Harnessing the power of your mind
If you know me, have attended my talks, read my books or followed my blog, you’re familiar with my favorite quote: “You are what you believe you are!” I recently listened to the Huberman Lab Podcast featuring Dr. Alia Crum, a tenured professor of psychology at Stanford University and Founder and Director of the Stanford Mind and Body Lab. Dr. Crum spoke about “the Science of Mindsets for Health and Performance” and how what we think and believe actually shapes the way that our physiology and our biology react to things like food, stress and exercise. We’re at a turning point in medical history where more and more research is uncovering the mysteries of our mind-body connection. Why should you care?
Why you should care
Here’s why. This fascinating relationship can help you better understand why you feel and act the way you do and how autoimmune diseases (when the body attacks itself on a cellular level) such as Lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis affect you. And if our bodies can attack themselves physically, can we attack ourselves emotionally as well? The answer increasingly appears to be yes. From the familiar fight-or-flight response, we know that our thoughts send out chemical messages in the brain that tell our cells to act. When this happens, hormones flood the body so we can fight or run away. Let me give you some other examples of how your beliefs can affect your body, especially stressful thoughts that unleash a cascade of chemicals that prompt your body and cells to think they’re being attacked.
The trillions of cells in our bodies hear everything our brains say. Fear can arise from a few stressful things that don’t have to be life-or-death situations. They can be work-related; you made a mistake and now you must face the consequences. Or you realize that you won’t be able to pay your mortgage or car payment this month. Or the thought of having to spend a holiday with some extremely annoying relatives that you dislike. Tax time also triggers stressful thoughts for most people. Consequently, when your brain is full of stressful and negative beliefs, your body believes it’s under attack again and needs to survive. What you believe about the nutritional value of your food changes the way it impacts your body to a remarkable degree. The same is also true about exercise, stress and even medication.
Recent work by Dr. Crum shows that what we believe about the side effects of treatments and their effectiveness of them has a profound impact on their effectiveness. She is one of the leading-edge researchers on the mind-body interface. Dr. Crum defines mindsets as “core beliefs or assumptions we have about certain things that orient us toward expectations and goals.” In simpler words, mindsets are an assumption you make about a particular thing, for example, stress. How do you view stress? Do you see it as a threat or something that’s bad for you? Or do you see stress as a challenge, something that you can leverage to make you better or improve your performance? Your answer has a huge impact on your expectations, motivation and feelings. You might want to ask yourself: “what is my mindset about…..?”
The placebo effect
Extensive research into the “placebo effect” supports the link between beliefs and health. In fact, simply expecting that a treatment is going to help you can make it help you, even if it’s only a sugar pill. In the case of Parkinson’s disease, placebos have been found to temporarily improve symptoms by increasing dopamine levels. Other research has shown that placebos may “alter patterns of brain activation” that process pain. Negative beliefs and worrying about things will set you up for illness. Positive beliefs, on the other hand, heal you and make you better. We know from medical research that our beliefs can be self-fulfilling prophecies.
A recent study
A recent study involving medical students showed that nearly 80% of them reported that they developed some of the symptoms related to the illnesses they were studying simply because they focused so hard on those illnesses. Another study published in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry showed that our beliefs and thoughts are neurotransmitters that send chemical messengers and information throughout our brains and our bodies. These messages impact our blood pressure, immune responses, sleep and digestion. Yes, you read that correctly. Ted Kaptchuk, a Harvard Medical School professor, says, “Our cognitive beliefs could be as potent as pharmacological interventions in terms of modifying biophysical processes in the brain and changing behavior. The placebo effect is everything that surrounds that pill—the interaction between patient, doctor or nurse. It’s the symbols. It’s the rituals. These are powerful forces.”
Think ourselves ill
“Thoughts, the mind’s energy, directly influence how the physical brain controls the body’s physiology,” according to Dr. Bruce Lipton, author of The Biology of Belief – Unleashing the Power of Consciousness, Matter and Miracles. Harnessing the power of your mind can be more effective than the drugs you’ve been told to believe you need, says Lipton. Thinking a stressful thought or believing something bad is going to happen makes your body react at the cellular and neurochemical levels. Research has shown that worrying and focusing on illnesses shift your brain into its fight-or-flight stress response, which sends a cascade of cortisol and epinephrine into your bloodstream. When this happens, your body becomes more predisposed to illness. What this suggests is that we can actually cause ourselves to become sick just by thinking about it. But the good news is that the opposite is also true. When we think positively about our health, have hope and believe we’re worthy of optimal health, our bodies our positively affected. Experiments on humans have demonstrated that positive moods not only reduce stress-related hormones but also pump up the immune system and promote the rapid recovery of the heart after exertion.
A comprehensive review of over 160 medical studies found that positive expectations are associated with better health and that a person’s positive beliefs strongly impact health positively. Science has also shown that who you surround yourself with affects your health. People who have satisfying relationships with family, friends and community are happier, have fewer health problems and live longer. On the other hand, lacking social ties is associated with depression and later-life cognitive decline in later life and increased mortality. Although multiple interacting factors affect health and disease (genetics, trauma, socioeconomic environment, etc.), your beliefs matter, too. One study showed that middle-aged adults who had positive beliefs regarding aging “lived on average 7.6 years longer” than those who had negative beliefs, even when controlling for current health and other risk factors. In a number of other studies, optimists were “less likely to develop heart disease,” once again controlling for other risk factors. I don’t know about you, but thinking positively and being an optimist sounds like a win-win situation to me. And it’s a choice we all can make. So, don’t worry – be happy!