Developing and maintaining a positive mental attitude is perhaps the single most important thing a person with hepatitis C can do for themselves. The messages we tell ourselves dictate not only our moods and behaviour but can also have a powerful impact on our physical condition.
This is not the same as feeling happy - it's about creating a whole new outlook despite how you may feel. Evidence suggests that many people with long-term chronic illness who are able to maintain a positive attitude experience a slower progression of their condition and often show better responses to treatment.
Some people find adopting a positive attitude harder than others, and adding hepatitis C into the picture is a further hindrance. Below are some pointers that may be of use:
Remembering you are NOT your disease
Initially a diagnosis of hepatitis C eclipses everything in your life. You may spend hours on the internet researching the virus, talking to other sufferers and exploring all the treatment options with doctors and alternative medicine practitioners.
In this environment it becomes easy to lose sight of the person you were before your diagnosis, and you may start seeing yourself defined in terms of your disease. This is not only untrue but potentially very destructive.
The qualities that make you the person you are will remain. If you choose to define yourself in terms of your hepatitis C status, then people around you may do so too. You do not stop to being a good father, wife, tiddlywinks player or pub quizmaster when you find out you have hepatitis C.
The people who live most successfully with the virus are the ones who have reached an acknowledgement of the virus in terms of treatment, diet and lifestyle but do not let it restrict them from the life they would otherwise choose to live.
Living in the present
Today matters, tomorrow is unknown and yesterday is history. Many hepatitis C patients find it difficult to live in the present. You might be haunted by questions from the past like "how did I catch this?" or concerns about the future like "what kind of life will I have with this virus?"
While it is only natural to want to know how you became infected, ultimately it does not change your situation. There may be a temptation to give yourself a hard time about your behaviour if it may have led to you catching hepatitis C. This will only result in dragging yourself down further and further.
Those who are able to live in the present, accept their circumstances and embrace what each day has to offer will find it much easier to maintain that important positive attitude.
What are the ten things that you feel grateful for today? How quickly you can name the ten is a good indicator of your state of mind. In the midst of dealing with hepatitis C it can be easy to lose sight of those things which would otherwise be a great source of joy or support.
Seeking out and celebrating those things which you are grateful for is a powerful way of reminding yourself about the positive things in your life. While most people will think of the love and support of family and friends, some psychologists argue it’s just as important to remember the small stuff. They advocate writing a daily list of the ten things you are grateful for (with no repetition).
At first it might be difficult but it does get easier to recognise the small things worth noting that make life more pleasant - the rain stopped when you had to go out, next door’s teenagers have given up their heavy metal ambitions or you found a parking meter which still had plenty of time left on it. Setting yourself the exercise of finding things to be grateful for is guaranteed to lift your spirits.
Setting yourself realistic goals
It is part of the human condition to want to grow and develop. We do this all the time by setting ourselves goals, from learning to cook a new dish to bringing down the golf handicap. Setting and achieving goals is a powerful boost for anyone.
For those with hepatitis C, goals may revolve around treatment, how fast you get back to work or how quickly you feel like your old self. While achieving goals is a great tonic, setting unrealistic goals and therefore setting yourself up to fail is destructive. No-one likes to fail.
Repeated failure means you will only give yourself a hard time at a period in your life when you need to learn to be kind to yourself.
Laughter as medicine
The ultimate physical manifestation of a positive attitude is laughter and for a treatment that is absolutely free the benefits are astonishing. Laughter boosts the body’s level of natural painkillers – endorphins - and it suppresses the stress hormone epinephrine.
A good giggle provides a fantastic workout for the body’s immune system. It increases the number of virus-attacking T cells, boosts the blood chemical transmissions in the nervous system and stimulates the production of the antibodies that fight all sorts of infections. And if all that isn't enough, a good belly laugh is a great cardiovascular workout, raising and lowering the heart rate and blood pressure, enhancing alertness and memory, and lifting depression.
The best part of all is that this treatment can be practised anywhere, by people in any state of health and it immediately makes them the kind of person other people enjoy being around.
The bad stuff
With all that a positive attitude and a good laugh have going for them, why is it often so difficult for people to embrace them? One school of thought is that a negative attitude serves some purpose for certain individuals. It means that others will try to cheer you up or solve your problems. Nothing is ever your fault and you absolve yourself of any responsibility if a course of action doesn’t work out the way you planned. It also means that others have no expectations of you.
A negative attitude towards your health may mean that you accept that your health will not improve and there is no need to plan for a future where your health has improved.
That kind of negative thinking can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. When the benefits of a positive attitude are so well documented, even if it is difficult to achieve, it must surely be worth the effort.