My husband Michael used to never get sick. He prided himself on it. For years, while his co-workers were periodically at home sick with a cold or the flu, he would never miss a single day of work.
Then we moved to Florida. He was exposed to a lot of molds and, perhaps more importantly, a lot of stress. He suddenly found himself getting recurrent sinus infections. His doctor thought sinus surgery was the answer, but alas, while they were fewer, the sinus infections continued. I could see it was not only a physical burden on him but a mental one as well.
When we moved back home to Virginia, I noticed that the sinus infections mostly subsided. There was less mold, but then again, there was much less stress. One day I pointed this out to him. He hadn’t really paid attention, but upon realizing he hadn’t had an infection in some time, he became determined to avoid anyone who was sick for fear of the sinus infections returning.
And I then began to notice a new pattern with him. If our young son picked up even the sniffles at school, and my husband knew about it, he would immediately get sick himself. It surprised me at just how quickly it would happen. However, if I didn’t mention my son’s sniffles, or that my son seemed to be getting sick, my husband would be fine.
This went on for nearly a year before I brought it up to him. He didn’t believe me at first, but as time went on and he observed the situation, he came to realize that what I’d pointed out was true. His thoughts were, at least in part, creating his illness.
Our Perceptions Matter
The mind is very powerful.
This fact is something that drug companies know all too well. If pharmaceutical companies could bottle and sell the placebo effect, they would be many times wealthier than they already are. A placebo, commonly known as a sugar pill, is what a new drug coming to market must be measured against to determine which works better, the drug or the mind, by way of a placebo. And, more often than these companies would like, the placebo wins out, sometimes by a huge margin. Simply by virtue of a person perceiving that they are taking a drug, the intended benefit can be created in the body.
A study of 5,888 Americans over the age of 65 by researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that a poor image of one’s health roughly doubled the risk of death within five years. This held regardless of other risk factors.
“In fact, a pessimistic outlook proved to be deadlier than congestive heart failure or smoking 50 or more packs of cigarettes every year,” noted a Health Day article on the study.
My husband was under a lot of stress when his sinus infections first began. With increasing anxiety, his mind had difficulty managing it all, and he began developing sinus infections. Of course, it’s well-recognized that stress decreases immunity. In time, when various treatments didn’t give the desired results, my husband grew to believe that he would continue to get sick, especially if he was around anyone who was sick. His perceptions had changed over time.
Gunnar Engstrom, MD, a professor at Lund University in Sweden, who has extensively studied self-ratings of health, told Health Day that a positive attitude about health can ward off mental distress and improve protection against many diseases.
As a doctor of osteopathic medicine, I learn a lot by talking with my healthiest elderly patients. They tell me life has not always been easy, but they flow with what life brings, knowing that while the hardships are challenging, these are where some of their greatest lessons in life have come from. Their perception of life’s challenges makes all the difference.
When we’re stressed or have a lot of negative thoughts, it manifests physically, with things such as increased heart rate, respiratory rate, blood pressure, and elevated cortisol (also known as “the stress hormone”).
Conversely, when we have more positive thoughts, it also manifests physically, but in a desirable way. We see lowered blood pressure, lowered respiratory and heart rates, as well as a release of things like endorphins, enkephalins, serotonin, and dopamine. These chemicals help reduce our pain, increase our mood, and bring a sense of calm.
Positive psychology researcher Suzanne Segerstrom has published extensively on the impact of a positive attitude, or what she calls dispositional optimism in some papers. Her findings affirm that people with a more upbeat attitude about challenges are much better able to handle the stress they bring and find ways to cope.
But being positive doesn’t mean believing you will never experience difficulties. Bad things happen and we will inevitably be hurt by others. But optimists are more likely to learn from these situations and see them realistically.
Kindness also matters, and for more reasons than we may realize.
A 2014 study published in the journal Circ: Heart Failure, noted that “Studies have identified potent psychosocial risk factors for cardiovascular disease. Besides pessimism, these include depression, anxiety, chronic stress, social isolation, and a low sense of life purpose.” In other words, attitude has a major impact on the risk of developing cardiovascular disease.
In talking with patients over the years, I’ve noticed that those who are genuinely kind-hearted and put others first, who strive to do the right thing, and who are forgiving and tolerant of others, seem to oftentimes have better health than those who are not. In an article I did on aging well, I noted this fact with the patient I interviewed.
A positive attitude and a kind heart are the two biggest commonalities that I’ve observed over the years in those who are aging well.
