In modern Western medicine, there’s a noted lack of acknowledgement regarding just how intensely thoughts and emotions can influence overall health and wellbeing.
People are seen as a collection of separate body parts rather than a unified being of mind/body/spirit. If someone has an issue with an organ or joint, physicians tend to treat the symptoms that present themselves instead of trying to seek out their cause.
What’s interesting to note is just how much influence our thoughts can have on our health.
What we see, think, and feel has a startling impact on our physical bodies. If we’re anxious about a particular situation, hearts will race, blood pressure will rise, and we might end up with nausea or stomach upset. In fact, we don’t have to be engaged in hardcore aerobic activity for our heart rates to accelerate to the point of being dangerous: anxiety and panic attacks can actually lead to heart attacks if they’re sustained and intense enough.
Stress can cause insomnia, which can lead to a lowered immune system, and thus susceptibility to colds and flus. Over a prolonged period of time, stress can cause irritable bowel syndrome, weight gain (which can lead to diabetes and the myriad health issues associated with it), or severe weight loss, which can be just as dangerous.
Some studies also imply that suffering from long-term stress can cause strokes, heart disease, and even certain types of cancer.
On the flipside, it appears that positive thoughts and emotions have quite a profound effect on our health as well. People who are calmer, more optimistic, and lead overall happier lives generally look younger and live longer than their more morose counterparts.
“Nothing’s Good Or Bad, But Thinking Makes It So”
Shakespeare made a good point there, and it seems to be true as far as wellbeing goes: people’s beliefs about themselves, for good or ill, seem to manifest physically rather more often than you might expect.
For example, there was a study looking at Chinese Americans who firmly believed that their horoscope charts were unfavorable, versus those who believed their star alignments to be more positive. Those who spent their lives believing that their astrological fortunes were less-than-stellar tended to suffer from more health problems, and died a few years earlier than their more celestially blessed counterparts. Their sincere belief that the stars had cursed them with inevitable ill health made their bodies respond in kind, and sometimes manifested the very illnesses they worried about.
Even if specific illnesses aren’t caused by fret and worry, chronic anxiety can lead to depression (including existential depression), which carries a slew of side effects of its own. Headaches, joint and muscle pain, and overall fatigue are a few issues that spring forth from depression, and those in turn can wreak havoc on other aspects of one’s life. One study concluded that “depression is a clinically significant risk factor for developing coronary heart disease.”
It may also be difficult to hold down a job or maintain personal relationships when you feel like you’re in constant pain, both emotional and physical, and many physicians will just throw anti-depressants at patients (which, it must be stated, are often effective at treating the symptoms) instead of working with them to determine where their anxiety and depression stems from.
If you feel anxious or depressed and have difficulty working through those feelings on your own, it’s important to find yourself a good therapist to help you. You might also wish to look into an appointment with a nutritionist: it’s amazing how making a few dietary changes can have a massive effect on your health.
Long-lasting Effects Of Negative Thoughts And Emotions
Those little blips of anger and frustration do a lot more harm to our wellbeing than we might realize. According to a scientific study, a few minutes’ worth of sincere, strong anger negatively affects our immune systems for up to five or six hours afterward. Imagine what kind of havoc can be wreaked on someone’s immune system if they find themselves constantly angered and frustrated by their work or domestic life? They’d likely be ill quite often, and could experience a heightened risk of being struck by serious disease.
In contrast, that same study showed that people who are positive, optimistic, and compassionate have stronger immune systems, and as such tend to be healthier and happier than the angry folks mentioned above.
The placebo effect also seems to have a remarkable effect on us. Consider for a moment how many people feel healthier when given a placebo for a specific problem instead of real medication. The patients are told that the meds they’re being given will cause a certain number of specific positive effects on their health, and because they believe that those effects will take place… they do. Merely believing that they’re going to feel better can often make people’s health improve, and just not the illusion thereof!
How To Cultivate A Happier, And Thus Healthier Mindset
Since anger and stress are two of the biggest emotional detriments to your health, it’s important to take steps to reduce those as much as possible. If they can’t be eliminated entirely (such as if you work in a very high-stress environment), then it’s a good idea to make time every evening after work to de-stress. Half an hour of yoga or meditation can work absolute wonders (just two of the many ways to increase your levels of serotonin – an important mood-stabilizer), and it’s also a good idea to stop looking at screens such as your TV, computer, or phone at least an hour before you go to bed.
Try to cultivate a calming nightly ritual, even if it’s as simple as having a cup of herbal tea and reading for a little bit, or soaking in a bath to wind down from the day. Little rituals like these can ease anxiety as well as tension, which in turn can ease insomnia, bruxism (nighttime teeth-grinding), and TMJ, all of which impact your health negatively in many different ways.
Cultivating compassion, empathy, and forgiveness also goes a startlingly long way as far as improving your emotional, and by extension physical, wellbeing. People who hold on to upset, grudges, anger, and pain caused by stressful interactions with others tend to suffer from hypertension and gastrointestinal issues like ulcers. They can even end up with autoimmune issues. Being compassionate and forgiving allows people to literally let go of a lot of negativity that is often carried like a ball of tension in the abdomen. This alleviates physical stress in the stomach, gallbladder, and intestines, which can then allow all those squishy organs to relax and heal.
It’s quite literally mind over matter.
This article merely scratches the surface, and science is still getting to grips with the sheer number of ways that our thoughts and minds impact our physical wellbeing. Suffice to say, expect more focus on the mind as part of future medical treatments.
Catherine Winter is a writer, art director, and herbalist-in-training based in Quebec's Outaouais. She has been known to subsist on coffee and soup for days at a time, and when she isn't writing or tending her garden, she can be found wrestling with various knitting projects and befriending local wildlife.