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Why 'Healthy Coping' Is Better for Our Health Than Positive Thinking

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“Keep thinking positively!”

“Keep your chin up!”

“Stay strong!”

These are some of the most common cliché responses we hear from people in society on a regular basis. They aren’t incorrect responses, and are often made with the best of intentions. However, when the people telling us to “think positively” actually believe this is truly how we handle the horrible pain, illness, and crushing losses that accompany long-term illness, then this type of encouragement can have a negative fallout.

When I was diagnosed with chronic illness, I was more terrified than I ever have been. My treatments were only failing, and my life no longer seemed like my own, but instead belonged to this foreign illness taking it over. My close friends and doctors would remind me, “You’re the most positive person I know,” or “Keep thinking optimistically,” as their main sources of inspiration. Were those words uplifting over time? No, not really.

In the end, this attempt at encouragement can further add to feelings of isolation, making us feel deflated, even invalidated.

So why doesn’t reminding us to stay positive empower us to become more positive, hopeful, and optimistic?

Would you say, “Suck it up,” to a friend who is grieving over the loss of a parent? I certainly hope not. Essentially, this is the same idea surrounding the “positive thinking” movement. The more we “hurry up and get over it,” the better off we’ll be for projecting a positive attitude, and the stronger we are for it in the long run.

Unfortunately, our bodies work exactly the opposite of this construct.

The more we avoid our pain and repress our emotions, the more likely our bodies are to rage against us later on, causing further mental and physical health challenges.

Those of us with chronic diseases do best when we minimize stress; we know this from numerous studies, and we can all attest to the impact stress can have on our health.

It’s common for people to refer to feelings like anger, loss, fear, guilt, or regret as “negative emotions,” but I don’t like to think of them as “negative.” Labelling them with negativity implies they’re bad for us when most of the time, they aren’t.

It’s a normal, healthy response to feel immense loss after a diagnosis of chronic illness.

In psychology, the grief of losing health has been likened to a death of a close loved one or a divorce. I’ve faced all three and can tell you, that’s true!

It’s normal to be angry and broken hearted when people in our lives walk away. If you’re frustrated when your body isn’t behaving like it should, that’s completely normal.

These feelings are healthy, and warranted, even if we don’t like them. Minimizing those feelings, invalidating them, or suppressing them is how we get into trouble.

If you watched “Seinfeld” as religiously as my family did growing up, then you may remember the episode called, “Serenity Now, Insanity Later.” In this episode, George’s father deliberately suppressed and ignored any stress for the benefit of “serenity now,” even though he acknowledged there would be severe consequences in the long run. When I hear someone say they’re going to think positively instead of concern themselves with an upsetting situation, I tend to think of George’s father.

Minimizing stress isn’t the same as suppressing the stressful feelings.

For example, when a doctor says to a patient, “You need to cut out some stress from your life,” they’re advising you to edit something stressful out of your life, or include a stress-reducing activity.

Healthy coping means we give our fears, anger, stress, regrets, and grief permission to be felt. Our feelings won’t allow us to abandon them, and we know that trying to do so only causes added pain down the road.

In positive thinking, saying, “Yes, I’m doing fine,” may make others more comfortable temporarily, but is it healthy for us, or for our relationships? Society’s positive thinking mentality encourages us to become more closed off and isolated, especially after a crisis.

I realized that my friends were more comfortable when I avoided sharing how I was doing, but many of my relationships were only sitting at a surface level. I know my friends realized everything was far from “fine,” but it was as though we all took part in a ritual of pretending everything was wonderful because it was more comfortable than confronting the difficult reality.

We have immense pressure on us from our family members, friends, even physicians to put on a happy face for the sake of decorum. Many of us haven’t had practice sharing something so personal.

One study reads, “Healthy coping differs from the popular notion of ‘positive thinking.’ It implies the capacity to tolerate and express concerns and emotions, not just the ability to put anxieties aside.”

Most likely, those around you are feeling helpless to your situation, and would like to be there for you somehow, but don’t know what they can do – or if it’s appropriate to ask. Being specific in our needs can help us find our own voice, and being more open also helps others who care about us join in on our “support team.”

Fair warning, most people don’t know how to respond appropriately. People may not know what to say but you might be surprised who is game to show you they can be there for you in big or small ways. In being more open, you may also find that your example sets off a chain reaction in others to become more open with you in turn. Healthy coping is far more contagious than positive thinking, because it encourages support, connection, and community.

When I was researching positive thinking, I wondered if optimism was the same, so I read the book, “Learned Optimism,” by Martin Seligman. Optimism is different because it encourages letting go of guilt, and looking to the past, present and future without seeing yourself as a burden. Optimism always looks toward gratitude. Healthy coping and optimism go together hand-in-hand.

Healthy coping requires us to lean into how we’re feeling (both physically and emotionally), check in with ourselves periodically, and then make minor adjustments to our lives to course-correct for better balance. This may mean that you need more rest, more exercise, to spend more time with friends, or to visit a different doctor. You may choose to talk to a psychologist, open up to a good friend, read a self-help book, eat differently, spend more time focused on your spiritual life, join a community church, volunteer, or become active in a support group, etc.

Chronic illness requires us to make these adjustments frequently instead of ignoring our mental health, and assume everything is going to work itself out. Since becoming chronically ill 13 years ago, I have learned that my mental health requires just as much care as my physical health does.

Healthy coping is the more deliberate, mindful path – it’s the path of self-care.

To begin making these adjustments, we can ask others questions like, “How are you?” instead of, “Are you OK?”

A yes or no question forces us to choose only negative or positive, however, healthy coping encourages others to share and touch base with one another. These are the building blocks on which support and compassion are built.

We don’t have to choose sides.

In my own journey with chronic illness, I try not to polarize my days between good or bad,  black or white, suffering or overcoming. Instead, I work to find balance every day. I try to learn from my body and those around me, and do the best I can now, in this moment.

Follow this journey on A Body of Hope.

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Image Credit: Elizabeth D’Angelo

Originally published: November 28, 2017
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