The Fertile Mindset: Why Thinking is Bad for Your Health

Because I am still enjoying some time in Montana with family, I thought I would share a great blog by Mirabai Galashan. Anyone interested in learning more about self-care may want to check out her resources.

Why thinking is bad for your health

Mirabai Galashan

Love is the Strongest Medicine

In spite of the fact that many people tend to live as if their head and body are two distinct entities, there is, in fact, a great deal of kosher clinical research to back up the notion that what goes on in your head has a tangible effect on your body. Evidence continues to accumulate in favor of the idea that psychology affects biology. In other words, what you think will affect your physical state of health.

Your mental and emotional reaction to stress – and by that I mean any experience, real or imagined, that you would rather avoid, triggers an internal alarm system that activates a host of physiological events that tax the body and reduce the capacity of the immune system. Mood swings, headaches and migraines, digestive problems, trouble sleeping, more frequent episodes of illness, such as colds or flu, and lack of energy and fatigue are commonly reported among people under stress. Other adverse health effects attributed to exposure to stress include increased blood pressure, increased risk of cardiovascular disease, autoimmune diseases and accelerated aging. Chronic stress may lead to damage of the receptors of the hippocampus, the area of the brain that helps interpret whether an experience is good or bad, which has been linked to depression which has been proven to increase the risk of heart disease and other serious physical ailments.

Seems obvious that the easy answer is to immediately eliminate all stress from your life. Back on planet reality however, the good news is that in recent years, scientists have also come to the same conclusion that the yogis have known for a couple of milennia; that you have, in the space between your ears, a powerful mechanism with which you can improve not just your emotional well-being but your your physical health too. The literature on happiness, optimism, and behavioral therapy techniques designed to re-frame negative thoughts continues to grow exponentially as new discoveries are made regarding the connection between positive mental outlook and physical and emotional health.

What this means to you, is that by learning ways to control your emotions, you can protect your physical body from the damaging effects of stress which occur when our habitual fear or anger reactions trigger the “fight or flight” response – and begins that chain reaction of chemical events.

According to studies by Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, subjects studying meditation for periods of at least 8 weeks and longer in order to measure the effects of mindfulness based meditation practices on chronic pain and anxiety disorders yielded significant findings. Chronic pain subjects demonstrated a decrease in the need to use pain medications; those with anxiety disorders showed a drop in the number and severity of panic attacks, as well as a reduction in scores on depression and anxiety inventory tests up to three years after the initiation of the study. Other research, indicates that meditation reduces the production of the stress hormone cortisol. Meditation has been reported, both in scholarly journals and by word-of-mouth, as an antidote for everything from mood disorders to cardiovascular disease to a heightened sense of compassion and empathy for our fellow man. It seems that there may just be something to all that woo-woo meditation stuff after all.

So the good news is, that regardless of external stress, cultivating a way to a calmer, happier way of being lends itself to a healthier body, and meditation and positive thinking are proven ways to get there. Simple enough, right? Until you actually start to pay attention to what goes on in your un-supervised mind. Scary, isn’t it? My friend Lynnie was fond of saying to me “Stay out of your head, you’ll get mugged in there.” Left to it’s own devices, your mind will tend to fall into a few familiar ruts of repetitive, and often negative, thinking.

Once you start noticing your thoughts, try to avoid spiraling into a vicious cycle of self-criticism and despair as you realize how negative they are and how doomed you are! The good news is, that simply noticing your thoughts is 99% of the battle. This is what they call the development of a ‘witnessing consciousness’. In other words, rather than just being angry – you are able to notice that you are feeling angry.

Once you make this very simple but critical distinction, congratulate yourself! You have just given yourself an unbelievably powerful advantage: by creating the possibility of choice. In the words of Viktor Frankl, the author of Man’s Search for Meaning which he wrote about his experiences as a concentration camp inmate, it’s “The last of human freedoms – the ability to chose one’s attitude in a given set of circumstances.”

What this means, is that with a little practice, you can develop the ability to change and control your emotions. Yes, you! You can do this, I promise; even if you hate the idea of meditation, can’t sit still and have the attention span of a gnat. I’m here to help.

Kabat-Zinn, J., Lipworth, L. and Burney, R. The Clinical Use of Mindfulness Meditation for the Self-Regulation of chronic pain. J. Behav. Med. (1985) 8:163-190.

Miller, J., Fletcher, K. and Kabat-Zinn, J. Three-year follow-up and clinical implications of a mindfulness-based stress reduction intervention in the treatment of anxiety disorders. Gen. Hosp. Psychiatry (1995) 17:192-200.

MacLEAN, C. R. K., WALTON, K. G., WENNEBERG, S. R., LEVITSKY, D. K., MANDARINO, J. V., WAZIRI, R. and SCHNEIDER, R. H. (1994), Altered Responses of Cortisol, GH, TSH and Testosterone to Acute Stress after Four Months’ Practice of Transcendental Meditation (TM). Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 746: 381–384. doi: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.1994.tb39261.x

McClelland, D. C., Floor, E., Davidson, R. J. & Saron, C. (1980). Stressed Power Motivation, Sympathetic Activation, Immune Function, and Illness.Journal of Human Stress, 6(2), 11-19. doi:10.1080/0097840X.1980.9934531

McEwen, BS. Hatch, MM, Hatch H. The Neurobiology of Stress: From Serendipity to Clinical Relevance. Brain Res 2000 Dec 15: 886(1-2):172-189.

Mintun MA, Sheline YI, Moerlein SM, Vlassenko AG, Huang Y, Snyder AZ. Decreased hippocampal 5-HT2A receptor binding in major depressive disorder: in vivo measurement with [18F] altanseerin positron emission tomography. Biological Psychiatry, vol. 55, pp. 217-224, February 2004.

Miller, GE. Cohen, S. Ritchey, AK. Chronic Psychological Stress and the Regulation of Pro-Inflammatory Cytokines: A Glucocorticoid-Resistance Model. Health Psychology, 2002, 21 (6) 531-541.

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