Optimism may be defined as “hopefulness and confidence about the future”, something all of us find difficult to maintain at some point following our diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. Understandable given the daily challenges that the motor and nonmotor symptoms of this chronic, progressive disease bring. These challenges impact all of us in the Parkinson’s community physically, socially and emotionally - making a positive outlook difficult to maintain.
My experience is no exception. Young Onset Parkinson’s Disease – a diagnosis I received at the age of twenty-seven, after I finished my residency in Family Practice and as I was expecting my first child. The intermittent, mild rest tremor in my pinkie finger that I had begun to experience six months prior to that had now evolved into a diagnosis of an incurable neurologic illness. Needless to say that was a very difficult time in my life. The years that followed were very challenging, my thoughts always focused on disability and the difficulty my future would likely bring.
And as the Parkinson’s progressed, my ability to cope deteriorated. I had reached my limit both physically and emotionally. But ultimately my perspective changed. In the eloquent words of Dr. Viktor Frankl (an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist at the time of WW2):
“Everything can be taken from a man but...the last of the human freedoms - to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way”
The power of choice – to choose optimism over despair. It became very clear to me that until a cure, my future included Parkinson’s disease. The diagnosis itself was not within my control but how I faced this challenge and my resulting life experience, was mine to determine. And only with that shift in thinking was I able to begin to move forward, concentrate on maximizing my quality of life because until a cure is found, we have to learn to live well with this disease and thrive despite the limitations that it places on us.
So from personal experience I know that in my case, this change in outlook from pessimism to optimism, allowed me to move forward. Instead of being preoccupied with my fears of the future, it allowed me to take on an active and informed management role in my own disease, which essentially improved my life experience.
The benefits I experienced from this change in perspective is not something unique to me. The power of optimism has also been demonstrated in the medical literature as well; studies where outlook has been shown to make a real difference when it comes to how patients cope with a diagnosis such as Parkinson’s disease. These studies have shown that optimism can change our perception of the daily challenges we face. In one study researchers suggest that interventions promoting a positive attitude and greater personal control seem to help reduce disability and improve quality of life in Parkinson’s disease. (That is assuming the clinical picture is not complicated by depression or anxiety.)
Undoubtedly the human experience of chronic illness is highly stressful. Through facing the challenges that Parkinson’s presents, you learn the importance of those intangible factors that may be difficult to measure but are so important in determining your life experience – acceptance, optimism, resilience to name a few. Optimism can change your perception of your daily challenges resulting in improved quality of life. Optimism about our future allows us to take control of our present.
Gruber-Baldini AL,Ye J, Anderson KE, Shulman LM. Effects of optimism/pessimism and locus of control on disability and quality of life in Parkinson's disease. Parkinsonism Relat Disord.15(9), 665-9 (2009).