Optimism Rules The Day

Illness perceptions negate healing efforts

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Those labeled a “hypochondriac” by family and friends may have to hide from evidence for the defense. Emerging research suggests that our thoughts on illness can significantly effect how we end up feeling.

The study further implies that many people’s views on their illness negatively impact their general health more than the illness itself.

"Don’t worry, be happy, and communicate with your doctor."

Published in the February issue of the journal Psychological Science, Keith Petrie, Ph.D., of the University of Auckland, acted as corresponding author on the study. Dr. Petrie analyzed past studies and literature to determine that perceptions on health and the healthcare process influences the healing process.

Simply put, illness perceptions are the patient’s thoughts regarding their illness and all that comes with it.

They’re what the individual thinks about how the illness was caused, how long they expect it to last, the effect of the illness on the people around him or her, how the illness affects him or her, and what possible treatments and cures exist.

People tend to hold themselves accountable for their health, which can cause psychological distress when their system falls out of balance.

Dr. Petrie analyzed studies that incorporated an assessment of a patient’s reaction to changes in their illness. One involved potential heart disease patient’s awaiting their coronary CT results to determine whether or not they have the disease.

The patients awaiting this potentially life-changing news were largely pessimistic. Petrie notes, “Patients generally prepare themselves for an unfavorable diagnosis, indicated by higher levels of concern and perceived consequences in both disease and non-disease groups.”

When the outcome was favorable and the patients did not have heart disease, the patient’s concerns drop immediately. More specifically, they tend to attribute their good fortune to “their ability to control the disease,” explains Petrie.

To better understand the relationship between thought processes and disease outcomes, Petrie analyzed a subsequent study on 269 first-time heart attack patients. The research discovered that those developing depression after their heart attacks typically believed that their heart disease could not be cured.

A look into several additional investigations unveiled that patient’s negative ideations about their illness hinder recovery time and increase the likelihood of further disabilities.

He believes doctors should ask patients for their opinions on their illness in order to clear up any misconceptions the patient may have. He states that a prescribed treatment that does not consider the opinion of the patient will likely fail.

“Illness perceptions can be measured using questionnaires and also assessed in patients’ drawings, which readily show how an illness is visualized.” They “change rapidly in response to diagnostic results and have been associated with emotional distress, recovery, and disability, as well as with treatment-related behavior such as adherence.”

The authors suggest that incorporating the beliefs and understanding the perceptions of patients is critical to effective treatment.

dailyRx contributing expert LuAnn Pierce, LCSW, is a personal therapist in a private practice and she agrees with this notion. LuAnn notes, “Patient beliefs about illness and recovery is critical to the process of healing.

“Patient education, particularly with a chronic illness, plays a major role in how the patient responds to treatment options.”

As in most of life, LuAnn explains that there are either glass “half-empty” or “half-full” individuals, and optimists wind up doing better all-around. Those with a good attitude tend to be more open and less resistant to treatment recommendations.

“Without factual information, people tend to fill in the gaps with 'what ifs' and chase after miracle cures, or simply surrender to their greatest fears,” notes Pierce. “Providers need to slow down and take time to explain things in terms for laypeople, answer questions and offer follow up support.”

The research from the aforementioned study is supported by the Association of Psychological Science.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
January 30, 2012
Last Updated:
February 1, 2012