How do your thoughts affect your health?
In my practice, I see clients who seem to be doing all the right things: they eat a good diet, exercise regularly, are in a supportive relationship and enjoy their work. So why do these people experience problems such as irritable bowel syndrome, skin conditions, headaches of unknown origin, anxiety and depression? And why do other people who eat takeaway every other night, drink a bit too much and are intimately connected with their TV remote control experience good health?
It’s generally accepted that half of your health is dependent on your genetic makeup, but what about the remaining half? Could your attitudes, thoughts and beliefs be contributing to your experience of good or bad health?
Thought generates complex combinations of biochemicals which, in turn, stimulate a variety of receptors that create a change in your body structure. An understanding of how to have a healthy diet of thoughts and beliefs can have a great impact on your health. We are all educated to eat well, yet little consideration is given to how your thought diet might be affecting your health.
The chemistry of emotion
Dr Candace Pert, former chief of the Section on Brain Biochemistry at the National Institute of Mental Health (US), pioneered the identification of compounds known as neuropeptides. Endorphins are a type of neuropeptide produced when you laugh or exercise; they’ve been described as the brain’s own morphine. They produce a pleasurable sensation that has been found to directly affect the immune system, the hormonal endocrine system and the entire body.
While emotions have always been considered a byproduct of the mind, they are now also linked to specific chemical processes that take place in the body, not just in the brain. The body shares receptors for these peptides with the many viruses that can enter it, so depending on the peptide load for that particular receptor, the virus may or may not be able to attach, which will then determine whether you get sick or not. This could well explain why some people in your office seem to be sick all the time while others, despite sitting in a “viral fog”, don’t seem to catch anything.
Just as you listen to the weather before you start the day, imagine taking your emotional temperature every morning. Should it be a day that promises frustration, irritation and possibly a tantrum at some stage, you’d better plan to have some fun and laughter, too, to offset the peptide load the stress will produce. You know how great it is to see the sun after days of rain? Well, your body also appreciates a bit of emotional sunshine to keep it in balance.
Studies by Ellen Idler, Professor of Epidemiology at Yale University in the US, indicate that how healthy you consider yourself to be is one of the best predictors of your wellbeing and future health. So just the very thought of not being well can impact on your overall wellbeing and future health.
In programs run across the US at Harvard University, Stanford University, University of Massachusetts and the Universities of Miami and California, people with life-threatening and debilitating illness are changing their habits and attitude. They are adjusting what they eat, how often they exercise and what they are thinking. In a number of landmark studies, it has been shown that these people have ended up functioning much more effectively, feeling better in themselves and, in some instances, living longer than initially predicted.
In Australian research1 it was found that the manner in which cancer patients are told about their diagnosis of melanoma can affect their experience. It was recommended that patient confidence would be increased if their doctor assured them they would receive the best possible treatment for their condition. Patient feedback suggested that this be added to the protocol for “breaking bad news”.
American findings seem to support that this one change to the bad-news protocol could have a positive impact on how patients experience this condition. In a US study of patients with melanoma2, it was found that those who had participated in a six-week structured group program of health education, stress management techniques and problem-solving skills regarding diagnosis had a significantly reduced incidence of recurrence and mortality compared with the control group, who had not participated in the program. Short-term benefits also included improved immune function as well as reduced psychological distress.
The moral is to not wait to get sick before you learn these techniques. Many medical labels such as cancer, arthritis, ulcer and HIV, to name a few, come with expectations of how the disease may progress based on what you have read, experienced among friends and family and what the media tells you to expect. The medicalisation of many natural health processes, such as pregnancy and menopause, creates fear and concern among the female population. It does nothing to provide a positive expectation of a natural body process.
Joan Borysenko PhD discusses how … “Conditioning is a powerful bridge between the mind and the body … for the body cannot tell the difference between events that are actual threats to survival and events that are present in thought alone.” So consider feeding your mind information that will empower your body’s experience, not weaken it. This doesn’t mean operating in fantasy land; what it does mean is you can choose to innoculate your body with thoughts and feelings that support it in health and maximise your healing potential.
The power of belief
Your belief in the treatment you receive has an impact on its efficacy. In an English study, 100 men were told they were receiving chemotherapy when they were actually given an inactive saline solution. Despite this, 20 per cent lost their hair, believing this would happen due to chemotherapy treatment.
In a 12-month quality-of-life study of Parkinson’s patients who believed they had received a transplant of human neurons into their brains but really hadn’t, there were improvements in quality of life. Twenty patients received the transplant, while 20 were randomly assigned to a sham surgery. One patient reported she had been physically inactive for several years before surgery, but in the year following surgery she had resumed hiking and ice-skating. When told she had actually received sham surgery, she was surprised. What was even more surprising was that the medical staff — who didn’t know who had received which surgery — reported improvements in the patients who had received the sham surgery.
No one really understands how placebo works. With pain management, it may be due to the endorphin-releasing effect from believing the therapy will help. Placebo may also decrease anxiety, which reduces the stress load on the body and, in turn, lessens the negative peptide load. Regardless of how placebo works, it’s evident that state of mind and the resultant peptides it produces play a role in health and wellbeing. With healthcare costs rising, it would seem prudent to explore the power of placebo as part of the wellness model, identifying and teaching people techniques to harness its power.
