesity Related Metabolic Disorders 25 Suppl 1():S5-9.
Eaton, R., Bradley, G., & Morrissey, S. (2013). Positive predispositions, quality of life and chronic illness. Psychology, health & medicine. 19. . 10.1080/13548506.2013.824593.
Seligman. M. E. P. (2002), Authentic Happiness. New York: Free Press.
Lyubomirsky, S. (2007). The How of Happiness. London: Penguin Books