Did you know that the average person has approximately 50,000 thoughts a day and about 70% of those are negative? That seems rather remarkable, doesn’t it? Yet despite our seemingly overwhelming penchant for negative thinking, certain people thrive while others spin their wheels (or worse). So what do the former know that the latter are missing? A lot, as it turns out. In this article, we’re going to take a look at the evidence behind this mind-body connection and discuss ways you can help put a stop to negative mental states and improve your overall quality of life.
What Is the Mind-Body Connection?
As the term suggests, the mind-body connection refers to the different ways our thoughts, feelings, and beliefs interact to affect our biological functioning and thus our mental and physical health.
Makes sense, right?
But if negative thoughts and attitudes wreak havoc on our health, why do we have a tendency to see the glass as half empty?
The Glass Is Half Empty (or the Negativity Bias)
If you think about it, it’s really not that surprising that we tend to dwell on the negative and overlook the positive. In fact, science suggests that the brain is actually hard-wired to be more sensitive to negative information—a likely evolutionary adaptation designed to protect us from harm so we can live long enough to pass our genes on to the next generation.
A study from 2001 even concluded that “bad is stronger than good” and hypothesized that there’s an evolutionary advantage to having a greater awareness of and heightened response to negative information. However, the authors also found that “even though a bad event may have a stronger impact than a comparable good event, many lives can be happy by virtue of having far more good than bad events.”
This statement reflects the findings of multiple studies that have suggested that, rather than occasional large positive experiences, our brains need to be exposed—in a ratio of about five to one—to frequent small positive experiences to create long-standing happiness.
So our innate negativity bias means that we’re more likely to hang on to the bad memories and harrowing experiences than the good ones. It’s in our own best interest to develop methods that enhance more positive emotional states.
Linking Thoughts to Health: A Tale of Two Studies
A pair of studies conducted to help determine the effect people’s thoughts have on their physical bodies may be helpful in further illustrating the mind-body connection.
In the first study, two groups—comprised of people of comparable intelligence who had never played the piano—were given two different tasks. One group was tasked with playing certain piano scales every day for a specified period of time and the other with merely thinking about playing them.
After the study was completed, electroencephalograms (EEGs) of participants from both groups showed that the parts of the brain that corresponded with finger movements had grown, and that members of the group who had merely thought about playing the piano demonstrated the same brain development as those who had actually played the scales.
A second study compared three groups, two of which were trained to perform “mental contractions” of either the little finger or elbow, while the third group was asked to physically perform finger contractions. After a period of 12 weeks, participants tasked with performing the physical exercises increased their finger strength by 53%, while the “mental” participants increased theirs by 35%. And the group tasked with thinking about elbow contractions increased their strength by 13.5%.
How’s that for the power of positive thinking?
What About Depression?
One condition with a well-known mind-body component is depression. Moreover, a growing number of mental health professionals believe that the negative thinking that figures so predominantly in this disorder isn’t just a symptom of depression, but rather the root cause.
According to Psychology Today, most people with depression aren’t cognizant of the connection between their negative thoughts and depressed emotional state. And these negative thought patterns become so habitual that many individuals aren’t consciously aware the thoughts are happening or that they’ve chosen to have them.
Yet changing the way we think is crucial if we’re to change how we feel—mentally and physically. Because depression doesn’t just make us feel bad. On the contrary, it’s also been linked to a variety of health problems, including decreased immune system function, high blood pressure, heart disease, and chronic pain.
So if our thoughts directly affect our mental and physical health, what can we do to make them work for us instead of against us?
The Glass Is Half Full (or the Power of a Positive Attitude)
In 1985, Michael Scheier and Charles Carver published a groundbreaking study titled “Optimism, Coping, and Health: Assessment and Implications of Generalized Outcome Expectancies.”
In this study of 774 male and female undergraduate students, the researchers used questionnaires to measure levels of optimism, self-consciousness, and physical symptoms both 4 weeks before and the last day of the semester. Not surprisingly, they found that students with higher levels of optimism experienced lower levels of negative symptoms.
As Scheier told The Atlantic, “We … know why optimists do better than pessimists. The answer lies in the differences between the coping strategies they use. Optimists are not simply being Pollyannas; they’re problem solvers who try to improve the situation. And if it can’t be altered, they’re also more likely than pessimists to accept that reality and move on. Physically, they’re more likely to engage in behaviors that help protect against disease and promote recovery from illness. They’re less likely to smoke, drink, and have poor diets, and more likely to exercise, sleep well, and adhere to rehab programs. Pessimists, on the other hand, tend to deny, avoid, and distort the problems they confront, and dwell on their negative feelings. It’s easy to see now why pessimists don’t do so well compared to optimists.”
Managing (Those Inevitable) Negative Thoughts
Evolution is a powerful thing. Remember, it’s a big part of what’s working against us here. Nevertheless, there are many steps we can take to help manage our negative thoughts and improve our overall well-being.
For example, techniques that aid in the integration of body and mind—such as yoga, tai chi, guided imagery, meditation, and biofeedback—can help us cultivate balance in both our thoughts and our lives.
In addition, there are ways we can consciously choose to recognize and reprogram our negative thoughts. Here are just a few of the many approaches:
- Every time a negative thought pops into your head, make a note of it and the situation that triggers it. The more you do this, the easier it will be to break the habit. By reprogramming your thought patterns, you can begin to generate greater positive effects in your day-to-day life.
- When you have negative thoughts, don’t just accept them—challenge them. For instance, if your thoughts are telling you that you’re not good enough, counter them by reminding yourself of past accomplishments. Everyone has something to be proud of, from completing a project to finishing a degree. Remember, the glass is always half full.
- When a negative thought forms, simply acknowledge it. More often than not, it’s your ego trying to protect you. So recognize that it’s just trying to keep you safe—and then replace the negative thought with a positive one. Take the following thought: There are too many people competing for the position. They’ll never choose me. Now, turn this into something more positive: Yes, there are a lot of people up for the position, but I’m as qualified as any of them. As long as I do my best, I will have done enough.
- Start each day off with gratitude by writing down (or saying out loud) five things you’re grateful for. No matter what’s happening in your life, there’s surely something to be grateful for—even if it’s as simple as your dog lying at your feet, the pot of piping hot coffee waiting for you in the kitchen, or the rose that just bloomed in your garden.
- Unleash the power of repetition by performing daily positive affirmations. These can be as simple as I’m in charge of how I feel or I make good things happen in my life. The trick is being sure to say these phrases multiple times each day until they become second nature—and you actually believe them!
No matter what circumstances you find yourself in, nothing is set in stone—not even your negative thought patterns. So start exploring who you are and what makes you great today.
However, if you’re entrenched in a negative pattern and feel you’re not quite ready to go it alone, don’t hesitate to contact a health care professional who’s well versed in mind-body medicine. They can help you find the tools you need to rebuild your emotional health and create lasting positive change.