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Lessons On Forgiveness From HIV

"I could spend all my time crying and worrying ...but it's not helpful. I don't have a lot of energy to spare right now, so why waste it on that?"


Anger at being diagnosed with a serious disease is a very common reaction. Someone looking for a rational explanation for why this happened to them may rage against big corporations pouring pollution into the environment, parents for passing on a "bad" gene, or God for letting something so incredibly unfair happen to them.

Bitterness at being singled out is normal, especially in those who thought they were taking all the steps necessary to make sure that they were safe. Can these negative emotions be bad for the immune system?

Psychologist and breast cancer survivor Robin Haller says, "I could spend all my time crying and worrying about what will happen to my kids," she said. "And I did do a little bit of that. But it's not helpful. I don't have a lot of energy to spare right now, so why waste it on that?"

If people forgive themselves or others for contracting the disease, if they can accept the facts and cope with them, does that make them stronger, help them live longer and help the body heal?

HIV and breast cancer have a lot in common. Both are serious, life threatening epidemics, both are beginning to be challenged due to breakthroughs by molecular scientists and other researchers, new drugs and better treatments. What used to be a death sentence is now often treated as a chronic condition that needs aggressive treatment and large doses of hope.

A study by the Institute of Human Virology focuses on HIV, but the answers that these researchers find will apply to breast cancer and many other diseases.

The Institute of Human Virology is a center of the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute and is affiliated with University of Maryland Medicine. It is a unique center where epidemiologists, basic researchers and physicians work side-by-side under one roof. The team has kicked off a two-year study.

These researchers plan to evaluate the power of forgiveness on physical health. They are looking at the effects psychological and spiritual attitudes may have on the immune systems of patients with HIV -- and the preventive role they may play in the transmission of the virus that causes AIDS.

"It is hypothesized that being able to "forgive and forget," to let go of angry thoughts and feelings, may promote the body's natural ability to return hyper-aroused physiological systems back to more normal levels of homeostasis," Dr. Lydia Temoshok, principal investigator of the study and Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Maryland School of Medicine explains. "This state of homeostatis is critical in maintaining an even keel, slowing the progression of AIDS and in maintaining a higher quality of life."

"Rapidly accumulating research demonstrates a strong correlation between psychosocial and spiritual influences and immunological, biochemical and disease outcomes," says Dr. Temoshok. "But there have been few scientific studies with empirical data to prove these theories. This will be one of the first to systematically test these approaches and document their benefit, perhaps not only to HIV/AIDS patients, but to the general public as well."

The HIV virus is perfect for studying effects on the immune system. Dr. Temoshok says this in a slightly more scientific way, "HIV/AIDS as an intrinsically immunologic disease provides perhaps the quintessential paradigm for studying the impact of forgiveness on immunologic parameters and health outcomes."

The status of HIV/AIDS can be easily monitored using routine blood work. Stored blood samples from each of the two hundred participants will be examined to study progression of the disease -- or lack thereof -- in correlation with reported spiritual attitudes and coping tendencies. Immune system measurements such as CD4 cell count, chemokine production and plasma HIV RNA levels will be monitored throughout the study.

The Institute of Human Virology's clinical team will oversee the medical components of the study. The IHV study also will examine the possible impact of forgiveness on patients' emotional well-being, the care of their own health and the health of others, engagement in treatment and adherence to medical regimens.

As part of a 60- to 90-minute structured interview, patients will compare themselves to three identified coping styles.

  • Do they handle stress proactively,
  • do they feel hopeless and/or that they've given up,
  • or perhaps they've masked a state of depression with a seemingly positive veneer -- the "Type C" coping style first described and researched in the 1980s by Dr. Temoshok in studies of cancer progression.

This type of evaluation, Dr. Temoshok says, is less threatening to patients than answering personal questions on a questionnaire and will help researchers understand their coping patterns and proclivities.

Biological markers in the patients' blood work may provide the first indications of proof that there is indeed a direct correlation between mental and physical health, but the study's real focus will be on the more difficult to measure coping and homeostatic mechanisms believed to be so interconnected with the progression of disease and functioning of the immune system.

"Emotional coping and adaptation appear consistently in the literature as key among non-medical factors predictive of health outcomes," says Dr. Temoshok. "We must evaluate the contribution that factors such as forgiveness may have on health -- both across the board and for those already afflicted with serious and chronic life-threatening conditions."

Source : Newswise

Elsewhere on the Web:

Emotions and the Immune System

Self-Regulation for Immune System Disorders



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