Sometimes it takes running to the end of your bedroom, opening the window, and smelling the fresh sunny air to remind ourselves that there is life outside our apartment. The idea that love, joy, and peace are literally at our doorsteps ought to make us feel safe, but unfortunately much of the world would rather close the curtains.
But as it turns out, a positive outlook does more than invite goodness to your life. Studies have shown that it actually improves health and extend life — even lower one’s viral load.
In a 2014 study at the University of California led by Judith T. Meskowitz, a professor of medical social sciences, a set of eight skills was given to 159 people who were newly diagnosed with HIV.
After helping to implement them in their daily lives over the course of 15 months, researchers saw these people carried a lower viral load, were more likely to take their medication correctly, and were less likely to need antidepressants to help them cope with their new illness.
These skills were to recognize a positive event each day, savor that event and log it in a journal or tell someone about it, start a daily gratitude journal, list a personal strength and note how you used it, set an attainable goal and note your progress, report a relatively minor stress and list ways to reappraise the event positively, recognize and practice small acts of kindness daily, practice mindfulness, focusing on the here and now rather than the past or future.
While these “skills” might sound like something from Oprah, what Moskowitz found is that people living with HIV other chronic illnesses, like Type-2 diabetes, lived longer due to more positive emotions circuiting through their brains. And as scientists have discovered, our bodies can sometimes be a direct response from what’s happening to us emotionally.
One participant of Moskowitz’s study was 56-year old Gregg De Meza, an architect from San Francisco who was diagnosed with HIV four years prior. “When I entered the study, I felt like my entire world was completely unraveling,” he said to NY Times. “The training reminded me to rely on my social network, and I decided to be honest with my friends. I realized that to show your real strength is to show your weakness. No pun intended, it made me more positive, more compassionate, and I’m now healthier than I’ve ever been.”
Mental health is an overlooked issue when it comes to HIV.
Nearly 22 percent of people living with HIV will also be diagnosed with major depression later on, and as a result, the depression keeps them from taking their meds so that they can suppress the virus.
It also works the other way too. People who suffer from mental illness are at higher risk to contract HIV, yet they’re only slightly more likely to get tested than the general population. In fact, in 2011 seven percent of Medicaid patients in California who were taking meds to treat bipolar, schizophrenia, depression, or other mental health issues had been tested for HIV — compared to five percent of the rest of the state.
And when it comes to HIV and depression, the ones who suffer most are the young black population. Nearly half of all U.S. adolescents between 13 and 19 are sexually active, yet black adolescents (who only represent 14 percent of that population) account for 63 percent of new HIV diagnoses.
It’s estimated that 2 million of all adolescents, most of whom are sexually active, experience a major depressive episode, according to a study from the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies.
“Blacks, adolescents, and people with mental illnesses are all disproportionately affected by HIV/STIs,” the study’s lead author Bridgette M. Brawner, PhD, APRN, Assistant Professor, said in a statement. “We know that the unique psychopathology of mental illness, including impulsivity and engaging in unprotected sex to alleviate depressed mood, may heighten one ’s HIV/STI risk. Our study indicates we need to better understand unique HIV/STI prevention needs among black adolescents with mental illnesses and that improving coping mechanisms to help regulate emotion should be addressed in HIV/STI prevention research.”
The research is here, but despite studies proving that a better focus on mental health drastically improved HIV treatment programs, there is still little being done to take care of our emotional wellbeing, which might end up being one of Mother Nature's best kept medicines.
But it's not too late.