The mind can have a powerful influence on the body. The state of our mental and emotional health can have a surprising effect on our health and wellbeing. Here we take a look at ways to make sure it’s a positive one.
The mind has a powerful influence on the physical body. Fear, for example, can trigger release of the hormone adrenaline, causing the heart to pump faster and leading to physical sensations such as palpitations and sweating. On the other hand, pleasurable thoughts and feelings can trigger the release of endorphins (natural opiate chemicals) in the brain, leading to muscle relaxation and a sense of wellbeing.
The link between the emotions and the brain may be through a group of brain chemicals called neuropeptides, of which endorphins are one type. As different emotions are experienced, different neuropeptides circulate in the body. Interestingly, both these chemicals and viruses enter the cells of the body by means of the same receptors. This has led to speculation that thoughts and emotions may affect both vulnerability to and resistance against viruses and disease.
Scientists are currently exploring this link, but healers and cognitive therapists have long employed mental techniques for health and healing. One example is the system of positive affirmations, popularised by US healer Louise Hay. Others are derived from cognitive psychology and neurolinguistic programming (NLP) to eliminate negative thoughts and regulate emotions.
Mental health techniques
According to Louise Hay, every disorder can be linked to particular negative thoughts or emotions and may be helped by substituting those thoughts for more positive ones. Heart problems, for example, may be linked to feelings of being unloved or unlovable and may be eased by regular use of an affirmation such as, “I’m lovable and able to give and receive love.”
In cognitive therapy, a simple thought-stopping technique is used to interrupt negative thoughts. In the case of panic attacks, for example, as soon as a person starts to experience anxiety and begins the mental message “I’m afraid” they’re taught to mentally say “STOP!” and to substitute a pleasurable thought such as thinking about a loved one or a favourite place. The mind then focuses on this new thought and the anxiety diminishes.
Creative visualisation techniques can also be used. For example, visualising oneself on a beach or in a favourite place may induce feelings of relaxation and pleasure and decrease anxiety.
Learning to express emotions in a positive way is important for general health, too. Research has suggested that people who tend to bottle up their feelings and harbour inner resentment may be more susceptible to certain diseases such as colds, flu and heart disease.
Talking to a friend or counsellor can be a good way of letting off steam and exploring negative feelings. Regular outbursts of anger, hostility and irritability can increase personal conflict at home and work and have also been linked to heart disease. Learning anger-management techniques such as the ones below can help.
When you feel yourself getting angry, try these techniques to help you calm down and prevent outbursts.
* Notice the tension building in your body. Make a conscious effort to relax your muscles, especially those in your fists, shoulders and face.
* Take several slow, deep breaths.
* Slowly count to ten.
* Slowly drink a glass of cold water.
* Observe your angry thoughts and substitute them for more genial alternatives.
* If you haven’t eaten for a while, do so. Your irritability may be linked to low blood sugar levels.
* If your anger relates to tiredness, take a break and sleep on it.
* Try to be understanding and see the other person’s point of view.
* Even if you feel you have a genuine grievance, make your point calmly without raising your voice. Be ready to listen in return.
* Practise assertion in place of aggression by communicating your needs clearly and being prepared to take the needs of others into account.
* Be willing to apologise, make amends and forgive.
* If the conflict is escalating, remove yourself from the situation until you can face it calmly and appropriately.
* Practise tolerance, trust and compassion on a daily basis.
This article was last medically reviewed by Dr Stephen Hopwood in April 2009.