Up until very recently it was widely accepted that our destiny, our health, our life, was determined by our genes. We accepted that the sort of health challenges or diseases we might face in the future were written in our genes and that it couldn’t be changed.
While it’s true that we can’t change our genes, there’s evidence suggesting that we have more control over our fate than we previously believed.
It is now thought that as much as 90% of disease has nothing to do with genetics and more to do with lifestyle choices, environment and perception.
The concept of the mind-body connection is not new and in recent years the idea has become more mainstream and acceptable. While awareness that our thoughts can impact our behaviour and health is only one part of the overall picture of wellbeing, it’s a part that we can’t continue to ignore.
A community of 50 trillion cells
Stem cell biologist and author of The Biology of Belief, Dr Bruce Lipton, explains it like this: We are each made up of a community of 50 trillion cells, floating in fluid and encased in skin. When you change the chemical composition of the fluid it changes how those cells develop even though they have the same genetic information. Whether the cells turn into bone, muscle, fat, etc, is determined, not by the genes, but by the environment those cells are in. They are all the same cells, just expressed differently.
The environment of the cells (that is, our body and more specifically the fluid in our body – the blood) is controlled by hormones released by the brain. The brain releases hormones that correspond with how we see the world, and this influences the chemical composition of the cell environment, or the blood, and therefore how our DNA is expressed.
As Dr Lipton explains, as we interpret the world we feel emotions and hormones are released. For example, love is associated with hormones like dopamine, the feel-good hormone; oxytocin, the bonding hormone; and growth hormone, which rebuilds our body and maintains health. The hormones affect the blood chemistry and adjust the expression of cells. You’ll notice people in love, with that ‘glow’ of good health. Contrast this to someone in a state of fear, releasing stress hormones and inflammatory agents, the blood chemistry is very different, and the expression of the cells adjusts accordingly.
The impact of stress
Stress, whether it’s real or perceived (for example, if we just think about that stressful situation from last week) has the same effect on the body. It creates the same cascade of hormones and chemicals, changing our body chemistry without even being in that stress situation. Simply by thinking about it, we’re affecting our cell expression.
Stress changes body processes – sleep is disrupted, digestion slows, heart rate and blood pressure rises, to name a few. While we can cope with these changes in the short term, long term stress compromises the body’s repair functions and leads to disease.
If a stress response can be triggered by just our thoughts, creating a destructive environment for the cells in our body, making us sick, it follows that our thoughts can also make us well.
When it comes to our thoughts, we can have anywhere between 12,000 and 60,000 thoughts a day, and while we may think we’re in control of what we think, we should think again. Some research suggests that as much as 98% of our thoughts today are the same as the ones we had yesterday and what’s more, 80% of our thoughts are negative.
Unhealthy, unproductive and negative thinking patterns can stem from many sources, such as:
The critical inner voice: The internalisation of painful early life experiences, attitudes towards us by influential caregivers and their attitudes towards themselves. The inner critic causes us to unconsciously or subconsciously adopt a pattern of destructive thoughts toward ourselves and others.
The worrier: The ‘what if’ thoughts that are usually motivated by fear, and sometimes by negative past experiences.
The reactor: The anger, frustration and pain that can be triggered by events, situations and experiences that remind us of unhealed wounds from the past.
The should: The rules that must be adhered to. Breaking the rules often leads to guilt, regret and anger.
These negative thoughts influence our hormone production, changing our blood chemistry and therefore how our cells are expressing. So, if we want to improve our health, we can start by changing our thinking.
Taking control of your thoughts is not easy, given that only around 5% of our thoughts are conscious and the rest is unconscious or subconscious and that those thoughts are influenced by the sources listed above and more. While your unconscious or subconscious may have been running habitual thought programmes throughout your life in reaction to everyday situations, it is possible to consciously take charge and re-programme them.
Some first steps
Try these steps to begin with:
- Bring awareness to your thoughts: Most of the time we’re not consciously aware of our thoughts so start by noticing and observing your thoughts and emotions, without judgement. Understand that if you can recognise your thoughts and emotions, they do not define you and you are independent from them.
- Decide if your thoughts are serving you well: The thoughts and emotions we have are often dictated by our previous experiences and may have served us well in the past, but that is not always going to be true as we move forward. If your thoughts and emotions are not serving you well, question them, challenge them, and choose to shift, release or change them.
- Recognise that you are in control: Can you see this thought from another perspective to allow it to shift? Focus on your breath and let your thoughts go or ask how you can change this thought to something that would be more helpful.
- Focus on the new thought: As with any habit change, we need to practise to reinforce new patterns.
Taking control of our thoughts can have a powerful effect on our health, just consider the placebo effect where patients in clinical trials who believe they’re receiving miracle drugs or surgeries but simply get sugar pills, saline injections or fake surgeries get better anywhere from 15–70% of the time.
We obviously can’t say that positive beliefs are the only factor in the state of our health because, after all, accidents and unforeseen events happen, and genetic predispositions and lifestyle choices do play a role. But what we do know is that negative beliefs cause stress hormones to flood our bodies and negatively impact on health just as positive beliefs promote healing hormones that encourage health and healing.
If you have trouble shifting, releasing or changing thought patterns that you now recognise as unhelpful, if they affect your ability to meet your daily responsibilities and your capacity to enjoy life, consider seeking the help of a qualified therapist.
Change the conversation you have with your body, change the environment you’ve created for it and improve your health.
Raewyn Ng firstname.lastname@example.org is a movement coach with an interest in wellbeing and holistic health, managing stress and living a balanced lifestyle.