Positive attitude tips that can reduce heart failure risk

Teresa Tanoos's picture
Optimism can lower risk of heart failure.
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Looking on the bright side of things is not only good for your mood, but can also be good for your health by lowering your risk of heart failure.

In a new study, published in the journal Circulation: Heart Failure, researchers found that having a positive outlook may extend the lifespan of people with heart disease.

Heart disease affects over 5.1 million Americans, half of whom die within five years of being diagnosed. Among those diagnosed, over 80 percent of them are 65 years and older, which prompted researchers to launch a first-of-its kind study to investigate the relationship between optimism and the risk of heart failure in older people.

Accordingly, researchers from the University of Michigan and Harvard University joined forces, working together as they analyzed data from 6,808 older adults who participated in the Health and Retirement Study. The data analyzed included information on the participants’ health, background and psychological profile.

The researchers also considered other factors that could influence the participants’ risk of heart failure, such as biological and demographic factors, as well as chronic conditions and health habits.

After analyzing all the data, the researchers followed each of the participants for a period of four years, which is when they discovered that the participants who rated higher in levels of optimism were 73 percent less likely to suffer heart failure over the study period than those who were pessimistic.

The researchers explained that these findings confirm earlier studies that demonstrated how optimistic people were more likely to adopt healthier lifestyles that included eating healthier, exercising more regularly and implementing better stress management tools.

Study leader Eric Kim, of the Department of Psychology at the University of Michigan, said that recent research has also demonstrated how optimism can be systemically increased – and, when combined with a healthier lifestyle, could open the door to new strategies for preventing heart failure.

He also said it would be interesting in the future to test whether people who systemically increase optimism, and adopt a healthier lifestyle, start to adopt healthier behaviors while becoming healthier as a result.

Kim added that more research is necessary before such testing could occur, but he thinks it’s an intriguing idea. In the meantime, however, he also noted that being more optimistic is unlikely to cause any harm.

So how do you become optimistic, especially in the face of setbacks and challenges?

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It’s been said that “looking at the glass as half-full instead of half-empty” helps. But how do you get motivated to adopt a “half-full” perspective when you feel “half-empty”?

Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania has conducted numerous studies on pessimism as it pertains to how people perceive their failures. In this regard, his work has largely focused on whether people believe their failures are the result of personal deficits beyond their control, or mistakes that they can remedy if only they try.

Seligman’s research has found that pessimistic people tend to view their failures as personal deficits and are therefore more depressed, whereas optimistic people view failure as opportunities for learning that can help them perform better in the future.

Seligman’s research has also clearly demonstrated that it’s possible for people to turn their pessimistic thoughts into positive ones with some simple techniques that can result in positive behavioral changes that last long after they’re learned.

The key is to train your brain to defeat negative thoughts, which can be accomplished in two easy steps as follows:

Step 1. Stop negative thoughts in their tracks.

The more you allow negative thoughts to pervade your mind, the more they do just that. But keep in mind that most negative thoughts are the result of negative self-talk. In other words, they’re nothing more than “thoughts” – not fact. So when you start giving attention to your negative inner voice, stop and take time to immediately write down what it is you are thinking. Not only will writing out your thoughts help you identify negative and irrational patterns in your thinking, but it will slow down the process of negative self-talk by literally stopping it before it becomes a mantra of sorts that gets played out over and over in your brain.

To determine whether your thoughts are irrational or not, look for “all or nothing” words, such as never, worst, always and the like. The point is that if it seems like what you’re going through is always happening or never happening, chances are it’s nothing more than negative self-talk and not a fact. Rather, it’s just the brain’s way of naturally responding to what it perceives as a threat, not a fact about something that is actually happening.

Step 2. Replace the negative with positive.

Just as pessimistic thoughts can feed that negative inner voice of yours, so too can optimistic thoughts shift your attention away from the negative to the positive. You’ve probably experienced how this works on a good day when everything is going well and your good mood reflects it. But when you’re having a bad day, thinking positively is not so easy. Nevertheless, you can always find one positive thing that happened, even on a bad day, or you can at least identify something positive that is coming up, such as a movie to see or a delicious dinner to look forward to.

Just like the first step, you have to find something to replace negative thoughts with. As soon as you find a positive thought, focus on it – and even write it down so you can see how easy it is to allow yourself to focus on the positive, especially since negative thoughts tend to be nothing more than negative self-talk, not facts based on reality.

SOURCE: A Prospective Study of the Association Between Dispositional Optimism and Incident Heart Failure, doi: 10.1161/​CIRCHEARTFAILURE.113.000644, Eric Kim et al., published in Circulation: Heart Failure, 19 March 2014.

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