The Power of Positive Thinking

July 27, 2001 -- When you suffer a heart attack, get diagnosed with a chronic medical problem, or undergo surgery, your attitude can go a long way toward determining how well you will recover. It sounds like a cliché, but researchers say the "power of positive thinking" really works -- even though they're not exactly sure how or why.

Finding scientific evidence to explain why positive thinking helps people in their recovery isn't an easy task, says Donald C. Cole, MD.

He examined 16 published studies in which researchers looked at the relationship between a patient's beliefs or expectations about his or her health outcome compared with the actual outcome. The medical conditions of the people being studied included heart attack, back pain, surgery, mental health problems, and obesity.

In 15 of 16 studies, people with the more optimistic outlook had the better results when it came to recovery.

Cole, a senior scientist at the Institute for Work and Health in Toronto, says the evidence appears to be strong enough to suggest that patients with negative attitudes -- such as anticipating complications, difficulty returning to work, or believing they won't ever feel like themselves again -- should be targeted for support and counseling.

"There certainly is some evidence that ... psychologists can help people think about the positive things they can look forward to ... or work toward, rather than just the negative aspects," Cole tells WebMD.

He says people who don't have adequate support from family or friends should be made aware of options such as local support groups.

His report appears in the July 24 issue of the Canadian Medical Association Journal.

One reason positive thinking helps is because it provides a feeling of control over your health and your future, says clinical psychologist Elizabeth Carll, PhD. And the more you know about what to expect, the more control you will feel.

"Obviously, fear of the unknown can create anxiety," says Carll, who practices in Long Island, N.Y. Doctors and nurses can help reduce anxiety by telling patients upfront what can be done if problems or complications arise and reassuring them that their situation is not hopeless, she says.

"[Positive thinking] also helps improve compliance with treatment [plans]," she says. Failure to follow such plans is a major cause of poor recovery, she tells WebMD.

Cole says more research is needed to determine the most effective ways to help patients get into a positive frame of mind about their recovery -- and to stay there.

"Often it's a matter of [doctors or nurses] saying, 'Yeah, you may fear this or that, but what can I do to help you?' " he says. "Often that's what people need to hear."