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Can Positive Thinking Help You Heal?

Lissa Rankin's picture

A big part of the book I’m writing Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof You Can Heal Yourself (Hay House, 2013) is about how positive belief, hope, and expectation can trigger self-healing superpowers that manifest physiologically in the body, so I was delighted to read this article on CNN by one of my heroes, Dr. Deepak Chopra.

In this article, Dr. Chopra (can I call him Deepak?) calls attention to the warring schools of thought between the power of positive thinking camp and the conventional medical community regarding whether positive thoughts can affect the health of the body.

Some studies performed on very sick cancer patients have shown that it can’t. In fact, one of those studies was performed on the patients under the care of my friend and fellow Owning Pink blogger, Dr. Bernie Siegel, author of Love, Medicine & Miracles. When patients in his positive-thinking ECaP program for cancer patients were studied, they were found to have no higher rates of cancer cure than those who didn’t complete the program.

So does this mean positive thinking doesn’t work? It’s enough to confuse anyone.

What does Deepak Chopra think?

Dr. Deepak writes:

Doctors are confused, too. It has always been part of a doctor's kit bag to tell patients to keep their spirits up. Until a few decades ago, it was standard not to acquaint a dying patient with the gravity of his condition, which implies an unspoken agreement that hearing bad news isn't good for patients.

At the same time, doctors want to protect their profession, so few want to cross the line and support the notion that how you think can work as powerfully as "real" medicine.

Let's see if some of this confusion can be cleared up. 

First of all, thinking is "real" medicine, as proven by the placebo effect. When given a sugar pill in place of a prescription drug, an average of 30% of subjects will show a positive response. What causes this response isn't a physical substance but the activity of the mind-body connection. Expectations are powerful. If you think you've been given a drug that will make you better, often that is enough to make you better.

But if studies showed that positive thinking didn’t effect cure rates, what do we make of this? Dr. Deepak says: 

On the plus side, the studies that debunk positive thinking deal with very sick patients struggling to recover from major diseases. They do not comment on how positive thinking might prevent disease or how it might affect someone in the very early stages of illness.  The real point isn't to rescue a dying patient but to maintain wellness… The upshot is that medicine cannot be definitive on how mood affects wellness. But if I wanted to enhance a state of wellness before symptoms of illness appeared, there is much to be gained and no risks involved in trying to reach the best state of mind possible.

Healing Vs. Curing

After reading about the study on his patients, I emailed Bernie Siegel and wrote, “It seems to me that the equivocation over whether support groups help cancer patients in randomized controlled trials is a bit silly, because while you can study cure rates, you can't really study rates of healing, and as you and I both know, healing and curing are different.

I would argue that your patients - even if they died - probably died healed because of the love and support. But that's just my two cents.”

Beyond Healing

But I still believe that love, support, and positive belief go far beyond healing and can actually manifest cure - and there’s loads of science to prove it, as I’m finding with my research. It’s tough to study support groups and outcomes related to them. How do you know if the people are really believing they can get well? How can you measure these things?

I’m trying to get to the bottom of these very issues in my own mind, so I can help translate them for you. But I love that this conversation is even happening on websites like CNN and from the mouths of doctors like Deepak. Things are shifting. There is resistance from the medical community, of course, but there is also a softening that I’m already starting to feel and witness, even from the private emails doctors are sending me.

We are ready for this shift. It is time.

What Do You Believe?

Do we have the power to heal ourselves? Does the mind affect the body? Can positive thinking alter physiology? Share your thoughts.

What if I told you caring for your body was the LEAST important part of your health? Watch my TEDx talk here to learn the MOST important part.

Thinking positively,


Lissa Rankin, MD: Founder of OwningPink.comPink Medicine Revolutionarymotivational speaker, and author of What’s Up Down There? Questions You’d Only Ask Your Gynecologist If She Was Your Best Friend and Encaustic Art: The Complete Guide To Creating Fine Art With Wax.



Aurora's picture

Positive Thinking Within Moderation

Positive thinking can certainly help, but let's not overdo/"over stretch" the scientific claims. I'd really have to see the research designs and the quality of statistical analyses done, reputation of peer reviewed journals, study funding sources, etc., to see your point of view.

I like Dr. Chopra and CNN too, but these two sources, frankly, don't make me jump up for joy on the scientific robustness of your premise. Your interpretation of clinical and scientific data may ultimately be on target, but I need to do my own due diligence first before taking your word for it.

I respect you and your work, but sometimes you present ideas in overly effusive and self interested ways. It might be more helpful if you could inform your readers on methods they can use to understand the scientifc literature, so they are not taken advantage of by health care practitioners (traditional and alternative)who may not have their best interests at heart.

