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Recovering From A Health Setback

Shannon Harvey

A few weeks ago something happened that knocked me for six. For the non-Aussie person reading this blog it’s the best expression I can find to describe an event triggering feelings of sudden unexpected grief that brought everything to a stop. It’s a phrase that refers to the game of cricket where the ball is hit out of the park without touching the ground.  

I had sleepless nights and anxious days. I reached for comfort foods and returned to old habits. What followed shortly after was a familiar and somewhat scary physical response. I felt flat, exhausted and foggy during the day. My lower back and hips started aching. My muscles became tight. Pretty soon I realized I was experiencing the arthritic inflammation throughout my body that comes with having an autoimmune disease.  I wasn’t surprised at the return of my symptoms, but I was worried. I wondered if I would need to start seeing doctors again and dreaded the thought of more waiting rooms and medical prescriptions in order to ward off the attack of my immune system on my own body.  

Since I released my film about the connection between our mind and health, I have received many emails and comments from people like me who have a chronic illness and are searching for answers. A common question I get is what we should do when our health takes a turn for the worse, despite the fact we are already doing everything in our power to look after ourselves. My style is to seek those answers in the form of modern science and this week, I looked at research on how our mindset may influence our resilience and ability to recover from a setback.  

A review of recent evidence indicates that positive emotions help buffer against stress.  We also know that people who are able to regain and maintain positive emotional states are less likely to get sick or to use medical services when faced with stressful events. According to studies like this, the tendency to maintain positive emotions also helps buffer against the advancement of disease and death.  

But while there is a growing body of work linking positive emotions to positive health outcomes, and also linking positive emotions to better resilience, I was keen to do a deep dive into how these positive emotions might influence our health and ability to recover beyond the simplistic explanation that people who are happy and positive look after themselves more. I wanted to know if encouraging positive emotions, even in times of hardship, would actually influence my physical health in the short term.  

I came across the work of Dr. Barbara Fredrickson from the University of North Carolina; a leading psychologist who is interested in finding direct evidence that positive emotion can aid biological recovery from stressful events.  In one study, Fredrickson and her team brought 57 undergraduates into a lab. They had been assessed using a scale for their natural resilience tendencies and were strapped up to physiological sensors to measure things like their heart rate.  

After spending five minutes getting used to their surroundings, they were told that they would be given one minute to prepare a three-minute speech on a yet to-be-determined topic. The participants were then asked to assess how they felt about the up coming task. As was to be expected, the participants reported raised levels of anxiety and this was reflected in physiological measurements such as raised heart rate.  They were then told that their speech would be on the topic of “Why You are a Good Friend” and after a short time, they were finally informed that they wouldn’t have to deliver the speech after all.  

There are two interesting findings from this study. One is that resilient people who experienced positive emotions had faster cardiovascular recovery compared with less resilient people who had relatively less positive emotions. 

The second interesting finding is that people who rated themselves at the beginning as having high abilities to rebound from stressful events also demonstrated this physiologically by quickly returning to baseline levels in measurements. It’s an exciting finding because it indicates that the mindset involved with resilience is reflected in the body as well. If our mind believes we’ll recover, our body does too. There are of course varying to degrees to which this is possible, and this study focused only on cardiovascular measurements, but needless to say, I’ll be turning my attention to the role of belief in our health in future posts.  

I think it’s important to note that this research is not indicating that the key to our health woes lies in glossing over negative emotions. In fact, in Fredrickson’s study, the high-resilient participants still experienced high levels of anxiety and frustration, but they were able to experience positive emotions even amidst these negative emotions. The resilient person isn’t papering over the negative emotions, but instead is letting them sit side by side with other feelings. There’s no reason we can’t be sad about something at the same time as being grateful for another thing.  

I’ve written in the past about how I view my health as an ongoing journey, or to put it another way, to see this as an evolution rather than a revolution. After taking the advice of Professor George Jelinek who is featured in my film because of his remarkable recovery from Multiple Sclerosis, I’m careful to use the word recovery and not cure. The word cure implies it’s done and dusted. Recovery means an ongoing process. While I may have positive, optimistic blood tests one month as I wrote about here, I’m aware that how I feel both in the short term and the long term is ever changing based on complex interactions of everything from the amount of sleep I get, to the environment I’m in, to the nutrients I put in my body and the emotional turbulence of being human. I also recognize that I have a genetic predisposition towards having an overactive immune system and I am grateful that I live in a modern time where if the illness becomes progressive, there are medical options for me to explore.  

As for my own recent setback, I felt flat and empty but I kept up my meditation and yoga practices. To be honest, sometimes this helped but sometimes it didn’t. Although it was the last thing in the world I felt like doing, I also kept writing in my gratitude journal and for a few minutes a day at least, I felt better. Based on my research into the  effectiveness of gratitude, I knew it would help in the long run. Knowing the importance of community, I reached out to my close friends and family. I accepted their support and kept nothing bottled up. My mindfulness practice also remained strong. In the weirdest way, I was mindful of my fog. Soon it cleared and was able redouble my efforts to eat well, get to bed early and stick to my healthy habits

As I write this piece I feel well and I am grateful that this recent flare up seems to have passed relatively quickly.

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