Your mind is very powerful. If pharmaceutical companies could bottle and sell the placebo effect, they would be many times wealthier than they already are. A placebo, commonly known as a sugar pill, is what a new drug coming to market must be measured against to determine which works better, the drug or the mind. And more often than these companies would like, the placebo wins out, sometimes by a huge margin. Simply by virtue of a person perceiving that they are taking a drug, the intended benefit can be created in the body.
A study of 5,888 Americans over the age of 65 by researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that a poor image of one’s health roughly doubled the risk of death within five years. This held regardless of other risk factors.
“In fact, a pessimistic outlook proved to be deadlier than congestive heart failure or smoking 50 or more packs of cigarettes every year,” noted a Health Day article on the study.
The influence of positive thoughts
When you are stressed or have a lot of negative thoughts, it manifests physically with things such as increased heart rate, respiratory rate, blood pressure, and elevated cortisol (also known as “the stress hormone”).
Conversely, when you have more positive thoughts, it also manifests physically, but in a desirable way. You see lowered blood pressure, lowered respiratory and heart rates, as well as a release of things like endorphins, enkephalins, serotonin, and dopamine. These chemicals help reduce your pain, increase your mood, and bring a sense of calm.
But being positive doesn’t mean believing you will never experience difficulties. Optimists are just more likely to learn from these situations and see them realistically.
The popular medical site WebMD mentions just some of the health benefits recognized in those who view things in a more positive light. When people in one study were exposed to the flu and common cold, those with a positive outlook were less likely to get sick and reported fewer symptoms.
More kindness, better health
A positive attitude and a kind heart are the two biggest commonalities that I’ve observed over the years in those who are aging well.
An article in Psychology Today discusses the impact kindness has on your health. It states: “Researcher Barbara Fredrickson had an interesting viewpoint — that kindness, specifically loving-kindness, moved one out of the selfish realm. Stated differently, it took one off the hedonic treadmill. Compassion and kindness also reduce stress, boost our immune systems, and help reduce negative emotions such as anger, anxiety, and depression.”
It seems your perception regarding your state of health can impact a number of both acute and chronic conditions. But as physicians, are we emphasizing this enough with our patients?
Researcher Alia Crum, in an article in Stanford Business, notes that public health campaigns are geared toward motivating people to eat better, exercise, and reduce their stress, but these are incomplete. “An important variable is being left out of the equation: people’s mindsets about those healthy behaviors.”
Perhaps if we physicians stressed the importance of things like a positive outlook, re-framing a difficult situation into a positive one, and being kind and helping others, we would help our patients achieve significant improvement in their health with the need for either fewer or maybe even no medications.
Choosing your thoughts
The great thing about your thoughts is you don’t have to believe everything you think.
In his book You Are The Placebo: Making Your Mind Matter, Dr. Joe Dispenza writes “95 percent of who you are by the time you are 35 years old is a set of memorized behaviors, skills, emotional reactions, beliefs, perceptions and attitudes which function like a subconscious automatic computer.”
That’s a powerful set of mental habits to overcome, but it can be done.
An article on the University of Minnesota’s website notes the work of Dr. Fredrickson, who has spent years researching the physical and emotional benefits of positivity. These include faster recovery from cardiovascular stress, fewer colds, better sleep, and an improved sense of overall happiness.
As you go about your day, periodically pause to evaluate your thoughts. When challenges come, instead of listening to any negative thoughts, reframe them and put a positive spin on things. Accepting that change is a part of life and flowing with what life brings, including challenges, also helps. It’s really about resilience.
Remember, you don’t have to be a slave to every thought that comes your way. With time, practice, and vigilance, you can learn to tap into one of the most powerful, and completely free, health resources you have — your mind.