What does hope mean to you? For me it’s a deep-down feeling that flickers the desire to fight for a better, brighter future. It’s more than optimism and it goes beyond thinking positively. It’s that comforting, energizing, and elevating feeling that gives me the courage to confront my challenges and the capacity to get over whatever obstacles are set in my path. In terms of having RA, it’s hope that helps me to face the unpredictability and uncertainty of my health and to see a positive outcome for my everyday life. In other words, it gives me the oomph that’s needed to be the little engine that could.
Researchers are learning that hope has the power to actually change the chemistry in our brains. In The Anatomy of Hope: How People Prevail in the Face of Illness, author Dr. Jerome Groopman writes “Belief and expectation—the key elements of hope—can block pain by releasing the brain’s endorphins and enkephalins, mimicking the effects of morphine.” Belief, expectation, and that strong feeling we know as desire can also stop the release of chemicals in the central nervous system (like cholecystokinin) that amplify pain. And in some cases, hope can even have positive effects on respiration, circulation, and motor function. During an illness, then, hope can decrease pain levels which, in turn, puts us in a place where healing and improvement are more likely.
But just as hope can reduce pain, pain itself has the incredible power to snuff out hope. Nerves from damaged body parts transmit signals of pain that can potently increase feelings of fear, anxiety, and despair. So just as the mind affects the body, the reverse is also true: The state of the body affects how we emotionally feel. When my left hip joint deteriorated so much that I was having excruciating pain and I needed a replacement, I sunk quickly into despair, and my fear and anxiety about the upcoming surgery went through the roof. The positive benefits of hope didn’t stand a chance against my high level of pain. It was only after the surgery that my despair lifted and hope filled my heart. Life was good on the other side of pain. While my surgery put me on the road to health, it was the spark of hope that pushed me forward through physiotherapy toward a full recovery.
I bet you never knew the subject of hope could get so technical!
I really want to know what gives you hope in the face of RA? Do friends and family give you hope by their kind words and gestures? Are you able to overcome despair by holding onto their love? What about your faith or spirituality? Does it help you rise above adversity and know without a shadow of a doubt that better days are on the horizon? Does setting a health goal and successfully reaching it give you hope for a brighter future? No doubt all of these factors help us along our path to health, as does the knowledge that scientists are making rapid progress in understanding the complexities of RA. Just recently, for example, a group of researchers at the University of British Columbia discovered that the enzyme in the body known as MMP2 works as a master switch to activate the inflammatory response. (For more information on that check here). Such a discovery will surely help scientists develop a new way to design drugs to treat our condition.
For me, hope is discovering a new food that decreases inflammation or an exercise I can do that doesn’t give me days of pain after. What gives me hope is seeing doctors coming off their medical science perch and admitting they don’t have all the answers and possibly food and lifestyle have a significant impact on the course that illness takes. (Holy Hallelujah for that!) My greatest source of hope though is knowing for certain that I’m at the helm of my ship making healthy choices for myself everyday through nutrition, lifestyle, attitude, gentle exercise, supplements, and medication.
What do I hope for you? Stay as you are – beautiful, joyous, bold, and strong – and know with every cell in your body you’ve got what it takes to live a vibrantly healthy life.
Cheers to that!
Groopman, Jerome. The Anatomy of Hope: How People Prevail in the Face of Illness. New York: Random House, Inc., 2004. Print.