A recent 2-year study at the University of Michigan followed 6,044 people who were over the age of 50. At the beginning of the study they had to rate their optimism level on a 16-point scale. They found that for each extra 1 point of optimism on the scale, the risk of a stroke dropped by 9%. Three points and that’s nearly a 30% lower risk. Incredible!
Optimism seems to be fairly protective against stroke.
The link between optimism, positive emotions, and health is something that I’ve been writing and speaking on quite a bit in the past couple of years so I welcome research of this type that adds how we think, feel, and act, to the standard idea of how to be healthy. We tend to think that we just need to eat well and take some exercise and everything will be OK. But we forget the importance of how we think and how we feel.
The question is, how does the mind have such an effect on health, or in this case, the risk of stroke?
The study leader, Eric Kim, believed that the work “suggests that people who expect the best in life actively take steps to promote health.” I totally agree with this. I would also add that optimists look for solutions and get through difficult situations more easily than pessimists do. When you believe that you ‘can’ you tend to do what you can. But when you believe that you ‘can’t’, you often give up or get stressed.
Studies show that people who are more optimistic tend to have better coping strategies for when stressful situations come along. They get through them easier so they typically have less stress in their lives. People who are more pessimistic, on the other hand, tend to have poorer coping strategies so pessimism, on the whole, is associated with more stress.
Of course, I must point out that this doesn’t apply to everyone. There are always exceptions. We all know optimists who don’t cope so well and pessimists who do. So it’s not so black and white. But averaged over a large number of people, we typically find that optimism is most definitely associated with better coping and thus lower stress.
How does this relate to the risk of a stroke? Lots of evidence shows a correlation between stress and stroke, particularly high levels of prolonged stress. There are different types of stroke but a 2009 study found that a stroke caused by hardening of blood vessels, or blot clots in the brain, had the strongest links with stress.
Hardening of blood vessels can develop because of stress, as well as poor diet, and also, interestingly, hostility towards others. When under stress, chunks of hard calcium built up on arterial walls can cleave off and lead to a blockage. This can cause a stroke.
So I would say that optimism lowers our risk of stroke not only because we make better choices in life, but because of this additional reason.
So how do we become more optimistic? Here are 3 simple suggestions:
1) Tell yourself that you can more often than you tell yourself that you can’t.
This attitude helps you to find solutions and cope better when stressful situations come along.
2) Use positive affirmations
Try repeating, ‘Stuff happens, but it’s my choice how I respond to it’, or the Èmile Coué classic, ‘Every day in every way, I’m getting better and better’, or even ‘I always find the silver lining’.
3) Shed the idea that people are selfish/bad/mean and that the world is a bad place.
This is just as assumption. We see what we want to see in life, but it’s not necessarily the truth. Look for examples of kindness and compassion around you and in the world. Keep a diary of your findings.
Click here for the study linking optimism with risk of stroke. You can download the PDF from the linked page.
Click here for a meta analysis of of studies on optimism and coping strategies.
Click here for a ‘Science Daily’ article linking severe stress and stroke.
Copyright 2021 David R. Hamilton PhD.