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Published on December 08, 2020

Can happiness help keep you healthy?

Happiness Healthy

Last night I worried for hours before I finally slept.

All day I keep thinking the worst.

Why bother planning anything? The world is a mess!

Negative thoughts may be unavoidable, especially during a pandemic, but studies show that staying positive is good for your health.

Science has linked happiness to lower hypertension (blood pressure) and increased immune function that helps us fight off illness. A recent study linked “repetitive negative thinking” to cognitive decline, anxiety, depression, and memory loss, so think about making happiness a priority while riding out this pandemic.

According to the study, repetitive negative thinking (also called perseverative cognition) is a measurable cognitive process that encompasses future‐ (worry) and past‐ (rumination) directed thoughts. In other words, it’s the kind of negative thoughts you read when you started this article, and they can hurt your health.

Happiness and a Healthy Brain

Neurologist Sean Horrigan, DO, who practices at Neurologists of Cape Cod in Hyannis, explained that emotional health can have a profound impact on brain health. Severe anxiety and depression over the years have even been shown to result in structural changes to the brain, he noted.

“Meeting so many patients though my clinic, I hear so often: ‘What can I do to protect my brain as I age? I want to maintain the best health possible for my brain and my body. What can I do better?’” he said.

The first part of the answer he gives patients is familiar to most people: take care of your physical health through good nutrition and exercise, watch your cholesterol, weight, sugar intake and blood pressure.

Secondly, but just as important, are the three things Dr. Horrigan tells everyone to do to help maintain cognitive function:

  • Stay socially engaged
  • Stay mentally sharp
  • Maintain a positive attitude.

“Doing these three things can help you age successfully. Of course, this is so hard to do right now during a pandemic,” he acknowledged.

Stressful times

“All of our health officials are telling us the best way to combat COVID-19 is not to be as social. But we are social creatures. Social distancing is not a natural state for us. The best thing for us to do during this crisis—social distancing—is one of the hardest things for us to do as human beings. Without question, this generates stress,” he said.

He noted that people are finding creative ways to stay social. Zoom meetings, video chats with family and friends, and drive-by socializing help.

Physicians have been trying to help patients and their families non-stop, Dr. Horrigan said, and it’s been heartbreaking to hear patients and their caregivers say, ‘I am trying to adapt. I’m trying to be brave, but I’m having a really hard time right now.’

“These ongoing feelings of stress and anxiety are yet another example of how this virus has affected our community,” he said.

As a neurologist, Dr. Horrigan cares for a lot of people with Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia. At this time, many necessary social services families depend on are limited or simply not available for caregiver support. Efforts are underway to safely reestablish some of these services to patients and caregivers in need.

“I’m very proud of this community,” he said. “It’s been a very hard year for the Cape and Islands, and I’m very proud of our leaders and staff at Cape Cod Healthcare.”

Coping and Adapting

Dr. Horrigan said that patients have worked hard to make the best of the situation.

“I’m getting a lot of comments hoping we maintain telemedicine as an option because many patients we take care of are homebound. They also live in nursing homes, Martha’s Vineyard or Nantucket and traveling to our offices is expensive and physically challenging. If we can make three of their four appointments virtual each year, that’s a huge help and a relief to a lot of patients’ families. So, we’re learning new ways and doing new things to keep people healthy.”

Two of Dr. Horrigan’s patients who have adapted well to the “new normal” while navigating their healthcare during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic shared their story.

Richard (Rick) and Pat Ackerman’s lives could have been upended by the pandemic. Instead, the Cape Cod residents are making happiness a priority, exemplifying resilience and positivity.

In late 2019, Pat was diagnosed with colon cancer. She beat breast cancer 10 years ago. Additionally, Dr. Horrigan treats her chronic autoimmune disease, myasthenia gravis, which causes muscle weakness.

Talking with Pat and Rick is like getting a pep talk to get you through the pandemic. They appreciate their faith, family, community and the care they have always received at Cape Cod Healthcare. They sing the praises of Dr. Horrigan.

Pat retired in June 2020 after 16 years at a local law firm. Rick had been working part time after retiring a few years ago, but he is also staying close to home since the COVID-19 pandemic first shut down the state. The Ackermans remain grateful, engaged and positive. Here are their suggestions about how to do each.

Practicing Gratitude

“We appreciate everyone—family, friends, the services at Cape Cod Hospital, and especially Dr. Horrigan—who have supported us in kind and helpful ways,” said Pat. “Telehealth appointments were easy to adjust to with Dr. Horrigan. He is always there for us, and so is Cape Cod Hospital.

Neighbors and former coworkers have been supportive and helpful in many ways since the Cape went into lockdown, leaving the Ackermans feeling very blessed.

“I had some physical issues, and people came every day with food. These people are absolutely wonderful,” said Rick.

“You think about all the things happening in the world today, and so much of what you hear about is negative. People seem to lose track of all the good things that happen, and these people are good.”

Staying Engaged

One way the couple stays engaged is through (and for) their children and grandchildren.

“We are missing wonderful times with our children and grandchildren—especially our new grandchild—but we learned to Facetime, and we keep in touch that way and through phone calls,” said Pat. “They live about 80 miles away in Dedham, MA, but they are at our beck and call.”

Rick added, “We have never felt isolated because people are happy to help you out.”

He praised Laurette Simons, who works at Dr. Horrigan’s office, saying she is “an amazing person who always takes care of us if we have a problem.”

Staying Positive

Hopeful? Pat said that’s from their parents. It’s the way they were raised.

“More than anything, our faith in God gets us through,” she said.

“You keep going and do what you need to do,” Rick added. “And it helps to have a sense of humor.”

Listening to the Ackermans chat reveals the good humor that peppers their marriage. Ricky and Lucy Ricardo, move over.

Pat: “It’s been good to have time together. He used to be out of the house and working all the time, and now we have breakfast together, do chores together, and talk. So that’s a positive.”

Rick: “And I’ve had time to clean closets and the kitchen cabinets, like everyone else who’s stuck at home.”

Pat: “And now it’s your kitchen because I can’t find things!”

Long-term benefits of happiness

Repetitive negative thinking has no place in the Ackerman home. The couple set an example by doing the things that Dr. Horrigan says help people maintain the best possible cognitive health.

During these difficult times, we need to take care of our physical and mental health, he said.

“The new study about repetitive negative thinking talks about the negative effects of repeatedly focusing on one thought or worry, which is exactly what many people are doing as a result of the pandemic. Remember that excessive negative thinking can hurt your health; at least to a degree. You can control how much negativity you’re exposed to both on television and online, you can control how much you allow into your home.”

He also encourages us to remember that the medical community is working non-stop to take care of patients, both virtually and safely in person.