Dr. Laurie Nadel is a psychotherapist, author and speaker who specializes in trauma, anxiety issues (including sleep) and addictions. She practices in Manhattan and on Long Island. An award winning author of "The Five Gifts: Discovering Hope, Healing and Strength When Disaster Strikes," she is considered a thought leader... more
When Mark F. developed tendonitis in his left shoulder, his physician told him to stop working out until it healed—no exceptions. But like most men who have an exercise habit, Mr. F. found it hard to stay out of the gym.
Instead of focusing on allowing his shoulder to heal properly, he obsessed about getting back to his workout schedule and resumed strenuous exercise too soon. He now suffers from recurring shoulder problems that will likely persist for years to come.
Like Mr. F., each individual patient has personality traits that can impede or promote healing. In my psychotherapy practice, I have observed that weight lifters, joggers and body builders tend to be compulsive athletes. Some have healthy personalities that I call “self-healing” personalities, meaning that they can suffer a few weeks without their workouts in order to avoid chronic problems later on. But others are so compulsive about training that they will work out even when doing so actually damages their health.
Personality, Health and Disease:
A self-healing personality can play a self-defeating—or self-enhancing—role in our health; Mr. F’s experience provides a fairly common example. On a positive note, certain traits contribute to a “self-healing” personality. Studies of patients with illnesses ranging from arthritis to heart disease and cancer show that psychological characteristics such as mood, behavior, and belief systems can promote more rapid healing of disease and injury. Howard Friedman, Ph.D. has spent years analyzing statistical findings on headaches, ulcers, arthritis and asthma, as well as heart disease and cancer. His research provides significant supporting evidence for a general theory linking personality to the healing process.
“It may be an oversimplification to talk about a positive attitude and its effect on illness,” said Dr. Friedman, author of The Self-Healing Personality: Why Some People Achieve Health and Others Succumb to Illness (iUniverse, 2000). “But someone who feels constantly depressed and hopeless is more likely to have health problems.” The question of whether depression causes poor health or vice-versa can be compared to a dog chasing its tail. Anyone can become depressed or cynical after months or years of a chronic condition like back pain.
A Model for Self-Healing
The most important feature of a self-healing personality is “integration at the social, biological, and cognitive levels.” This means that self-healers get along well with other people, maintain a lifestyle that works for them, and have a belief system that promotes a sense of wellbeing.
Social integration reflects ability to belong. “People who resist disease and heal well are generally well socialized, integrated into some local community or network that puts them in contact with people in a positive way,” says Friedman. Several physicians to whom I have spoken say that when a patient brings his or her partner into a medical office and examination room, both of them can consider the potential treatments.
Biological integration in the self-healer combines diet, exercise, and relaxation programs designed to meet his or her individual needs. If you hate to swim but do laps every day because you were told it is good for you, you are probably elevating the levels of harmful stress hormones in your body. You have to find the exercise that is best for you.
Cognitive integration means feeling at peace and believing that your life has meaning. “People with self-healing personalities have a healthy sense of joie de vivre,” says Friedman.
QUIZ: IS YOUR PERSONALITY SELF-HEALING?
Instructions: Answer “TRUE” or “FALSE” to the following statements:
- I enjoy being with other people, especially friends and significant others.
- I look forward to exercising on a regular basis.
- When I get angry, I usually find an appropriate way to express myself.
- I can ask my family and/or friends for help when I need it.
- I am able to say “no” when someone asks me for a favor.
- I often feel stuck in situations and relationships.
- I tend to worry about events that have not yet happened.
- When I get into a situation that is uncomfortable for me, I tend to give up and let the other person have his way.
- My life consists of many obligations rather than pleasurable moments.
- I believe that my mental outlook has little or no effect on my health.
KEY TO QUIZ:
If you answered “TRUE” to statements 1 -5 and “FALSE” to 6-10, you may have a wellness-oriented personality. If you answered “FALSE” to any of the first 5 statements and “TRUE” to any between 6 and 10, you may want to examine how these patterns are affecting your health.