There are many ways to improve or maintain your health. Ones that come to mind are regular exercise, a good night’s sleep and healthy eating. What’s common about them, is they all focus on the physical aspect of the body. And we shouldn’t ignore that. But what’s less often discussed is how our thoughts can affect our health. Is it possible to think a certain way and be healthier? Is there power in positive thinking?
It might be hard to believe that how you think can have an impact on your physical health, much less prevent disease from happening. Seeing your doctor usually starts by asking about physical symptoms followed by measures such as blood pressure, weight and perhaps a blood test. Hospitals and specialist doctor are arranged by physical organs. There are separate wards for the heart, kidney, lungs, etc. Given that, you might think your thoughts are irrelevant to your health. But they’re not.
One only has to look at sports. An athlete can have a great performance one day, and then a week or so later, have a terrible one. The two occasions are close enough to rule out any likely changes in fitness and skill. So what’s going on? Most likely their mental state was different. This is why athletes and teams spend millions of dollars on sports psychologists. Looking for any edge over the competition.
But it’s not just sports. It could be a job interview. A presentation in front of a large audience. Or even negotiating a deal on a new car. What you’re thinking can have a big impact on how you do during these events. While some excitement is beneficial to how you perform, if your thoughts become dominated by worry and concern, it can work against you. One might be more likely to mix up words during that presentation. Or the legs may go weak affecting physical performance. The value of positive thinking is reflected in the old Latin saying Possunt quia posse videntur. This roughly translates to they can, because they think they can.
How Your Thinking Affects Your Body
With every thought you have, chemicals (hormones and neurotransmitters) are released. These chemicals are messengers within your body. Hormones play a crucial role in activating many processes in the body. While neurotransmitters act as messengers within the nervous system.
It’s been theorized the type of chemical released depends on your thoughts. Are they positive or negative? With positive thoughts, it’s believed dopamine and serotonin are released. Dopamine is involved in the brain’s reward centre, and serotonin with feelings of happiness. There is some evidence that people with depression have disruption to the effects of dopamine and serotonin.
But the real benefit of positive thinking, may be in the absence of negative thinking. Negative thoughts can increase cortisol levels. Cortisol is considered a stress hormone and higher levels have been associated with poor quality sleep to a number of diseases. Positive thinking may lower daily cortisol levels and also result in a lower cortisol response to a stressful task.
Health Benefits of Positive Thinking
Positive thinking has been associated with lower chances of getting sick and a longer lifespan. A review of 10 studies with over 200 000 participants found a 35% lower chance of getting heart disease and a 14% lower chance of early death in people who were optimists. Similar findings were reported in a more recent large study of women, in which the most optimistic thinkers had a 5.2% greater lifespan (approximately 4.4 years). This may be related to the finding that optimists have better coping skills when dealing with stress and setbacks.
From these studies it’s hard to know if more positive thinking results in improved health, or if healthy people are more positive. Participating in a healthy lifestyle may account for some of the benefits of positive thinking. Or again, a healthy lifestyle may lead to positive thinking. Positive thinkers are more likely to eat healthy, exercise and not smoke, because they’re more knowledgeable about health and disease. And we know exercise also has its own effect on positive thinking and happiness.
However, being optimistic is associated with biological risk factors such as lower blood sugar and cholesterol. In addition, positive thinking may also improve immune function and reduce your chances of getting infection and cancer. With negative thoughts comes increases in cortisol. While cortisol is beneficial during acute stress, if levels are consistently high it can increase your risk for a number of diseases.
How to Become a Positive Thinker
It turns out humans are prone to negative thoughts. This has an advantage of warning us of dangerous things and was helpful to survive thousands of years ago. But nowadays, in a much safer society, focusing on the negative isn’t all that helpful. And you can train yourself to think positively.
First off there’s value to reducing or eliminating negative thoughts. Many of us will launch into self-blame thinking when something bad occurs. Or anticipating the worst outcome is going to happen in a situation. Eliminating those thoughts, and others, can be of great help. However, that’s not always easy to do. Engaging in positive self talk may be easier and has been linked to reducing anxiety before public speaking.
Examples of positive self talk include repeating statements such as I am happy, I am doing great, I can do this, I’m proud of myself for trying or I have the power to change my mind. This can be done anywhere, but may have more effect when looking in a mirror so you can see yourself tell yourself.
Another method called the Best Possible Self, resulted in improved optimism after just one session. All people did was spend five minutes each day imagining the best possible future for themselves. This also helps you avoid dwelling on the past, which can prevent us from moving forward.
Other ways include keeping a journal. In it keep track of the things you are thankful for. You can either do this in the morning to start your day off on a positive note, or in the evening to recount all the good things that happened that day. If you do have negative thoughts, write them down too and write down why you have them. Often we find our negativity comes from some underlying fear we have.
Our mental outlook is also contagious. Hanging out with people who are negative can rub off onto you and bring you down. Likewise, being around people who are optimistic can lift your spirits and instill a brighter view on life. So try to spend time with other positive people and ask them how they see life through their eyes.
While we spend so much time focusing on the outside world, we actually process and make sense of that world in our own internal thoughts. Two people can look at the same glass of water and see different things based on their own outlook. Charles Swindoll captured this well when he said, “Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it”.
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