Mind Over Matter: Can Optimism Change Our Disease?
As a poet myself, it warms my heart to have learned that Simon Armitage, the U.K.’s new poet laureate, has ankylosing spondylitis (AS). I know of few writers who have the disease, and to see someone like Armitage living and creating, despite AS, gives me hope.
I won’t lie: I’ve had some dark days, especially in the beginning, when I thought that the poorly organized and unedited content stored on my Google Drive would have to be published posthumously by my partner or friends. Firstly, I know that sounds vain. Secondly, AS isn’t directly associated with increased mortality risk, even if there are rare complications.
My point is that when you’re in pain, housebound, and take medications that have adverse side-effects, your drive, energy, and plans for the future can take a hit. So, although there’s no reason someone with AS should be sentenced to a life without creativity or productivity, it is still encouraging to see a prominent person living with a disease that is often misunderstood, even by doctors. We’ll take any PR we can get!
While reading about Armitage’s work, I found a 10-year-old article published in the U.K.’s The Independent newspaper. Following is an extract:
“He has talked elsewhere of poetry as a kind of healing. Twenty years ago, he was told he had ankylosing spondylitis, a condition in which the vertebrae can fuse and cause curvature of the spine. He had to give up sport and still suffers bouts of periodic pain. But he still walks tall, and is still super-productive and was told, on his last check-up, that the ‘nomenclature’ of his condition had changed. ‘There was a time’ he says ‘when I decided that I am not going to have this.’ Word made flesh. Word renaming flesh. It’s a wonderful symbolism, we agree.”
In the interview, Armitage said he is not a “person whose mood indicator rarely swings below the contentment line.”
Reading the article led me to thinking about whether our moods have an impact on our disease. Can it be that simple — that we simply decide that we’re going to win and not let the disease eat away at us?
I have always taken issue with this idea because it’s dismissive of the many people I know who suffer daily. You can’t just “happy” the pain away. Optimism is a tool, but it’s not a cure-all. And while I think that’s what Armitage meant when he said, “when I decided that I am not going to have this,” some people do blame disease on a person’s mindset. To them, I say: It’s not that simple!
On the flip side, there is evidence that the way we think has a direct correlation to how we manage our disease. Ellen Langer, author of “Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility“ and a Harvard psychology professor, believes that “if the mind is in a truly healthy place, the body will be too, so we can change our physical health by changing our mindset.”
It seems that adopting a position of optimism can help us to navigate the dark waters of illness. One study found that “Optimism may significantly influence mental and physical well-being by the promotion of a healthy lifestyle as well as by adaptive behaviours and cognitive responses, associated with greater flexibility, problem-solving capacity and a more efficient elaboration of negative information.”
A separate 2016 study of patients hospitalized after an acute coronary syndrome found that optimism was associated with improved six-month outcomes.
A few years ago, following my diagnosis, I fell into a black hole. I was depressed beyond words; I felt I wasn’t who I thought I “should be”. Once I started reclaiming my body in ways over which I had power — with physical activity, journaling, meditation, and rerouting of negative thoughts — I did feel better. My pain didn’t go away, but the optimism helped me to heal from some of my stress — thereby reducing my cortisol and pain levels.
I still have my bad days. I don’t believe optimism is medicine or that I’ll ever be free from pain. But I do try to look at what I’m dealing with through the lens of what I can control, rather than what I cannot.
Oh, and here’s a beautiful poem by Armitage about ankylosing spondylitis, by the way.
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