What would happen if you were to eat something unhealthy but believe it was good for you … or something healthy but believe it was bad for you?
I doesn’t matter, right? If it’s healthy, it’s healthy. That’s simply a fact.
And no matter how often you tell yourself that pan of brownies is actually good for you, it doesn’t make it so, right? I mean, that’s common sense.
Wait a minute…what?
I can’t possibly be telling you that you can just think the calories out of your brownies?! What kind of quack am I?! I mean that’s ridiculous! You’re just going to stop reading now. Obviously, I don’t know what I’m talking about.
But wait, just for a minute. Hear me out.
Okay, so you can’t make those brownies into a carrot stick no matter how hard you try, BUT it seems that what we believe matters more than we think. Our body responds to how we view something. How our body reacts and interacts changes based on what we tell our brain is true.
This shouldn’t be as shocking as it sounds. We do things like this all of the time.
Seriously. No joke.
Take phantom limb pain. One of the ways we handle it is through something called mirror therapy. We quite literally trick the brain into thinking that the missing limb is still there–even though it’s not.
By using a mirror, we envision a leg where there is no leg, and the brain responds sort of like this:
“Oh! Dear me! My mistake! So sorry! There is a leg there. I see it now. Well, let me just get rid of this pain for you. My mistake. Won’t happen again!”
And poof! The pain goes away.
Are we still missing the leg?
Are our nerves still sending a static message to the brain?
But we’ve tricked the brain into believing there isn’t a problem.
How about another example: stress.
Are you stressed?
I’m not sure you can live in this modern world and not be stressed.
For years we have been told that stress is bad for us. It makes us sick. It can even kill us.
Many have mistakenly believed that stress can cause cancer. Research has never supported this. Though there is a correlation between stress and cancer, there is nothing that backs up the idea that stress causes the cancer. A basic research principle there: correlation does not equal causation.
We are now finding out that we have been demonizing stress to our own detriment. Stress itself is not bad. It is only the belief that stress is bad that gives stress the power to harm us.
Huh? What kind of psychological mumbojumbo is this? I’m losing you again, aren’t I? Hold tight. It sounds like mumbojumbo, but it’s not.
It’s backed up with research, and it’s pretty amazing. Check out this TedTalk and let the experts say it better than I can myself: Kelly Mcgonigal TedTalk Trust me, it’s worth the watch.
Stress itself is not bad for us. In fact, we need to take our stress response and make it work for us.
I decided to take this concept and consciously practice it recently when confronted with a crisis in my own life.
As a professor of Psychology, I am very aware of the cycle of the stress response and exactly what is happening in my body when the fight/flight response is triggered. I felt the acceleration of my hearbeat. I felt the blood pumping in my veins. I was aware that my lack of appetite was due to my body focusing its energy on more important needs. I was aware of the the cortisol flooding my system to ensure that I had energy despite my lack of nutrition. I was consciously aware of my body’s response to the crisis at hand, and I told myself just what I was told to tell myself: this is a good thing. This is my body helping me to rise to the challenge and to overcome.
Phase two, I called my friends and family. Remembering the second part of Kelly Mcgonigal’s TedTalk, I got the people who love and care about me involved. I didn’t try to do it on my own. I didn’t let pride or embarrassment keep me silent. I knew I needed friends, and I called them. And they came, because my friends and family are awesome that way!
This was the second worst crisis of my life, only topped by the diagnosis and subsequent death of my first child.
It was bad. Really, really bad.
And yet, I handled this crisis better than any crisis in my life. My body empowered me to deal with it, and my very belief that it would, ensured that it did. It didn’t make the situation any less terrible, but I handled it so very much better!
And I am continuing to handle it so much better, because, though the initial crisis is over, the stress and the aftermath are going to take a long, long time to deal with, and the continued stress I feel can sap my energy and will, or it can feed me.
I choose the latter.
I know my body is designed to help me withstand and overcome just such situations, and I’m going to let it do just that.
The Huffington Post puts it this way:
This isn’t exactly new material. Think of Shakespeare’s wisdom that “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Or this affirmation by 19th century Christian religious thought leader, Mary Baker Eddy: “Hold thought steadfastly to the enduring, the good, and the true, and you will bring these into your experience proportionably to their occupancy of your thoughts.” (See #9 on: “10 Positive Thinking Books That Might Change Your Life.”)
In other words, the more research we do, the more the link between our spirit/soul/consciousness and our physical selves becomes evident. What we think matters. Negativity hurts us physically. Whether it is our inner dialogue telling us how we don’t measure up and how we can’t ever achieve what we want to achieve (for more on this concept see my earlier blog: Queen of Schmucks ) or whether it is telling ourselves that our biological stress response is bad for us, negative thoughts take a toll on our physical bodies.
We need to change how we think.
How do we go about it? Well “Forbes” magazine breaks it down and gives us some practical steps in how we can begin to change our mindset about stress and make it work for us:
Then, follow this three-step process for cultivating a new stress mindset over the next month:
Acknowledge stress when you feel it, notice stress in your body.
If you have a difficult time noticing what you feel in your body, try meditating for just five minutes a day.
Welcome stress by knowing that it’s a response to something you care about. Can you connect with the positive motivation behind the stress?
What is at stake here? Why does it matter to you?
Make use of the energy that stress gives you, instead of wasting time trying to manage stress. Think of something you can do now and take action aligned with your values and goals.
If you believe the research, this short intervention can change your life.
Changing how we think is hard. It takes conscious effort and time. We can’t change our thinking over night.
For the optimists out there, we have a built in buoy system that makes it a whole lot easier.
For the pessimists, it might well be an uphill battle–but it’s a battle worth fighting.
It just might save your life.