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THE POWER OF PURPOSE

Old age ain’t no place for sissies,” Phil Landfield blurted out as we commiserated about his ongoing battle with Parkinson’s disease. Landfield is a good friend and outstanding scientist. His mind is still sharp, but his body is becoming increasingly locked into slow and dysfunctional movements as his disease progresses.

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MAKING THE DECISION TO BE HAPPY

It is amazing how much of a difference perception can make in health and well-being. Eric is one of the inspiring people I have met who are managing their serious illnesses with courage and living meaningful, satisfying lives. I met him at a large conference on Parkinson’s disease where patients and support groups were learning about recent advances in understanding and treating the illness. Eric had participated in a clinical trial that involved surgery and receiving monthly drug infusions.

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BE HAPPY AND FLOURISH

Cecilia, a young office intern working during her summer break as a receptionist, was one of the happiest people you will ever meet. She had a radiant smile and a cordial, welcoming voice that was still pleasant at the end of a long day spent talking with clients, many who were very unhappy about their health.

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MAKING THE DECISION TO BE HAPPY

It is amazing how much of a difference perception can make in health and well-being. Eric is one of the inspiring people I have met who are managing their serious illnesses with courage and living meaningful, satisfying lives. I met him at a large conference on Parkinson’s disease where patients and support groups were learning about recent advances in understanding and treating the illness. Eric had participated in a clinical trial that involved surgery and receiving monthly drug infusions. He was 36 years old when he was first diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Seven years later he volunteered for the clinical trial we were discussing in a workshop at the meeting. While there were initial benefits, problems with his infusion site developed, blocking delivery of the experimental drug. He was now 50 years old and relying on standard medical treatments, which were helping with some symptoms. But like other patients, he knew the disease was relentlessly progressing.


Given the circumstances of contracting an increasingly debilitating disease as a young adult and having a promising surgical treatment fail for technical reasons, Eric had good reasons to be bitter, angry and frightened. He was not. Instead, he was an enthusiastic volunteer for one of the major Parkinson’s disease foundations, working with patient support groups to help others deal with the challenges they faced as the disease progressed. He talked with our workshop group about what would benefit patients participating in clinical trials and their families. His voice was muted and sometimes halting.

He needed some assistance from a family advocate at times to answer our questions. He made a compelling plea for better communication, working compassionately with families and explaining what the results meant when the study was completed.


I had a chance to talk with Eric several times during breaks in the presentations. He had a great sense of humor, was jovial and loved to talk about the proceedings and people there. As we stood in the large pavilion near the entrance, I asked Eric how he could stay so positive after all he had been through. He thought for a minute and then answered.


“See those doors over there?” he said, pointing to a large number of glass doors leading to the street. “I can choose how I feel when I walk through them. I can be happy or sad. I know being sad will lead me where I do not what to go. So I make the decision to be happy.”


The Power of Perception: Perception is our awareness and understanding of information coming in though our senses. It is a synthesis of what we see, hear and feel with our mind’s interpretation of what it means. Our beliefs drive our

reactions to these sensations. Our thought processes induce changes in our brain neurocircuitry, neurochemistry and function that affect body and mind. Seeing the world with a realistic positive attitude and perceiving opportunities, focusing on what you can realistically do – and doing it – does benefit one’s health and authentic happiness. This does not mean denying and failing to accept the realities of your situation, but remaining open-minded and staying actively engaged in dealing with the issues, as well as remembering you own your mind and possess the ability to choose how you respond.


Perceiving the world as basically bad with angry cynicism or fearfulness creates what has been called a Nocebo effect that can lead to a downward spiral into ever-increasing negative feelings and behaviors. The effects on health can be detrimental and even deadly.


As an example, the effects of perceptions about stress have been clearly documented. Stress is inherently part of living and is often high in our modern culture. As Hans Seyle, the discoverer of Bad Stress, emphasized in his writings, it is often not the stress itself but the individual’s perception of the effects of stress that can lead to serious health problems. In a landmark study, Abiola Keller and her colleagues at the University of Wisconsin analyzed the association between the perceptions that stress is bad for one’s health with the death rate over an eight-year period. Their data from over 28,000 Americans surveyed showed the premature death rate for highly stressed individuals believing stress was bad for their health was 43 percent higher than those also undergoing high stress but who believed it had little effect on their health. (1)  A large epidemiological study in Denmark adds strong support for the role of perception in increasing the risk for an early death. Anders Prior and his colleagues followed the association between perceived stress and dying in over 118,000 participants in the 2010 Danish National Health Survey. They found the number of premature deaths rose in a dose-dependent pattern to perceived stress. Their results were similar to those in the Wisconsin study, with a 51-percent increase in risk for dying for those in the high-stress-perceiving group. (2)


Power to Change: Change, as the old adage goes, is inevitable, except from a vending machine. The brain and body are changing daily in response to activities, experiences and innate biological processes. We possess the power to make choices that shape our perceptions, health and wellbeing. The choices Eric made in his life helped him live better and more meaningfully. First, he did not let his health problems, such as fatiguing easily, a muted voice or slowness in walking, isolate him. He was dedicated to remaining active socially and focusing on helping others. Eric kept up with the advances in treating Parkinson’s and followed regimens that helped keep his symptoms, including fatigue, under control. His sense of humor made him a joy to be around.


There are doors we need to walk through. Choosing to do so with a positive perception and focusing on what you can realistically do does benefit your health and promote authentic happiness. This does not mean denying and failing to accept the realities of your situation, but remaining open-minded and staying actively engaged in living – recognizing, as Eric did, that helping others greatly enriches your life.


Let me know what you think at dongash@khtnow.com.


Sources  


  1. Keller, A. et al. (2012). Does the Perception that Stress Affects Health Matter? The Association with Health and Mortality. Health Psychology 31:677-684. PMID:22201278
  2. Prior, A. et al. (2016). The Association Between Perceived Stress and Mortality Among People With Multimorbidity: A Prospective Population-Based Study. American Journal of Epidemiology 184:199-210. PMID:27407085

DON MARSHALL GASH, PH.D.

Don Marshall Gash earned his Ph.D. from Dartmouth College and did his postdoctoral training at the University of Southern California. He is a professor at the University of Kentucky, as well as a neuroscientist and inventor. Gash has published over 200 scientific papers and five drug development patents. He is also the business founder/partner for Independence Assistance, Avast Therapeutics and Neuroway (d.b.a. KY Healthcare Training).

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