New research suggests that you can “think” and “feel” your way to heart disease, type 2 diabetes, disability, a heart attack or a stroke.
Though the mind-body connection has been known about for a long time, a growing body of research illuminates the very serious physical ailments, such as heart disease, that negative emotions and thoughts can cause. New studies show that the relationship between our mind and body goes far beyond the upset stomachs that stress can bring on or the physical pain that depression can cause.
“Many negative emotions such as anger, fear, and frustration become problematic when those emotions turn into a more permanent disposition or a habitual outlook on the world,” explains Emiliana Simon-Thomas, PhD, science director of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.
A fascinating example is that of cynicism. A 2014 study published in the journal Neurology linked high levels of cynicism later in life, i.e. a general distrust of people (and their motives), to a greater risk of dementia compared to those who were more trusting, even after taking into consideration other risk factors like age, sex, certain heart health markers, smoking status, and more.
Cynicism might also hurt your heart. A 2009 study from the journal Circulation looked at data from nearly 100,000 women and found that the most cynical participants were more likely to have heart disease than the least cynical people. The more pessimistic women also had a higher chance of dying over the study period, versus those who were more optimistic about humanity.
The emotion of hostility has also been linked to poor health. According to a 2014 study published in the journal Stroke, people who were more unfriendly, as well as those with chronic stress and depressive symptoms, had a higher risk of stroke than the friendlier, kinder participants.
Depression is the “big kahuna” of health problems. The repercussions of depression extend far beyond feelings of sadness and loss of appetite. Depression has been associated with an increased risk for type 2 diabetes, heart attack, and a greater chance of disability later in life.
Our thoughts and emotions affect our metabolism, hormone release, and immune function, Simon-Thomas says. It has long been theorized that stress and depression cause cortisol levels to increase, making the immune system less able to control inflammation, which could lead to disease over time.
It is also possible that people who are depressed, stressed, cynical, etc. may also be more likely to smoke, drink alcohol, and be less physically active, all things that negatively affect one’s health. Conversely, it is also possible that negative emotions are an early symptom of a health problem, rather than a cause.
This new information is very empowering because it demonstrates how much control we have over our health. By changing our thoughts and emotions we can dramatically improve our health. The neuroplasticity of our brains is amazing, as is our ability to transform our physical health and vitality. “We know that neural pathways are changing every minute of your entire life and that your brain is generating new cells throughout your life. And this neurogenesis is not only associated with the formation of new memories, but with mood stability, as well,” Simon-Thomas says.
Simon-Thomas put it beautifully: “We can be deliberate about shifting our habits of feeling and thinking in the world.”