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It was no secret to ancient societies that how and what we think has a direct effect on our physical health. Even prehistoric Egyptians and Mesopotamians equated mental health with physical health, and King Solomon of Israel wrote that “a cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.”
Fast-forward to our century, and a growing body of scientific research consistently backs up those beliefs. In fact, the link between stress, disease and body composition is so clear that doctors long ago stopped questioning it.
“Uncontrolled, unmanaged stress clearly increases aging in hundreds of ways,” says Steven Masley, M.D., president of the Masley Optimal Health Center in St. Petersburg, Florida, and author of The 30-Day Heart Tune-Up (Hachette Book Group, 2014). Brain shrinkage, loss of muscle, decreased bone mass, and an increased risk for heart attacks and strokes are a few possible side effects of excessive stress. Stress is also a major cause of sleep loss and elevated cortisol, which has been linked to abdominal fat storage and an imbalance in the hormones that govern hunger and satiety.
Stress also incites negative thoughts, which can be just as damaging. According to research conducted at the Duke University Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health, the pain of past trauma can even lead to disease. Several studies, including one published in Psychosomatic Medicine, found that “negative ruminations” — the thoughts that sometimes seem to run in an endless loop in your head — can actually cause physical pain and slow the body’s healing processes.
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“Negative thoughts, particularly anger, resentment and pessimism, can cause health problems,” says Harold Koenig, M.D., the center’s director. “Increased stress can impair immune function and may possibly exacerbate autoimmune disorders.”
Friedemann Schaub, M.D., Ph.D., a former cardiologist and author of TheFear and Anxiety Solution (Sounds True, 2012), agrees. “Your thoughts have no impact on the body unless they get translated into emotions,” he says. “And that creates a ripple effect that has a huge impact on our health and well-being.”
To Forgive is Divine
The good news is that everything that can harm you can also heal you. “There are more and more studies showing that positivity, laughter and forgiveness have an impact on our telomeres,” says Schaub, referring to the cap-like processes on the ends of chromosomes. “The longer they are, the more youthful and healthy you are. The shorter they are, the more prone you are to the effects of aging.”
According to a study published in the October 2013 edition of the medical journal The Lancet, cancer patients who learned to become more positive through support groups, prayer and meditation, all while following a healthful diet and exercise program, saw their telomeres lengthen after just three months.
“There are huge effects in not only preventing illness but becoming younger when you release any negative tension you have been carrying,” Schaub says. “Forgiving yourself and others is a huge part of that. People with negative emotions beat themselves up a lot.” Letting go of grudges — against others or yourself — has also been shown to lower blood pressure, decrease heart disease risk and reduce stress hormone levels.
Taking a leap of faith also reaps health benefits: One of Koenig’s studies, published in the Asian Journal of Psychiatry, found that the most devout people also tend to be the most positive. This held true across a wide spectrum of major world religions. “Developing a religious worldview and working on one’s spiritual life may help to enhance optimism and foster a more positive view of life and relationships with others,” he says.
“Being part of a faith community can help increase social contacts and expose one to positive inspirational messages that help guide one’s life and help a person make better decisions.”
You Have The Right To Change Your Mind
Regardless of whether we speak our thoughts out loud or keep them to ourselves, words are powerful. That’s why Noah St. John, author of The Book of Afformations: Discovering the Missing Piece to Abundant Health, Wealth, Love and Happiness (Hay House, 2013), focuses on the power of the question.
“Most people are walking around subconsciously asking themselves negative questions like, ‘Why am I so fat? Why can’t I get in shape?’” he says. But simply changing the question to something positive like, “Why am I able to lose so much weight?” yields results because the brain is wired to find the answers to questions. After that, it empowers us to take positive actions. Changing the thoughts we have “is a tiny hinge that will swing an enormous door,” St. John says.
The first step in changing your mind is to identify the subconscious thoughts that have sabotaged you in the past. Generally, these fall into one of several categories, says Coral Arvon, Ph.D., director of behavioral health and wellness at the Pritikin Longevity Center in Miami: mind reading (“I can’t go to the gym because other people will think I’m too fat”), catastrophizing (“This is going to be so difficult”), minimizing (“This isn’t going to help at all”), fortune-telling (“I know I’ll make a fool of myself”) or black-and-white thinking (“I fell off my meal plan today, so I may as well give up”).
Fortunately, there are several ways to restructure those destructive thought patterns and belief systems in your head. Arvon recommends the ABC Method, widely used by cognitive behavioral therapists to help patients with all kinds of issues.
- Activate experiences. Simply start working out and following a solid meal plan.
- Identify the negative beliefs that come as a result of your action. Once you identify them, they’ll be easier to quell.
- List the consequences of each belief and how that negative thought makes you feel.
- Dispute and debate the negative belief, talking yourself out of it and releasing its hold on you.
- Feel the new, positive emotions such as excitement and motivation that come from realizing the negative thought is untrue.
That last step is key, says Steve Siebold, author of Die Fat or Get Tough: 101 Differences in Thinking Between Fat People and FitPeople (London House, 2010). “When you feel hungry before bed at night, that’s a good thing,” he says. “If you’re not hungry at all before bed, you probably aren’t losing any weight. So you should associate excitement with hunger pangs because that indicates you’re on your way.”
Use these steps to identify and then get rid of any negative thought patterns that could be holding you back. Once you’re free from their hold, you’ll be healthier both mentally and physically, and will be unstoppable.