It matters what we think and believe

Last week I wrote about the importance of our choices in turning genetic tendencies on or off. What we eat, the way we move, how we process emotions, and what we believe to be true—all of these influence how our genes express themselves. Diet and exercise seem obvious. But thoughts and beliefs? How do they relate to having a healthy body?

Because we are whole
canada Pert quote

Candace Pert was a pioneer in researching the biochemical basis of psychology. In the 1980s, she developed a molecular theory of the emotions as bridging both mind and body. Molecules of Emotion, published in 1997, advocated a holistic approach that takes into account body-mind intelligence.

Even before Candace Pert was discovering the molecules of emotion, Louise Hay published Heal Your Body, a reference guide detailing the mental causes of physical ailments. This was considered an outrageous notion in 1976.

An article from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) offers this perspective:

“Doctors have pondered the connection between our mental and physical health for centuries. Until the 1800s, most believed that emotions were linked to disease and advised patients to visit spas or seaside resorts when they were ill. Gradually emotions lost favor as other causes of illness, such as bacteria or toxins, emerged, and new treatments such as antibiotics cured illness after illness. More recently,…they have been rediscovering the links between stress and health. Today, we accept that there is a powerful mind-body connection through which emotional, mental, social, spiritual, and behavioral factors can directly affect our health.”

Stress is a killer

That’s the prevailing cultural view—stress makes you sick, it’s an inevitable part of modern life, and there’s not much you can realistically do about it. The NIH points to increasing medical acceptance of the mind-body connection. Many recent summit interviews have emphasized that chronic stress is a major cause of illness.

The stress response is an example of the body-mind connection. When the mind perceives danger, it triggers a cascade of bodily activities such as cortisol production in the adrenal glands. This provides the extra “juice” needed to deal with the danger.

In the beginning, it was a mechanism to make sure we were safe from physical dangers such as predators in our environment. The stress resolved itself when the wolf either ate you or gave up the chase.

The stressors of modern life are different. They don’t chase you and either eat or abandon you. They continue to eat at you as your mind worries about what’s going on in the world, how your children will survive thirty years from now, and what’s happening to your job in the falling economy. This is known as chronic stress.

I sometimes wonder if chronic stress triggered a gene to stop my thyroid from working. At the time, I wouldn’t have described myself as stressed. I surprised myself one day by blurting out to a friend, “If there is even one more demand on me, I’ll break into a million bits and no one will ever pick up the pieces!” That was four months before the discovery of my thyroid enlargement.

It’s a fine line

Knowledge can be empowering. But there’s a fine line between knowing something is a possible outcome… and believing wholeheartedly that it is inevitable.

So, there is an irony in knowing that stress can cause illness. We can create a self-fulfilling prophecy that makes the dreaded outcome happen.

In the TED Talk that follows, health psychologist Kelly McGonigal talks about why she has stopped telling the story about how stress makes us sick.

The description says: “Stress. It makes your heart pound, your breathing quicken and your forehead sweat. But while stress has been made into a public health enemy, new research suggests that stress may only be bad for you if you believe that to be the case (emphasis mine).”

Bringing these findings into everyday life, she says that you can change your body’s response to stress if you change how you think about it. How? By reframing your thinking. Instead of “My heart is pounding. That means I’m not coping well.” think “This is my body helping me rise to a challenge.”

This is a powerful shift. As she says, “When you choose to regard your body’s stress response as helpful, you create the biology of courage.”

So let’s turn our thinking around

We can’t eliminate stress from modern life, but we can choose how we think. We can choose to think differently and thus create the biology of courage.

This allows us to develop stress resilience. We experience ourselves as able to cope, to handle things, to deal with stressful situations and move on.

You can begin to do this when you…

  • Make stress your friend by changing your habits of thinking about it.
  • Look for the viewpoint that offers possibility and empowerment in any situation. Choose that.
  • Watch the 15-minute video below for more insight. Take Kelly McGonigal’s perspective to heart.

The conventional healthcare culture promotes the belief that we have very little self-authority and ability to heal ourselves. We are in a position of powerlessness if we believe this. Its time to think about it differently, and next week we will.

2 thoughts on “It matters what we think and believe

  1. I have really enjoyed your blogs. This one and the epigenetics one last week have been very gratifying in that these comments and findings are what I have always thought and believed myself, but it’s always good when science backs me up!

    Thank you for making complex issues and scientific language (as in the genetics one especially) readable and understandable.

    • Thank you, Nora! I think many of us have common sense and good instincts, but we lose confidence as we try to navigate a system that doesn’t support us in that. I hope to level the playing field.

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