Tuesday, March 15, 2016

About that positive attitude

Quick update before my thought for the day: I'm feeling a little better every day. The red burn is fading and turning to brown, which I suspect will all peel, but new skin is growing underneath so it won't be so painful as when I was getting blasted every day. Under my arm is MUCH more comfortable, and it doesn't hurt to move my arm anymore. My energy is returning; I went to tango on Sunday (danced two tandas, which is a total of six songs) and walked 1.7 miles this morning and didn't feel exhausted after. However, it's hit and miss--last night we went shopping at three different stores, and I was wiped out. I'm enjoying learning piano, and my first tap class is tonight. I'll probably go back to teaching pretty soon, although I'll keep my schedule light for a while.

Throughout this whole ordeal, people have commented on my positive attitude. I thought I'd talk about that a bit today. Several people said it's been shown that people tend to have a better outcome if they have a positive attitude. I don't want to get into whether positive thinking can actually cure you, because that's a huge, controversial subject and one I'm not qualified to discuss. But I can talk about how it affects me.

When I am miserable for whatever reason--I'm running 20 miles in the heat, I'm sick, I'm at a party where I don't want to be, etc., my attitude may not affect the actual situation, but it absolutely changes how I feel about the situation. If I stew in my feelings of misery, telling myself how awful things are, I am unhappy. It's like a negativity spiral: I'm in a bad situation, so I think about how bad it is, so I feel bad about being there, and that causes more bad things to happen. By contrast, if I resolve to make the best of it and look for reasons to be happy, I feel happy. Maybe that happiness then causes good things to happen, so now it's a positivity spiral. The situation didn't change, but at least I'm happy while I'm in it.

One of my favorite examples of this is when I was training for the marathon I did in 2014. About a month before the big event, I did a 20 mile race. So, first of all, that was the longest I'd ever run, so it was already a challenge. I didn't prepare well for it as far as hydrating, fueling, and getting enough sleep for the few days before (in fact I ate really awful food the day before, including jalapeno poppers), so I wasn't in a good position going into it. Finally, it was in early November and we'd had several weeks of cool weather and I had acclimated to that. Yet, on race day, it was quite warm which made things uncomfortable. So it was not an ideal race. Around mile 11, I started to feel nauseous. It might have been because I ate an un-tried flavor of energy gel, or maybe all the factors I listed above, but in any case I wasn't feeling too well. I started feeling sorry for myself, telling myself how this was too hard, and maybe I couldn't do it, and how miserable was I? Things just kept getting worse, I kept feeling more and more sorry for myself, and it was overall a miserable, miserable experience.

Flash forward to the marathon, which of course is 26.2 miles so quite a bit further. For the week before, I was resolved to not repeat the experience above. I prepared my body better, but perhaps just as (or more?) importantly, I prepared my mind. I actually visualized myself running the race, talking myself out of negative thoughts. It's too hard! No it isn't, you trained for this. I hate this! No you don't, you're doing something you never thought you could do. I'm miserable! No you're not, you're fine. Get over it. I practiced that over and over, and on race day, that's exactly what happened. I'd start to have a negative thought, and I'd replace it with a positive one. And although I was damned tired and in pain by the end, I was never miserable. I was never unhappy. I never pictured lying down by the side of the course and waiting for the sweepers to come get me. Although the race was harder because it had more hills and was longer, I had a much more positive experience.

Having cancer sucked. Hard. Doing the treatments was terrible. There was no way around that. And on those days when I was really feeling sorry for myself and reveling in just how badly I felt, I was unhappy. But if I could break myself out of it--sometimes by posting here and typing the positive words and forcing myself to get in the right mindset--I actually felt physically better. More importantly, I was happy even though my body felt terrible. When I got to the radiation phase and had run out of the willpower to stay positive, I spent a lot of time being unhappy.

Some studies suggest that when you think positively, your brain produces chemicals that support your immune system, while being depressed makes you more susceptible to problems. Whether you believe that to be the case or not, the bottom line is: you can be sick and happy, or you can be sick and unhappy. Why be unhappy? When you look for reasons to be sad or offended or angry, you spend a lot of time being sad or offended or angry. When you look for reasons to laugh or smile, you spend a lot of time laughing and smiling. How do you want to spend your time?

For me, life is too short to be unhappy. I choose to laugh and smile.