NASHVILLE, Tenn. – We all know stress is harmful to our health. A
survey of 100 years of research indicates the impact of stress and
negative thinking is far more direct, and more preventable, than
previously documented. Survey author and Vanderbilt University
psychology professor Oakley Ray believes the evidence calls for a
fundamental change in how the medical profession approaches disease and
"Many people who come into a hospital do not have anything
biologically wrong with them," Ray said, citing a 1991 study in
Academic Medicine that found only 16 percent of patient complaints were
explained by biological disease. "We could save time and money by
having someone other than a physician early in the process talk to the
patients to define their symptoms and needs."
As described in Ray’s paper, humans have four interacting
information-processing systems: the mind or the functioning of the
brain, the endocrine system, the nervous system and the immune system.
The shared study of these four systems is called
psychoendoneuroimmunology, or PENI.
"Our thoughts, feelings, beliefs and hopes are nothing more than
chemical and electrical activity in the nerve cells of our brains," Ray
said. "How we think about life and living directly impacts our health.
Stress is a major way of upsetting important health-related systems,
such as the equilibrium between the body and a pathogen."
Ray cited four types of coping skills-knowledge, inner resources,
social support and spirituality-as having an impact on an individual’s
ability to successfully manage stressful situations and events.
The more an individual knows about their world, the number of
positive beliefs and assumptions they have learned, the quality of
their interpersonal relationships and their spiritual belief system are
all involved in their ability to successfully address the problems that
arise in their lives, Ray argued.
"Anthropological evidence suggests that beliefs and
expectations contribute to sickness and death, but, just as important,
beliefs and expectations also heal," he said.
As an example of this evidence, Ray pointed to research that shows
an optimistic way of looking at the world lowers the risk of coronary
heart disease and increases survival in some cancer patients. A 30-year
study and others cited by Ray showed a pessimistic attitude is
significantly associated with mortality.
Research also supports the phenomenon that individuals often seem to
delay death until a particular event occurs, and that for certain
individuals with some illnesses-such as coronary heart disease and
cancer-attitude can have a definitive impact. "It really is true that
the will to live is an important part of staying alive," Ray said.
Ray survived a fight with lymphoma in 1998, and attributes his
recovery to a combination of a positive attitude and medical treatment.
He emphasized that there is no magic, and that the effects of attitudes
on health-whether positive or negative-are through physiological
mechanisms. His first response on hearing the diagnosis of lymphoma
was: "What is the best medical treatment?" It was surgery and
"A positive attitude and optimistic belief system are an important
ancillary treatment for an acute medical condition," Ray said. "The
greatest long-term advantage is as a preventive measure-improving
physical health and delaying death."
The report was published in the January 2004 edition of American Psychologist.
The full text of the report is available online at http://www.apa.org/journals/amp/press_releases/january_2004/amp59129.pdf.
Media contact: Melanie Catania, (615) 322-NEWS