Positive Thoughts. Positive Results
What if you could think your Parkinson’s symptoms away? There is evidence you can, at least to some degree.
Most people with Parkinson’s disease know firsthand that negative thoughts and stressful experiences can make their symptoms worse. Anxiety is clearly a factor in magnifying Parkinson’s symptoms.
Being significantly depressed is also associated with a faster Parkinson’s progression. One research study found that in a year, 67 percent of patients with major depression progressed to the next stage of Parkinson’s, while only 20 percent of the patients who were not depressed progressed to the next stage. (Both groups were initially of the same level of disability.) Being depressed is associated with a group of symptoms including low energy, sadness, and sleep and appetite disruption, but one of the central features of depression is negative, helpless or hopeless thinking. Counseling and psychotherapy can address negative thoughts, in part by helping patients balance anxiety and concern with alternate, more positive ways of viewing their situation.
But can positive thinking be utilized to improve your Parkinson’s symptoms? You may have heard about the woman with Parkinson’s who agreed to participate in an experimental brain surgery involving the implantation of embryonic tissue—and that she benefited dramatically from the surgery. Prior to the surgery, this woman had not been physically active for several years, but during the year following the surgery she was able to resume activities such as hiking and even ice skating.
When this individual agreed to participate in the study, she was informed that 10 of the 20 people receiving the surgery would have a “sham” surgery, meaning that there would be no actual brain surgery. This sham surgery— technically a placebo—involved drilling only partially through the skull and faking the surgery so that she (and her doctors) would believe the surgery could have been conducted.
You may have guessed by now that her only medical treatment was a partial hole in the head. In this study the clinicians saw significant improvement over all the patients’ pre-surgical baselines, even for those who had not had the brain surgery.
How does this happen? Is it that our beliefs about our limitations hold us back? Does negative thinking prevent us from attaining our best performance? Does positive thinking change the way our brains function? The answer to these questions is clearly “yes.” Studies with professional weightlifters has shown that individuals have markedly surpassed their personal best performances when they were deceived regarding the amount of weight they were lifting. If they thought the weight was lower than their highest lifted, they were much more successful. The opposite was also true; if it appeared they were lifting more than they ever had before, they were prone to fail—even with relatively modest weights.
So at what level do positive beliefs operate? In the October 2001 issue of Scientific American, an article on the placebo effect described how neurologists used a PET scan of the brain to estimate dopamine activity inside an area of the brain affected by Parkinson’s disease. Half the patients were given a shot of apomorphine, a drug that mimics dopamine, and the other half were given a placebo shot of an inactive substance.
In this study, the individuals who received the placebo released as much dopamine as those who received the drug.
Endless studies evaluating medical treatments have found that the placebo effect is significant and must be factored in when determining a treatment’s effectiveness.
As individuals, it benefits us to harness the healing powers the placebo offers; this process is certainly psychological in nature. The question we should all be asking ourselves is, “Do my thoughts and beliefs help or hurt my quality of life and functioning?” The next question should relate to the “how” of changing these thoughts and beliefs.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) addresses changing those thoughts and beliefs that tend to contribute to unnecessary and harmful anxieties, depression, hopelessness and helplessness. Much of the suffering that individuals endure is clearly optional, but these patterns are difficult to stop because we have practiced dysfunctional thought processes most of our lives. Practice makes permanent! It is difficult for individuals to catch themselves in the process, because the beliefs are accepted as “truths.” The CBT therapist helps to identify and replace these self-thoughts with more adaptive and objectively realistic selfstatements and beliefs. Most mental health professionals practice CBT in counseling.
In interviewing a potential counselor or psychotherapist, ask the question, “How do you help people change?” Then determine if the answer fits with your philosophy of change.
Quite possibly with the right guidance, you’ll gain some of the benefits associated with the placebo effect without having go through the medical treatment.
See Glass Half Full and article on laughter for more on positivity.
Author: Jeff Shaw, PsyD is a clinical neuropsychologist with the Booth Gardner Parkinson’s Care Center in Kirkland, WA.