You gotta have faith
Research supports the understanding that greater participation in some form of religious or spiritual activity is associated with better health outcomes. In the US, it has been found that a significant number of patients welcome doctors enquiring about their spirituality. Australian studies have found that among people with religious beliefs there is greater marital stability, less alcohol and illicit drug use, lower rates of suicide, less anxiety and depression and greater altruism.
Religiosity has also been associated with less cigarette smoking, more conservative sexual practices (reducing risk of sexually transmitted diseases), lower levels of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenalin, lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol and even reduced risk for colon cancer. Such findings cannot be ignored.
Part of what may be happening here is that a spiritual or religious faith provides coping skills to help deal with day-to-day stressors, which in turn reduces the buildup of stress hormones that create disease in the body.
The power of diagnosis
Diagnosis is an attempt to identify a disease using its symptoms and signs. For many people, a diagnosis can provide comfort and relief from the stress of not knowing what’s happening to them. Yet there may be a point at which diagnosis creates a negative healing experience. If you accept that your thoughts can contribute to your experience of life, it’s likely that popular understandings of certain diseases also impact on your experience of the disease.
In a landmark study in 1973 exploring the reliability of diagnosis, Rosenham, a psychiatrist interested in the labelling effect of psychiatric diagnosis, oversaw a novel research design. In his paper, On Being Sane in Insane Places, he arranged for normally healthy people to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital. He arranged for them to present by saying they were hearing a voice saying “thud”, “hollow”, or “empty”. This was the only symptom they had. All were admitted to the psychiatric hospital based on this single presenting symptom. All but one received a diagnosis of schizophrenia and that other was diagnosed as manic-depressive. When the institution was informed that all these patients were healthy people, the hospital was in disbelief.
In the area of mental health, where diagnosis is via the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association (DSM —IV), there has been more than 40 per cent increase in mental health labels since its inception in 1952 through to the most recent revision, completed in 1994. One of the challenges is that, once you have received a diagnosis under this system, it can be challenging to get anyone to review it.
While diagnosis is more challenging in the area of mental health, due to the subjective nature of how people present, the lesson here is that if you’re unhappy or don’t agree with the initial diagnosis, it’s your right to get a second or third opinion. While in many cases an accurate diagnosis can be the start of getting better, sometimes diagnosis can become the illness itself as people live the disease and everything that goes with it. I have seen people get lost beneath their diagnosis where the whole focus of their treatment is on eradicating all signs and symptoms, and the person, their feelings and thoughts are inconsequential to the treatment regime.
It’s important to remember there’s a living, breathing person attached to the tumour or infection being treated and to not lose them in the “fight” against disease. By not attending to all aspects of the person, we miss harnessing the most potent defender against illness — you.
Tips for liberating your health
- Choose your healthcare professionals so you have confidence in them.
When a doctor is perceived as powerful and trustworthy, people get better faster. One study has even shown that doctor reassurance and support raise the threshold of pain tolerance in patients. Find health professionals that support the concept that good health is dependent on a range of factors: genetics, family upbringing, diet, exercise, beliefs, spirituality and social support.
- Become involved in the world you live in.
The more you know about the world around you, the less scary life is. When you come to understand, control and effectively deal with life, it becomes less stressful. When life becomes less stressful, you experience less harmful loads of neuropeptides that can impact on the health of your body.
- Enjoy and learn about your uniqueness.
No two people are alike. Each of us experiences a cold or flu in our unique combination of symptoms. Learn to trust how your body operates and be willing to give it what it needs. This might translate into doing things a little differently from family and friends. Make sure you find a healthcare practitioner who respects your body wisdom and is happy to work with it and support it rather than wanting to make you fit some predefined set of symptoms and treatment regimes.
- Investigate and explore healing modalities that harness the mind body connection.
Yoga, meditation and visualisation are being incorporated into wellness programs more and more. Check local classes and seek medical support that embraces the proven benefits of these activities.
- Develop a diet of healthy thoughts and attitudes.
Just as you are educated to eat a balanced diet of proteins, carbohydrates and healthy fats, consider a diet of laughter, forgiveness and love as essential nutrients for the body, too. No one ever died from too much love or forgiveness.
- Promote placebo.
people who think they will get better have a significantly greater recovery rate than those who think they won’t get better. Don’t discount the value of believing a situation can get better and surround yourself with those who are happy to promote that view.
- Take a daily supplement of gratitude, hope and trust for all you have in your life.
As Norman Cousin famously said, “Don’t deny the diagnosis — just defy the verdict that is supposed to go with it.”
- Develop a community of friends who will share and support your life with you.
One long-term study found people with the least social ties are two to three times more likely to get sick. Isolation and loneliness depress the immune system and can be a major health challenge when you lose a loved one. Sharing experiences and feelings can support the body to deal with what is happening. In a nine-year study of more than 7000 people in the US, it was found that the probability of an individual dying over the nine-year period was directly related to the size of their social support system.
1. Hearing the bad news of a cancer diagnosis: The Australian melanoma patient’s perspective, P.E. Schofield et al, 2001
2. Psychoneuroimmunology and Health Consequences: Data and Stored Mechanisms, K. Janice et al, 1995
Further references available on request.
Shirley Hicks is the founder and co-ordinator of Laughter Clubs NSW, a non-profit organisation dedicated to bringing the health benefits of laughter to the community. W: www.laughterclubsnsw.com.