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Prevents Disease, Accelerates Healing, and Enhances Survival

On May 28th, 1943, Lt. Louis Zamperini’s plane crashed into the Pacific Ocean while he and his crew were on a search and rescue mission to find other U.S. servicemen fighting in World War II.

For 47 days, Zamperini drifted in the Pacific on a life raft with no supplies, surviving on fish he’d catch and rainwater. On day 47, Zamperini was captured by Japanese forces and taken as a prisoner of war. He spent more than two years being interrogated, tortured, and fed a near-starvation diet that caused him to lose half his body weight.

As the war ended in the summer of 1945, Zamperini was released—surviving an insufferable 28 months against all odds.

Zamperini’s remarkable perseverance exemplifies a unique, often overlooked facet of our health: the power of a strong mindset.

Strong Mind, Strong Body

Research demonstrates that what we think when we’re facing dire circumstances is crucial in determining the likelihood of our survival.

In one 37-year longitudinal study that included prisoners of the Vietnam War, researchers found that optimism predicts greater resilience.

“Resilience, exhibiting intact psychological functioning despite exposure to trauma, is one perspective as to why some people who are exposed to trauma do not develop symptoms,” the authors of the study note.

According to Dr. Gayle Myers, an integrative medical doctor, “Resilience is the ability to bounce back from challenging or traumatic situations, to be able to adapt and overcome adversities and setbacks to emerge stronger.”

“It’s is a superpower that allows you to access your wellspring of tenacity,” she said.

While resilience is seen as an attribute of people who are psychologically flexible, recent research shows that greater resilience also produces greater physiological health.

Resilience “prevents the onset of disease, provides good health, facilitates and accelerates healing, and provides productive life and a sense of well-being despite chronic illness,” researchers wrote.

Though the exact mechanism isn’t fully known,  it appears that increased resilience decreases stress, which is known to exacerbate disease, prolong disease symptoms, and accelerate aging.

Glass Half Full

Scientists are beginning to comprehend the magnitude of mindset’s role in our health. In a study published in Psychological Trauma, researchers found that optimism predicts better health outcomes in prisoners of war, finding that it is a “significant predictor of positive physical and psychological health and that it also provides long-term protective benefits.”

These results parallel a larger body of evidence demonstrating positivity’s beneficial influence on our health. For example, In a study on a population of elderly subjects, researchers noted that dispositional optimism predicted less probability of mortality in general and of cardiovascular mortality in particular. In another study, researchers found that optimism predicts greater survival for patients with head and neck cancers.

Though these findings may be confounding to many inside and outside of the health care sphere, integrative doctors like Myers see the close connection between the mind and body and emphasize its importance.

“​​Optimism can generate more positive lifestyle choices to rebuild a better life with a greater purpose for why you survived,” Myers said.

Myers explained that positive thinking increases dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins, the “feel-good hormones” that lead to cell healing, reduced pain, and a greater sense of well-being.

She also pointed out that positive thinking rewires the brain’s neural pathways in ways that enhance focus, awareness of thought patterns, and emotional well-being to support recovery and health.

Resilience and Positive Thinking Are a Choice

After being freed, Zamperini wrote extensively on what factors influenced his own survival.

“Your mind is everything,” he said. “It’s like a muscle. You must exercise it or it will atrophy.”

And fortunately, research indicates that we’re capable of fortifying resilience.

For Zamperini, his survival hinged on his determination and motivation to stay alive. “The great lesson of my life is perseverance. Never give up,” he said.

Building resilience isn’t only self-rewarding, Myers added. “Seeing the greater purpose for the challenging experiences, the wisdom gained, and how you emerged stronger and more resilient helps to share that wisdom to teach and help others to heal,” she said.

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