A positive attitude and a fighting spirit can give people with HIV a longer, better quality life
Since the late 1980s, there has been a small but steady stream of reputable research which indicates that a person's attitude towards HIV diagnosis can significantly influence the course of their illness.
According to a report by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, those who have a strong determination to survive, and a happy relationship and healthy lifestyle, tend to take longer to develop AIDS. Even then, they have more frequent periods of good health and their AIDS illnesses are less severe.
This finding is backed up by Dr. Karl Goodkin's studies at the University of Texas. He found that positive thinking, together with stress reduction and supportive friends, was a significant factor in slowing down the progression of HIV disease.
Similar research by Dr. Lydia Temoshok at the University of California revealed that people with AIDS who have positive and assertive attitudes usually have a much better functioning immune system than those who adopted a helpless, passive response to HIV diagnosis.
What these investigations suggest is that psychological and emotional responses to HIV can make a difference. Health and sickness are, after all, not purely physical conditions. The inter-relationship between our minds and bodies is already partly acknowledged by the medical profession with its recognition of psychosomatic illness - sickness that originates with, or is aggravated by, a person's state of mind.
Since it is widely accepted that the mind can make people physically sick, it seems quite plausible to suppose that it can also help make them well again. If negative mental states can have a harmful influence on health, then surely positive ones can have a beneficial effect?
The immense power of the mind over the body is also medically recognised in the phenomenon known as the 'placebo effect'. This occurs in medical trials where doctors give patients a valueless medicinal preparation such as plain calcium pill, but tell them it will cure their sickness. Often it does, even though the preparation contains nothing of medical benefit. The only thing of value in these trials is the patient's own belief that the preparation will work. It is this positive expectation alone which produces the improvement in health.
We see this process at work in people with HIV. A positive expectation of sustained well-being frequently does result in longer than average periods without illness. In contrast, those with HIV who are very negative and pessimistic about their future prospects usually deteriorate faster. This 'self-fulfilling prophecy' occurs because when people expect something to happen, they often act in ways which increase the likelihood of that expectation coming true.
People with HIV who are determined to fight the disease tend to reorganise their lives around a less stressful and more healthy lifestyle. This can, indeed, help ameliorate the incidence and severity of sickness - thus confirming their original belief and expectation. On the other hand, those who feel powerless and fatalistic about HIV often neglect themselves. When this results in declining health, it confirms and reinforces their initial feelings of helplessness.
In other words, people sometimes unintentionally exacerbate the effects of HIV by negative attitudes and destructive behaviour, such as low self-esteem, guilt and stress, drug and alcohol abuse, and inadequate diet, sleep and exercise. This further undermines their immune defences and makes them more vulnerable to a speedy progression from symptom-free HIV infection to AIDS illnesses. However, just as people with HIV can sometimes increase their likelihood of sickness, they can also increase their chances of staying well longer by taking good care of themselves.
There are, of course, many different reasons why some people with the virus get sick sooner than others. It is not simply a matter of a positive versus negative attitude. Other reasons include genetic factors, exposure to more virulent strains of the virus and co-infections. This means that having a determined fightback against HIV does not necessarily guarantee a longer or better quality life. What it does do is shift the odds in that direction. Most people experience tangible improvements. For everyone with HIV, any improvement is well worth striving for.
Published as "Home-grown health", Pink Paper, 19 August 1994. See also: "AIDS: A Guide To Survival", Peter Tatchell, GMP Publishers, London, 1990.
See also "AIDS: A Guide To Survival", Peter Tatchell, GMP Publishers, London, 1990. Earlier editions 1986 and 1987
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