“The Role of Belief in Chronic Illness” is a sponsored post. I have been given this product as part of a product review through the Chronic Illness Bloggers network. Although the product was a gift, all opinions in this review remain my own and I was in no way influenced by the company.
I’ve always known about attitude. My father was the ultimate model of a positive attitude when I was growing up. He taught me how a positive attitude makes for a better life experience. Whether by genetics or conscious adoption, I’m a positive attitude person and I’m grateful for it. It’s helped me a lot with managing my fibromyalgia. But what about the role of ‘belief’ in chronic illness?
Attitude vs Belief
Attitude is a perception. Belief is a position. Where attitude can influence, belief can change. I have struggled with belief, understanding on the surface the power it has. But full-scale adoption of positive belief-centred living has collided with my deep-rooted insecurities and my long-standing fear that something was wrong with me and couldn’t be fixed.
The lightbulb went on with a bang when I watched The Connection, a documentary by Shannon Harvey, about the mind-body connection in health. I was so sure for so long that something was wrong with me that suddenly there was. I have fibromyalgia, a chronic illness with multiple symptoms including widespread pain, overwhelming fatigue, suppressed immune system function and multiple environmental sensitivities.
Harvey – a former television journalist like me – skillfully painted a picture that’s pretty hard to ignore. What happens in the mind happens in the body and vice versa. If the body’s overstimulated stress response has the power to cause disease, the body’s natural relaxation response, when triggered regularly, has an equally impressive power to heal disease. Yoga and the inward-focused mindfulness that comes with it can be more effective than surgery in curing pain. Meditation is a sure-fire way to alter our DNA, cell structure and areas of the brain to make us less susceptible to disease in the first place, and to heal us after the fact.
But it was the documentary’s section on belief that struck me the hardest, like a whack upside the head. A friendly, loving whack, of course. It was suddenly clear there is a major role for belief in chronic illness. The simple – but often difficult – act of believing you are well, or that you can be well and will improve, alters neural pathways in the brain and literally helps make it so.
I recalled a recent conversation with a doctor here in Mexico. Over the course of a few months, I had seen him for several urinary tract infections, a shoulder injury, an issue with a swelling leg and a few other minor irritations. During my last visit, he said to me, “You’re much healthier than you think.”
I practically floated back to the boat (no pun intended, I had to walk on land to get there! :-)) with an unfamiliar and free feeling that I was healthy. Actually healthy!
This isn’t just woo-woo hippy dippy stuff. Harvey’s The Connection tells us that science is proving over and over again in study after study that if you believe something, it is much more likely to occur. Both on the upside and the downside.
The role of belief in chronic illness and our health outcomes is actually the placebo effect. Placebo has had a bad rap, as it is usually referred to as though we’ve “duped” by a doctor or other medical professional: slipping us a sugar pill and pretending it is something that can actually make a difference.
The truth is that this belief – that something is going to help us – is responsible for between 30 and 50 percent of the healing that occurs. That’s not pretending. That’s a fact.
One of the studies cited in The Connection involved post-operative pain and the administration of morphine. Turns out that morphine – a kick-ass narcotic commonly administered to those in the worst kinds of pain – is only half as effective when you don’t know you’re getting it. Half!
Role of Belief in Chronic Illness
Belief has the power to trigger our body’s healing response. It’s not likely going to do the healing job entirely on its own: we may still need the drugs and therapies and surgeries, depending which illness we have and how severe it is. But The Connection drove home for me the importance of belief in an integrated health approach, where we acknowledge and include the mind-body connection in our efforts to get better. Maybe a belief that we’re healthy can keep us from getting sick in the first place.
So: do you model a positive attitude and a belief that you can be healthy?