Do your thoughts have an impact on your health?
At the very least your thoughts play a role in driving your daily behavior, and these behaviors can either be beneficial or destructive to your body. But can these thoughts directly affect physiological processes that lead to illness?
Sort of like telepathy of your insides. (Still a superpower in my opinion.)
The short answer is that negative thinking probably can have a negative impact on your physical health. Your daily thoughts could increase or decrease your chances of becoming sick. What you think about, and more importantly how you think, can play a direct role in your health.
At a very fundamental level, illness is caused by germs—microscopic organisms meant to do your body harm—entering the body and infecting the cells. This causes the symptoms that we experience (stuffy nose, nausea, sore throat, etc.). Fortunately, the body has a natural defense system, our immune system, whose job it is to release antibodies that attack and kill these germs before they have the chance to infect any of the cells.
When our immune system isn’t functioning optimally we have an increased risk of getting sick.
Weakened Immune System → Illness
Effect of Stress on Immune System Function
Stress can be defined as the strain placed on the mind or body due to demanding external circumstances. Stress is caused when we experience events that we aren’t accustomed, nor prepared, to experience. Stress can result from both positive or negative experiences. Getting in a car accident is a form of stress, but so is having a baby.
Cortisol is the body’s stress hormone, and is released in the presence of physical, mental, or emotional stress. Cortisol is a pivotal part of the fight or flight response. It is secreted by the adrenal gland and is primarily responsible for allowing you to quickly convert glucose into energy. In other words, cortisol provides the quick energy necessary to take immediate action.
A bear surprises you in the woods, you become stressed, and your body releases cortisol to give you the energy to run away.
Cortisol is important for dealing with stress. However, chronically elevated levels of cortisol can lead to negative effects on the body, which include:
- Increased appetite (specifically foods containing high amounts of fat and sugar)
- Impaired memory and other mental functioning
- Increased muscle breakdown
- Negatively affecting healing abilities
- Increased feelings of anxiety and depression
- Suppressed immune system
Notice the last item. Chronically elevated levels of cortisol in the body can actually work to suppress your immune system, hindering your body’s ability to fight off those pesky germs. Elevated levels of stress can increase your chances of getting sick.
Increased Stress → Weakened Immune System → Illness
How Thoughts Affect Stress
Studies have shown that our thoughts—our perceptions and interpretations—about external events can play a role in how we cope with stress. When bad things happen, a more positive outlook has been shown to aid in the coping process. This helps to reduce the amount of stress experienced.
Additionally, positive thinking (such as finding the silver-lining, weighing the actual outcome versus the worst possible outcome, and producing solutions to the problematic outcome) has also been shown to reduce the onset of negative mental states as a result of stressful life events (i.e. depression and anxiety). To the contrary, negative thoughts can exacerbate or produce greater levels of stress.
Based on these research findings, maintaining a positive mindset during stressful circumstances can reduce the negative effects of elevated stress levels. Positive thoughts can reduce stress, and this reduced stress does not compromise the integrity of our immune system—allowing us to effectively combat illness in the body. *
Negative Thoughts → Increased Stress → Weakened Immune System → Illness
How To Think Positively
How can you learn to be more positive, even during times of high stress?
Gratitude has been shown to improve feelings of happiness. Happier people are more positive people.
Keep a daily journal where you write down three things you are grateful for. these could include important people in your life, fortunate opportunities you’ve experienced, and things like your health. Identifying and recording these important parts of your life will help elicit the feelings of gratitude that can help reduce stress.
Focus on Facts, Not Emotions
Most of our negative thoughts occur because we interpret the event within the context of our emotional response. We perceive the event negatively because we’re experiencing a negative emotion, such as feeling frustrated or sad. If we’re having the negative emotion then we assume it must be a bad experience.
For example, you get a flat tire and run late to work. It’s natural to be frustrated by this inconvenience, but perceiving the event negatively can ruin the rest of your day (and now you’re stressed because you’re going to be running late to everything). Instead, try to focus on the facts of the situation. Sure, you might be experiencing an inconvenient situation, but likely it could be far worse.
You could choose to focus on the fact that you were able to pull over safely and no one was injured. The flat tire could easily have resulted in you losing control of your vehicle and someone being seriously hurt. By reframing the situation, the inconvenience of running a little late doesn’t seem so bad.
Meditation forces one to slow down and really pay attention to their thoughts. It can be a great way to not only reduce stress, but also help you better notice when you are having negative thoughts.
Start by sitting (or lying) in a quite room. Try to focus on your breathing—noticing the sensation of the air entering and exiting your body as you inhale and exhale slowly. At first, you will likely notice your mind wanders to other things. This is OK. Simply notice your mind wandering and refocus toward your breath.
Even five minutes of daily meditation has been shown to elicit positive effects.
Have a Good Sense of Humor
The ability to identify the humor in bad situations is a hallmark trait of positive people. Even the worst of life situations almost always become a laughable story later. The ability to recognize the humor in a bad situation will shift your mindset from negative to positive.
Focus on Lessons Learned
Failures and bad situations almost always provide a valuable life lesson. Instead of focusing on the things that went wrong, focus on what you’ve learned and what you will be able to improve for the next time. Self-growth improves confidence, and confidence improves the ability to think positively.
Follow these strategies to begin thinking more positively, reduce your stress levels, support your immune system, and help fight off illness!
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*Note: this information is not meant to diagnose or treat any medical condition. Always consult your physician before implementing any treatment program.