At first glance it would seem that the research findings on the impact of attitude upon health and disease are conflicting. For example in one Australian study of 170 cancer patients, it was found that those with an optimistic ‘fighting spirit’ were no more likely to survive their disease than those who felt burdened by it. However, another study of women with breast cancer found that women who felt helpless had a much greater chance of dying or relapsing in the five year period studied.
Looking more closely at these studies reveals that the issue lies not so much in apparent conflicting findings, but in the fact that the studies are not really comparable:
- Firstly, the first study looked at lung cancer and the second at breast cancer – the former is known to be, overall, a more aggressive disease with a poorer prognosis.
- Secondly (a key to the point of these studies) is that they seem to be looking at different things. The first looked at optimism compared to pessimism and the second looked at empowerment compared to helplessness – these are not the same thing. Optimism can be a form of denial or it can be a form of blind trust in an external cure – medicine, God, lucky rabbit foot, etc. In contrast, empowerment is about feeling some control and involvement over the situation through acknowledging it realistically and taking positive steps to influence the outcome. Therefore, in some instances, the studies described above could actually be looking at opposites.
Some researchers propose that the relationship between attitude and health is due to a function of the body’s psychoendoneuroimmunology (thankfully abbreviated to PENI) which is the interaction between the nervous system and the immune system. I suspect it could also be that, people who feel empowered are more likely to make the lifestyle changes needed for the best chances of recovery.
Whatever the reasons behind it, the growing evidence that it is the feeling of having some control over a disease which makes a person more likely to survive it has strong messages for both patients and practitioners.
From a patient’s perspective, it is not healthy to hand over all responsibility for treatment and recovery to the medics, God or whatever else your faith lies in.The best chances lie in being informed, and making wise decisions and changes about treatment and lifestyle options.
From a practitioner’s perspective, it is in the patient’s best interests to involve them in discussions about treatment and therapies and make clear what they can choose to do to have a positive impact. Wherever possible, patients need to be enabled to make choices and decisions about their treatment and lifestyle – even if these are not traditional ones.
Complementary therapies, including hypnotherapy, can work well alongside modern medicine and have been shown to provide benefits for patients who choose them. Whatever your view about the merits of various complementary therapies, the fact is that they provide a way for patients to make choices about parts their overall treatment which can sit comfortably alongside the sometimes more difficult and unpleasant aspects of medical treatment. By recognising this, it might be easier for some of the more sceptical medics to accept the benefits of integrated healthcare. A therapeutic relationship between patient and doctor/therapist which is based on mutual respect, informed decisions and consensus can only benefit both sides.
For a fascinating read and an update on some of the latest research into the biology behind the body-mind connection, read the fascinating book How Your Mind Can Heal Your Body by David R Hamilton PhD.