On another matter, a respected colleague of mine, the late Dr. Elizabeth Targ (psychiatrist and leader in alternative health research at UCSF, Cal Pacific, Noetic Sciences) embraced positive thinking with all her might. She had so much to live for. She was kind, compassionate, loved and respected by many, looking forward to becoming a mom, and alleviating suffering in
innovative and scientifically and clinically responsible ways.

Sadly, Dr.Targ died of a brain tumor at age 42. I bring Dr.Targ up because she too, believed that if she could only "think positively" that she could somehow survive the
wretched brain cancer that ultimately killed her. Dr.Targ embraced positive thinking, but she also suffered greatly during her last months on earth because she felt like a failure for not turning her life around through the positive power of her thoughts, intentions and feelings.

Thus, while positive thinking, in principle, is attractive, and you may find scientific data to persuasively support your arguments, at the end of the day, positive thinking is a concept, and one that may have it's own set of complications for patients in particular circumstances. So please, do the responsible thing, Dr.Rankin, and approach your dissemination of research findings with some degree of temperance.

Thank you for your consideration.
Aurora Kreiss

Hadley Gustin's picture

Superb Blog Post

Hi Lissa,

I just want to say that I absolutely loved reading this post! As a holistic anxiety coach/motivational speaker/self-help writer, the cornerstone of what I preach is mental management. If you think positively, you can conquer absolutely anything. I know this from personal experience, and I've seen it work for others, as well. People who doubt this are only afraid of the possibilities they can experience through opening their minds, bodies and spirits. However, I agree with you that there is a major shift happening which is so exciting! I can't wait to see more people come to this awesome realization and use their minds for healing!

Suzanne's picture

I am convinced it is in the persons beliefs systems

This is a great post as always.
I have always believed in mind body healing and have seen in in action many times. What I have experienced is it unfolding dependent on the person and their beliefs and where they are in their life.
To clarify, I have seen some negative people for the first time in their life be positive with a serious illness. They finally (with the threat of death) are grateful and inspired.
On the flipside there are those who because they believe so strongly their life is meaningless, or they have no real importance, purpose, they give in to the disease and expect nothing better. In a sense they feel they deserve it, they would be better off.
I am not a Dr. This is my observation from years of observing. My mom and aunt are included in this study. My mom was a hypochondriac who got cancer. It was cured then my brother died. He was only 18.Cancer came back and my mom never recovered. Moreso from the loss of her son. She found no meaning in life and continued to get sicker and sicker until she finally died at about 70lbs and 54 years young.
My aunt on the other hand was fun and positive even tho she had a horrible abusive husband. She had cancer from head to toe literally. Yet her 6 months to live wound up being 12 years. (the two ladies were related only by marriage)
My belief is, if people have a better understanding of the importance of positive thinking and can in real time relate their thoughts with their current experiences, the likelihood of their belief system changing is great.

Eleanor's picture

Concerned: responding to several blog posts at once.


You seem well intended, but clinically and scientifically inexperienced in the mind-body domain of health care. Psychiatrists have been researching mind-body themes since the 1950s, and I am not learning anything new thus far from your writing.

At the end of the day, it seems like you will be encouraging your patients to drop their defensiveness about psycho spiritual challenges as they relate to illness. This service is good, but it is the sort of exploration that belongs in the office of a mental health practitioner.

Lissa, you easily charge twice as much as a psychiatrist would charge per hour. I have some concerns about your fees because you are formally trained to offer GYN, not psychological services. Patients are paying you twice as much for services that you are not trained to provide. Your manner, I am sure, is warm and welcoming, but a loving bedside manner is simply not enough, especially with patients with complicated emotional and spiritual conflicts.

It is admirable that you are interested and committed to
developing a thoughtful and comprehensive understanding of your patients. All that said, I worry about your proposed model of care because you don't have the needed
clinical experience to manage the psychological and spiritual challenges of patients. I realize you are an experienced GYN, and you are clearly compassionate and caring, but your lack of relevant clinical experience, concerns me, especially in light of your fees.

Your blog conveys warm and heart felt concerns about patients, but at times your words seem emotionally seductive, especially for patients who may be more needy and emotionally fragile. I worry about the fee issue, and worry about financial exploitation of patients who may not have the emotional boundaries and clarity to see "your love" for what it truly is and is not.

I am not discouraging you from pursuing your mind-body endeavors, but urge you to consult with a psychoanalyst to ensure that your unconscious motives are sound and not inadvertently exploitative of your patients.


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