An article in Psychology Today discusses the impact kindness has on our health. It states that, “Researcher, Barbara Fredrickson, had an interesting viewpoint—that kindness, specifically loving-kindness, moved one out of the selfish realm. Stated differently, it took one off the hedonic treadmill. Compassion and kindness also reduce stress, boost our immune systems, and help reduce negative emotions such as anger, anxiety, and depression.”
Kindness can manifest as an act, but it most certainly begins with our thoughts and impacts both what we say, and what we do. Checking in with ourselves throughout the day to make sure we are thinking kind thoughts and putting others first can go a long in benefitting not just our relationship with others, but also our own health.
It seems our perception regarding our state of health can impact a number of both acute and chronic conditions. But as physicians, are we emphasizing this enough with our patients?
Researcher Alia Crum in an article in Stanford Business notes that public health campaigns are geared toward motivating people to eat better, exercise, and reduce their stress, but these are incomplete. “An important variable is being left out of the equation: people’s mindsets about those healthy behaviors.”
I once knew a colleague who wrote some rather unorthodox prescriptions for his patients. They would leave his office with prescriptions saying things like, “watch two happy movies a week,” “laugh ten times a day,” or “do at least one kind thing for someone every day.” Patients would report back to him, and he said based on his years of experience, it made a significant difference in his patients’ physical and mental health. While behavior change is important, he recognized that it all begins with the mind.
“It’s time that we start taking the role of mindsets in health more seriously,” Crum told Stanford Business.
Perhaps if we physicians stressed the importance of things like a positive outlook, reframing a difficult situation into a positive one, and being kind and helping others, we would help our patients achieve significant improvement in their health with the need for either fewer or maybe even no, medications.
The great thing about our thoughts is we don’t have to believe everything we think.
My husband believed that he would get sick if he was around someone sick. If he had not accepted this thought, and instead, replaced it with one about being healthy, he likely would have had different results.
We have countless opportunities to check our thoughts each day, and each time we do, we can make a choice about that thought.
In his book, ‘You Are The Placebo: Making Your Mind Matter’ Dr. Joe Dispenza writes “95 percent of who you are by the time you are 35 years old is a set of memorized behaviors, skills, emotional reactions, beliefs, perceptions and attitudes which function like a subconscious automatic computer.”
That’s a powerful set of mental habits to overcome, but it can be done.
Knowing how important our thoughts are to our mental and physical health empowers us, and can motivate us to train ourselves to think differently.
An article on the University of Minnesota’s website notes the work of Dr. Fredrickson, who has spent years researching the physical and emotional benefits of positivity. These include faster recovery from cardiovascular stress, fewer colds, better sleep, and an improved sense of overall happiness.
Fortunately for all of us, positive attitudes and habits can be cultivated, giving us another way to improve our health and wellbeing.
As you go about your day, periodically pause to evaluate your thoughts. When challenges come, instead of listening to any negative thoughts, reframe them and put a positive spin on things. Accepting that change is a part of life and flowing with what life brings, including challenges, also helps. It’s really about resilience.
A wealth of research has brought the importance of resilience into greater focus. Resilient people face life’s challenges honestly, without trying to escape or deny the suffering involved. This helps them better retain that sense of positivity that many of us lose in the face of difficulty.
About four years ago my husband stopped getting sick all the time. What changed? Well, one day, when he found himself getting sick, he decided to try a concoction that he’d read about, one made of crushed garlic clove juice, raw apple cider vinegar, and raw honey. And it worked. He decided to take it daily as a means of prevention. Since then, he’s only gotten sick once or twice. The change has been amazing. He firmly believes in this recipe, and if he misses it, he’ll occasionally feel he’s catching something. But he’ll double up on his next dose, and voila’—illness avoided. I’d like to think he’s also learned to watch his thoughts a bit more. Placebo? Positive thoughts? An effective home remedy? Perhaps a bit of each.
Several years ago, as I was stepping out of my car one afternoon, I found this discarded fortune lying on the ground at my feet. It’s a little tattered and worn, but I keep it on the board above my desk as a reminder:
It’s important to remember we don’t have to be a slave to every thought that comes our way. With time, practice, and vigilance, we can learn to tap into one of the most powerful, and completely free, health resources we have—Our mind.
Tatiana Denning, D.O., is a family medicine physician who focuses on wellness and prevention. She believes in empowering her patients with the knowledge and skills necessary to maintain and improve their own health.