Reader Question: How do thoughts affect overall health?
This is a tough one. A Google search will lead you to a litany of articles declaring that thoughts have a huge impact on health, and that you can literally think yourself into disease. Conversely, research suggests that positive, hopeful thinking can help strengthen the mind and body, and in some ways bring healing to our bodies.
My response may be frustrating, but for some folks who struggle with “negative” thinking, it could also be liberating, depending on how you think about it.
First a (very) brief look at the research
Research on cognition suggests that having hopeful thoughts or what’s called positive expectancy (essentially that the “glass is halffull”), and “positive” beliefs lead to a longer life, and generally reduced risk for a variety of health problems. “Positive” thinking is correlated with healthy blood pressure, reduced risk for cardiovascular disease and an enhanced immune system, which helps fight off bugs and other ailments such as the common cold.
In terms of the “darker side”, “negative” thinking, beliefs and negative expectancy (“the glass is half empty”, “the glass is just going to break anyway so who cares”, etc.) is associated with an increased risk in health problems… including a compromised immune system, high blood pressure, stomach problems, pain, and a bunch of other things that are upsetting.
On the one hand, this all makes a lot of sense. If you’re in a negative mood state, you may experience all sorts of physical struggles such as fatigue, difficulty concentrating, aching body and so on. And if you’re in an “anxious” state, your body is likely experiencing a sustained “fight of flight” response, which means that all sorts of physical changes are happening that literally “stress” your body- increased adrenaline, heart-rate and blood pressure, tight muscles, etc…. (There’s a whole lot more to this that we will get into in another volume, but for now this should be enough to give you the gist of it).
Here’s the potential problem… if you’re a person who experiences “negative” thinking, what are you to do? How many times have you tried to tell yourself to “look at the bright side” or “just thinking good things” or “stop thinking so negatively”, and you find that this doesn’t change a thing?
You may try introducing a “positive” thought, and all you get is a cynical or gruesome response that’s even more intense than it was before. Does the above-mentioned information regarding thoughts and health actually help you to think more “positively”, or does it increase your distress, leading you to struggle even more intensely with nasty thoughts, which just leads to more nasty thoughts?
If you answered yes, and you’re the type of person who can’t help but experience “negative” thoughts, here’s the good news: it’s not actually the thoughts that affect your health. Instead, it’s our relationship to thoughts that helps or hinders health. This is the liberating part: you don’t need to change your thoughts to have health or healing. All you have to do is cultivate a healthy relationship and attitude with your thoughts. This answer is simple, but it’s not easy.
How do you do this?
Well there’s many paths to the gold, and yours is going to be unique to you. We are only going to touch on this very briefly, but you might consider doing some of your own research based on what you find below.
Most importantly, It’s a practice that must be practiced.
You can utilize techniques that will allow you to minimize your reactions to thoughts.
For example, if you’re experiencing anxious thoughts, you’re likely also experiencing a lot of muscle tension. When this happens, focus on relaxing your muscles and body. The more that you do this, the less intensely your body will react to upsetting and anxiety provoking thoughts. When we are anxious, we’re typically experiencing the muscles in our pelvis constricting around our Vagus nerve, which sends super important signals throughout our nervous system. When the Vagus nerve is squeezed by our muscles, our body goes into fight-or-flight, and we get more and more anxious thoughts. Learning to loosen muscles, particularly around the Vagus nerve, can be enough to calm our body, which dis-empowers unpleasant thoughts, and ironically, tends to lead to more healthy thinking about our fears.
Learn to “distance” or “disentangle” yourself from upsetting thoughts. This starts by noticing your thoughts and describing them, as if you’re watching them in a movie, or watching them being written out on the pavement, or in the sky.
Practice mindfulness and/or meditation in order to get a feel for what it’s like to “observe” your thoughts. When you’re in the position of observer, you’re able to get a bit of distance from thoughts and in this manner you can start to break their impact on your physical reactions.
Lastly- you are not your thoughts. Work on not over-identifying with them. You’re responsible for your actions but have limited ability to controlling your thoughts. And for most of us, the more you fight them, the stronger they get.