How Optimism Helps Manage Stress


So you have an autoimmune condition. It’s likely that your journey to wellness will traverse a variety of experiences on the spectrum between negative and positive, challenging and uplifting. Our road to recovery is rarely linear; this week it’s a new symptom, next week an encouraging step forward, next month an added diagnosis… some days it feels like the “Two Steps Forward, One Step Back Plan.” That rings some bells, doesn’t it?

Having been involved with the AI community for a few years now, I’ve heard a lot of stories from people. Whether via online forums, local support groups, or personal conversations, one thing I hear consistently is how hard it can be to maintain a positive attitude amidst all the ups and downs. We want to keep a smile on, but in reality we experience the gamut of emotions, from complete despair to rock-solid optimism.

I’m someone who copes better when I understand how something works. That’s why I’m such a research geek. When I grasp the foundation, reasons, or physiology behind a process, a situation or a symptom, I feel more empowered to take it on with self-love and positivity. Recently I learned how optimism and pessimism can have an effect on our ability to deal with stress. It fits so perfectly into this “living with autoimmunity” picture that I had to share it.

Optimism, Pessimism, and Stress

Stress… there’s that word again. Everyone has stress in life, but with a chronic health condition, stress plays an intimate role in how we feel on a daily, even hourly basis. Stress isn’t just dramatic stuff, like the moment a sabre-tooth tiger jumps out at you. It can be a long day at work, ongoing worry, or fighting a chronic infection (Epstein-Barr Virus or Lyme Disease, anyone?).

So, how do optimism and pessimism relate to stress? Recent research at Concordia University has found that the attitudes of pessimistic and optimistic people have differing effects on cortisol levels. Why is this important? Cortisol is a critical hormone that helps us deal with stress; when under stress, our bodies (the adrenal glands in particular) pump out extra cortisol to help us power up and deal with the situation (the “fight or flight response”). When the stress is over with, the extra hormone levels drop and our systems return to normal (the “relaxation response”). It’s important for the body to drop the cortisol level after stress, otherwise it can lead to heart problems, adrenal fatigue, weight gain, and more health issues. Adrenal fatigue is especially common with autoimmunity, and causes a myriad of troublesome symptoms.

In the Concordia study, individuals were asked to self-identify along the spectrum of pessimism to optimism. Then, over a period of years, the study assessed the participants’ daily self-perception of their stress level alongside their measured cortisol levels. According to Joelle Jobin, one of the study’s authors, “On days where they experience higher than average stress, that’s when we see that the pessimists’ stress response is much elevated, and they have trouble bringing their cortisol levels back down. Optimists, by contrast, were protected in these circumstances.” In short, the pessimists were less able to regulate cortisol levels than the optimists, who could better moderate the connection between perception of stress and increased cortisol secretion.

Knowing how common adrenal fatigue is for people with autoimmunity, any time I see “elevated cortisol levels”, I pay attention. Remember, chronic high cortisol wears out the adrenal glands, which can result in adrenal fatigue and a myriad of associated symptoms.

But is pessimism inherently bad and optimism inherently good? Other studies point in different directions – for example, a bit of pessimism can help encourage prudent planning and reasonable expectations, while uncontrolled optimism can promote unhealthy risk-taking and an inability to cope when things do go south. There are a lot of ways to approach the issue of stress and attitude, but for a body overloaded by the continual fight for wellness (= stress), the adrenal glands (which make cortisol!) get so overloaded that they have a hard time coping, leading to worse symptoms and more suffering.

Pointing the Compass Toward Optimism: Tools for Change

So, in our effort to improve our stress response, do we just “decide” to be more optimistic? I’d hazard a guess that most of us don’t find it that easy. However, there are things we can do to increase our tendency toward optimism, which can help to reframe our experience in a more empowering fashion:

What’s Your Storyline?
Commit to observing your internal dialogue. What are the words and phrases you repeat to yourself in your head every day, about your health, your body, your goals and dreams, your challenges, your abilities? Observe your patterns, and try to do it without judgment. Over time you may find you have a storyline or script that is not supportive of your well-being. If so, commit to changing that script. Now. Decide to stop the negative self-talk and only use words that are supportive of your well-being. For example, try saying, “I’m so ready to quit this stupid job!” then, “I’m ready for a job that is satisfying, where I feel respected and valued!”, and notice how your body feels after each statement. You’ll know what to do.

