Happy New Year! As everyone knows, this is the time of year when we tend to set new goals and resolutions. I write this article every month, and I have done so for many years, but I’ve noticed over the years that this month in particular carries extra pressure… The New Year’s article. This is my eleventh one. What can I still write after all this time to get you started this year on the right foot? Should I again encourage positive changes in diet? Or positive changes in exercise? How can I encourage positive life changes in the span of two pages that will inspire you throughout the year?
And that’s when it hit me. This year, I simply encourage positivity.
The New Year is the ideal time to change your thinking to positive thoughts. Positive thinking and the related science of Mindfulness have grown exponentially in the last several years. The idea that we can change our mindset, health, and even the world through positive thoughts can seem absurd. However, studies now have seen changes in confidence, improved mood, and potentially reduced likelihoods of developing conditions including hypertension, depression, and stress-induced diseases. We saw a surge in positive thought in 2006 when author Rhonda Byrne published The Secret. This book goes well beyond postulating health changes through visualization and positive thought; it suggests that you might be able to change your surroundings and future simply with how you think about them.
It may or may not suit your beliefs to think that there is such a force in play that we really have very little understanding of, but, consider at least places where thoughts certainly seem to interject into reality. Health is perhaps at the top of this list. In regards to health parameters in particular, it is clear that we have thought profound changes in health might be related to your thoughts for decades.
Somatization disorder, a process in which a person’s psychological or emotional distress has manifested in physical symptoms, has been an existing diagnosis for years. Somatization often includes pain or headaches, but, it has also been related to seizures or fainting. These are objective symptoms that can be seen by others, and yet we think that some of the people suffering with these symptoms might be thinking themselves into them.
It stands to reason that if great stress can result in adverse physical symptoms, why wouldn’t we be able to improve our health with positive or stress-reducing thoughts? We know this already, which is why we account for a placebo effect in every medical study that is conducted. Placebo effect is basically the subset of people that thought, “This pill that I’m taking is going to help me.” And then it did, even if it was just a sugar pill. Placebo is described as a psychological phenomenon because the only treatment in place was the suggestion of treatment. The people had a positive thought and that positive thought led to a physical improvement. Of course, no one would suggest that you rely on placebo effect or positive thinking for all your health concerns, but why not at least visualize success and positive outcomes in all your treatments?
This can be harder to do than you might think. Professor Ronald Siegal, in a lecture series called “The Science of Mindfulness,” described our tendency to negative thinking as our “negative bias.” It turns out, evolutionarily, it behooves us to imagine the worst-case scenario. Siegal gives the example of how our ancestors ensured their survival. Imagine an early ancestor in Africa in which a possible attack by a hungry lion was a very real possibility. Now imagine that she has to leave her shelter to find food. If she sees a strange shape in the distance, she could either assume it is a rock or she could have a negative bias and think that it is a hungry lion. If it is a rock and she is wrong about it being a lion, she was overly cautious but she lives. If she is more optimistic and thinks it is a rock, but she is wrong and it is a lion, she dies. From an evolutionary standpoint, we are programmed to be more negative because those are the people that lived. It was risky to be an optimist and it is likely that the optimists died, possibly before they could procreate.
This is perhaps an extreme example and it can be a little disheartening. Although if you realize that you have this negative bias and that it is normal, you can put practices in place to help override it. It is useful to imagine negative outcomes to prevent unnecessary risks, but ask yourself if there are times when negative thoughts really aren’t helping with your survival.
For instance, it is great if a concern over your blood pressure encourages you to take a walk every day. But once you have done what you can do for heart health, is it helpful to worry after that? Or worse, could you be developing somatic presentations in your health with the negative thinking? Do you have a high blood pressure every time you enter a doctor’s office even though it is fine at home? This is your negative bias.
Just think of the positive outcomes if you could replace the negative thought with a positive thought; you could improve your health outcomes instead of propagating problems. If you’re having trouble overcoming your own negativity bias, seek out mindfulness practices, meditation, or read more about the power of positivity.
None of this is to say that you don’t need to do other things to improve your health this New Year. Do make positive changes in your diet. Do make positive changes in your exercise regime. But when you do these things, begin to imagine and appreciate the results that you ARE going to get. Imagine right away that you feel better. Think about those unwanted pounds coming off in an efficient way. Think of how great you feel and how well you rested. With every positive thought comes your very own potential for positive results, and an increased potential for a positively Happy New Year.
Stay healthy & be well!
-Amy Whittington, NMD