One of the more recent developments in neuroscience is in the area of neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to “rewire” itself in real time. Many studies have found that it is possible through cognitive therapy and other practices to ward off negative thinking, and to modify behavior by thinking away undesired habits.

In his book, “The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science,” Norman Doidge, M.D., argues that, in essence, the brain can be strengthened and trained for specific functions much like a muscle. He discusses case studies that show that the brain can rewire itself, even in the face of catastrophic trauma such as a stroke or head injury.

Writing for PsychCentral, Jane Framingham points out that “a load of evidence shows that your attitude about life can improve your health and even speed your recovery from a serious ailment or surgery. The attitudes that seem to help the most are optimism, hope, and, above all, a feeling that you have some impact on the quality of your own life.”

Part of that “load” of evidence is research conducted in 2001 by the Harvard School of Public Health, which found that a more optimistic outlook correlated with a lowered risk of heart disease in older men. University of Pittsburgh researchers report that optimistic women have less thickening of the carotid artery walls.

Research at the Teachers College of Columbia University found that neuroplasticity therapies can also benefit people with chronic diseases. People with chronic diseases may not be able to practice common health and mood-lifting activities such as exercise, “but they can help themselves by cultivating a positive mental attitude and practicing self-affirmation techniques,” according to new research from a team of investigators that includes John Allegrante, Deputy Provost and Professor of Health Education at Teachers College.

In this study, patients were taught to use self-affirmation techniques whenever they encountered an obstacle or unpleasant situation. The study found that after one year, 55 percent of coronary artery disease patients that practiced a positive attitude, or “affect,” and self-affirmations increased their physical activity compared with 37 percent in the control group. The positive affect group walked an average of 3.4 miles a week more than the control group.

The theory is that positive thoughts release chemicals in the brain that make someone feel better–happy thoughts increase happiness while sad thought increase sadness. A study of Parkinson’s disease patients found that “holding positive illness perceptions predicted better well-being.”

How do you generate positive thoughts when suffering? Shawn Achor, a Harvard researcher and author of The Happiness Advantage, recommends three practices for people with chronic illnesses that can help boost their mood and their health:

  • Every day for three weeks, write down three things that you are grateful for.  
  • Every day for three weeks, spend two minutes writing down a very detailed description of something positive that has happened to you within the past 24 hours. Since brains do not often distinguish between visualization and actual experience, this exercise doubles that meaningful moment.
  • Spend 15 minutes a day doing a fun, mindful activity such as gardening or going for a walk. According to Achor, performing such pastimes is the equivalent of taking an antidepressant with 30 percent relapse over two years.

According to Achor, these exercises can help rewire the brain for optimism. The same exercises might be used by caregivers, who can also struggle to remain optimistic and active while caring for a client or loved one. As Dr. Doidge’s work indicates, just like exercise, the optimistic thinking requires repetition and activity to reinforce new learning.

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