It may sound hokey-pokey, but it’s an effective tool to build self-esteem, confidence and self-love. Trust me – I’ve been there and it is powerful. If the big picture feels like too big a topic to tackle, choose one element and work on it; your job, or your friendships, or your body image – one step at a time.

Glass Half Full
Do you tend to look at life as a glass half empty or glass half full? Can you move your attitude more toward full? Ask yourself what the blessings in any situation are, not what the disaster is. You might surprise yourself with the possibilities. And you might find you have a better sense of humor than you thought!

Whether intense or mellow exercise is what you can handle, do what you can without draining your body. Exercise is proven to lower stress levels, as well as improve optimism via multiple physiological processes.

Surround Yourself with Positive People
Positivity is contagious… as is negativity. Know who supports your well-being and gravitate toward them. The rest – break it off. You are worth it.

Years ago someone told me that the physical act of smiling had a physiological effect on the chemistry of the brain. It sounded nuts to me, but I decided to try it since I was going through a depression. It works! It feels really stupid to do a fake grin when all you want to do is scowl, but try it – you’ll feel your mental state shift immediately.

Geek Out
It turns out that optimism and pessimism are closely related to how the different lobes of our brain function. The paper linked here is long, but it’s written so that mere mortals can understand it. Have at it!

Changing the way we think isn’t always easy, partially because of habit, and partially because our thought processes are actually connected to neural pathways in our brains, akin to grooves in a record that play the same song over and over again. However, we can change that wiring by being conscious of the way we think, and choosing to do it differently by changing it one groove at a time. Knowing that there is a physiological basis behind some of our thoughts feels empowering to me (optimism, not pessimism!) because it means there is something concrete that we can work on to create change. Like a muscle that we are trying to strengthen, changing thought patterns takes repetition and dedication – but it’s very possible and once we do, the freedom it gains us can be wonderful.

About Susan Vennerholm

Susan Vennerholm is the blogger behind Backcountry Paleo, where she shares AIP-specific recipes and autoimmune-friendly tips for backcountry enthusiasts. She also geeks out on the medical side of autoimmunity, and loves to write about it. Susan wholeheartedly believes that self-education and networking in the AI community are two of our strongest tools in living successfully with autoimmunity. As a way to pay forward the support she received during her recovery, she blogs so that others will have more resources for their healing journey. A certified yoga teacher, code wrangler, and freelance writer, Susan loves climbing mountains, watching Orca whales, trail running, volunteering for dog rescue, and a good fantasy novel. You can connect with her on Facebook and Pinterest.


  • Emily says

    Wow this is exactly what I needed to hear and boy can I relate. I was diagnosed with my 2nd autoimmune disease at 25 last year and still have the Epstein-Barr virus running a muck (13 years after I was originally diagnosed with it). The everyday battle can be hard but you can’t let it get to you – you can have moments of weakness where it just gets so overwhelming, you are only human but it’s important to stay strong and positive.
    Thanks for the article, it is an excellent and thought provoking read!

    • Susan Vennerholm says

      Thanks, Emily! And I’m sure that your perspective here is also an inspiration for others – the more testimonies people hear about the power we have to maintain a positive outlook, the easier it is to do it! Thanks for sharing your inspiration!

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  • Hannelie says

    Thank you for the article. I’m sorry if I’m not quite on the subject, but maybe someone out there can help me. I did Christinas FodMap for 28 days, then started adding more fruits and veggies. I struggle with constipation, all my life. Does this mean my gut is still not healed, should I go back on fodmap.? I have a serious dose of vitiligo, all over my entire body. I am on AIP now.

    • Mickey Trescott says

      Hi Hannelie,
      Its really hard to tell without knowing more about your situation, and this question might be better addressed by a functional medicine practitioner. If you are still experiencing constipation, you might want to look into getting tested for SIBO, which would call for a lactulose breath test (you can ask your doctor). Wishing you the best!

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