There's a whole new branch of science dedicated to understanding how the brain affects the immune system, and it is fascinating.
Most people know about the 'Placebo Effect.'
The idea behind it is that if you think you're being treated for an illness, the very thought that you're being treated helps facilitate health.
Meaning that as long as you think you're getting treatment, it doesn't matter what pill you take, you will feel the effect of the drug that you believe it'll give you.
The placebo effect has been measured in thousands of medical experiments, and many doctors admit to regularly prescribing placebos affecting a wide range of health conditions.
What's most interesting about the phenomenon is that it points to something much more important - how our thoughts and beliefs about ourselves actually impact our physical bodies.
Although we've known about the placebo effect for over 50 years, it's now being taken a step further towards understanding how our thoughts and emotions impact our immune system and other regulatory systems in the body.
"Psychoneuroimmunology is a relatively new area of scientific study. It studies the direct effect of brain activity on the immune system.
Just as a dog can be conditioned to salivate at the sound of a bell, so can mice be conditioned to restrain their immune system when presented with a specific stimulus.
It has long been known that a positive outlook can help stave off illness.
In recent years, this pseudo-science has become science fact.
Expecting improvements in health can impact the efficacy of an individual's immune system."
So, although we don't EXACTLY know why, we know that positive thoughts, beliefs, and emotions can have a positive impact on our health.
What about negative thoughts and emotions?
Can regularly thinking negative thoughts and experiencing negative emotions affect our health?
The answer is yes.
Negative thinking and negative emotional experiences impact the brain and body's stress response system that governs our fight or flight response.
Nadine Burke Harris, a pediatrician focused on how childhood trauma affects health as we age explains it like this:
"Imagine you're walking in the forest and you see a bear. Immediately, your hypothalamus sends a signal to your pituitary that sends a signal to your adrenal gland that releases stress hormones... and so your heart starts to pound, your pupils dialate, your airways open up, and you are ready to either fight that bear, or run from the bear.
And that is wonderful... if you're in a forest, and there is a bear.
But the problem is what happens when the bear comes home every night, and this system is activated over, and over, and over again.
And it goes from being 'adaptive' or 'life-saving' to maladaptive, or health damaging."
When we are repeatedly subject to this stress activation, brain structure and function, immune system, hormonal systems, and other regulatory systems are all affected.
The Harvard Review of Public Health has reported that frequent or long-term cortisol activation (the stress hormone released when your body enters this fight or flight mode) causes the body to suffer in a variety of ways - the digestive system, fertility, urinary, immune systems can all be impacted negatively.
When we think of situations that cause us stress, we usually think of external events. Arguments with loved ones, feeling overwhelmed because of how much we have to do, taking care of children, difficult emotional circumstances, etc.
We don't think of that 'bear' described above as being in our own head. We don't think of ourselves as the cause of our own stress.
The amazing thing is that our own perception of the events in our lives is what causes us to feel certain ways. And when that perception is continuously reinforced over and over again, we automatically take in similar events in the same way.
If I break down every time someone gets disappointed with me, then anytime I'm perceiving an interaction with someone else to mean that they're disappointed with me, I'll break down. The more often it happens, the faster I feel the effect, and the more strongly I feel it.
The more I perceive events in ways that cause me to feel like I'm being threatened, the stronger the emotional response. The pattern in a way becomes addicting, and the addiction to our own negative states is harmful to our bodies.
So the question is, is there anything we can do to stop this process and improve our physical health through our minds?
The answer again is, yes.
Stopping Negative Thinking and The Corresponding Emotional Reactions
Changing your perception
In order to change the way I react to different events, I have to first of all become aware of how I actually take events as they show up. It's the way I'm looking at things that causes me to think and feel about them a certain way.
That means firstly questioning my own reaction to things that happen, and then actively looking for a way to see the situation more positively. If I take my own reactions as the absolute truth (which we almost always do), then I can't stop the emotional effect it has on me. So we have no choice but to look for different ways of perceiving situations.
Rather than judging someone for the way they act, I can try to see from their point of view. Rather than judge myself for the way I act, I have to have compassion for myself. I have to see differently in order to change how events feel to me.
There's no overnight solution to negative thinking. It has to be a practice. But the more I practice, the slower my automatic reactions become and the more a space opens up in me to perceive things differently. The more I perceive things differently, the less control my automatic emotions will have over me, and the less they'll harm my body.
Let go of negative attitudes - they cause you emotional suffering and physical harm. There are 0 benefits to feeling negative about yourself, about others, or about situations that arise in your life.
The science behind meditation is growing, and the health benefits are undoubtedly clear. It reduces stress, increases self-awareness, enhances brain function, and actually directly combats the effects of negative thinking by lowering the impact of the part of our brain that makes use of fight or flight responses.
To feel the effects of meditation, you don't have to sit quietly for an hour every day. The longer you meditate, the more you'll feel an impact, but even just sitting quietly without any stimulation for 5 or 10 minutes a day to simply be with yourself and see what's happening inside your head will increase the quality of your days.
We created The Meditation Sidekick Journal to help anyone build a meditation practice. If you've been wanting to begin to meditate, this might be the perfect tool for you. You can check it out by clicking here.
Teach Your Body to Relax
In the world today, we are ALWAYS being stimulated in some way. There's no more free time - it's always being filled with something. One interesting thing you might find is that your body holds tension throughout the entire day, even if you're just sitting and messing around on your phone.
Your face might be scrunched up, your shoulders pulled upwards, your stomach kept in tight. We are in constant physical tension and it's really important to recognize when we do have physical tension and simply let it go.
Even when you try this, you'll find that after a minute the tension reappears. That's because it's so ingrained in us we can't really control it without practicing for a long period of time.
So whenever you can remember, just let your body relax. Let everything fall and just breathe. Negative thoughts or emotions correspond to tense physical postures. You can break the cycle by relaxing the body!
In the end of the day, it's about changing the way we receive the events in our life and letting go of negative attitudes.
A number of activities help you do that - whether its meditation, journaling, taking a few moments to relax, letting go of relationships that cause unnecessarily emotional reactions, we have to find ways to change the way we perceive our lives. It will impact our day to day quality of life, and our health and longevity.