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Study Shows Why Mourners Become Victims of Illnesses

January 27, 1988|From BETTER HOMES AND GARDENS

The ancient Greeks believed health and happiness went together, and modern research seems to support the idea.

According to Better Homes and Gardens magazine, widows grieving the loss of a spouse have lower immunity to illness than people who are not grieving. Some researchers even say mental images can mobilize the body's natural defense mechanisms against cancer.

Optimism can help you fight off illness, says Christopher Peterson, associate professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. Peterson bases that on his studies of the last few years.

In one study, Peterson used questionnaires to divide his test subjects into two groups. People who thought they had control over their situations were labeled optimists. Pessimists expected the worst and saw themselves as victims.

Peterson found that, over the short term (a month to a year), a confirmed pessimist is twice as likely to suffer minor illness--the flu or a sore throat, for instance--as an unabashed optimist. Over a lifetime, a pessimistic attitude can lead to more disabling disease and an earlier death.

Peterson concedes no one is sure why there is a difference, but he has found that pessimists tend to abuse their bodies more than optimists. They smoke more, drink more and get less sleep, for instance.

Although an optimistic attitude is more helpful, changing an outlook on life isn't like changing clothes, Peterson warns. However, he says: "People can--and do--change their habits. And pessimism is a habit of blaming fate for your misfortune, of seeing our problems as hopeless."

To break this habit, Peterson advises finding a confidant. It could be a friend or a professional counselor: "You want a person who can tell you when you're not thinking straight about a problem. Look for someone who won't simply commiserate with you."

People learn with the confidant that most problems are solvable, and they need not worry about things they can't change.

To keep stress at bay, learn to relax on a daily basis, clinical psychologist George Everly says. Unchecked stress can build into tension headaches or other illnesses allied with stress: stomachaches, ulcers, rashes and high blood pressure.

Everly, a researcher at Harvard, has found all of these woes share a common connection: Each can be successfully treated by resetting the body's "stress thermostat." The more often one faces stress, the more sensitive one becomes to that stress. Smaller and smaller hassles set the heart racing and the blood boiling, leading to stress-related diseases.

Through relaxation exercises and changes in outlook, people can reset their stress thermostats, he says. Positive mental images can help a person perform under pressure, whether the person is making that clutch putt or pitching an idea to the boss.

Psychologist Sharon R. Walters has helped many athletes improve their performance. Walters uses imagery extensively in her practice. Each image re-creates an entire experience: the sights, sounds, smells and feelings. She had young figure skaters form images in their minds of judges and a crowd as they practiced.

"Visualization alone isn't enough," she says. "It is just as important to feel the emotions as to visualize the action. The emotions give you the magic spark, an extra burst of energy, and that confident edge."

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