Positive Psychology and Medicine

smile balloon, physicians and positive psychologyPositive psychology is not pop psychology.  Maybe you’re doing an eyeroll, but as a physician how many times have you seen the upbeat patient have better outcomes than the one who’s struggling emotionally?  Positive psychology is emerging into the field of medicine and while controversial, there does seem to be some benefits.

First a little background.  Sermo physicians regularly discuss patients whose symptoms might be better served through Psychiatric care than solely addressing physical symptoms.  Yet, often the patient seems to be looking more for relief from the physical symptoms than the opportunity to talk to someone.

Anxiety disorders are the most common type of mental illness in the U.S. with 40 million people afflicted.  Only about 1/3 are seeking treatment with a mental health provider.   People with anxiety disorders frequently seek relief for symptoms from medical doctors because the symptoms mimic physical illness.  It’s estimated this costs $22.84 billion in health care services every year.

So maybe a dose of kindness can go a way to treating patients as they enter your practice.

Positive psychology focuses on positive emotions and personal strengths and is meant to complement traditional medicine.  Here’s an example …

A diabetic patient with high blood pressure is struggling on their medications.  As a doctor you’d like to adjust the dose but you’d also like them to start an exercise program.  During your time with the patient you found out that they recently went on a shopping trip to a nearby city and “walked all over town.”

Take that verbal cue and suggest a walking program as a way to improve the patient’s health.  Many advocates recommend literally writing a prescription such as “walk for 30 minutes five times per week.”

Exercise has been shown to reduce anxiety and blood pressure.  It also increases feelings of well-being.  With any luck the next time you see the patient they’ll feel better and maybe even need less medication.  The exercise is the healthy action which created from a positive medical outcome.  But the genesis for movement came from a patients’ positive experience.  The idea is to find an area of strength and build upon with your patient.

Not Everyone Supports Positive Psychology

Many physicians think positive psychology has little impact on patient outcomes and can potentially do damage.  One specific area of research is cancer and positive psychology.

An excerpt from the results:

“Claims about …positive psychology do not fit with available evidence.  We note in particular, the incoherence of claims about the adaptational value of benefit finding and post-traumatic growth among cancer patients, and the implausibility of claims that interventions that enhance benefit finding improve the prognosis of cancer patients by strengthening the immune system.”

Physicians express concern that patients might view positive psychology in too strong a light and refuse treatment options that are vital to their recovery.

So can recording positive emotions or taking a walk every day cure a patient?  Well, if the symptoms are caused by anxiety disorders, as mentioned above, it could help to.  But if the patient is dealing with a very real disease like cancer, traditional medicine is clearly the best course of action.

What do you think?  As a physician do you think asking the patient to think in a more positive way can benefit the treatment outcomes?  If you’re an M.D. or a D.O. you can continue the conversation inside Sermo.


  1. says

    I think the key is knowing when something is anxiety or depression related or not. Anxiety/depression can show up as gastrointestinal distress, headache/migraine, weight fluctuation and pain. Teasing out what is physical and what is emotional can be a project and many patients want a physical cure. Of course, prescribing a walk is good for everybody, so you can’t go wrong there.

    • lisasermo says

      True on the walking … and yes, there is a lot of overlap between psychological and physical symptoms. I think more awareness of this with MDs in general can go a long way in keeping people out of ERs and living a little bit healthier.

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