This month I have been delving into New Scientist again and one article in particular really sparked my interest. Called “Mind Over Matter”, the author David Robson outlines and supports the assertion that changing your attitude can have profound benefits on your health (Robson, 2018). In this day and age of metaphysical thinking this may not seem like a mind-blowing-ly new concept, however I often find the mind over matter approach being thrown about without a lot of research to back it up. So when the article outlined studies to support this concept I suddenly got a bit more interested.
One researcher in this area, AliaCrum had a key insight to mind over matter when she was studying the placebo effect. She realised that if the effectiveness of a drug can be influenced by expectations, then perhaps expectation could influence other situations as well. Yes, it seems so, and in particular our physiology. The article goes on to cite a number of examples of mindset and expectation influencing physiology including:
- Explaining to half of a group of cleaners that their work burnt 200 calories every hour, meeting the daily requirements for exercise. Over the next month thecleaners lost about 1kg and their blood pressure had dropped from elevated to normal. The control group showed no change.
- Feeling fit or perceiving fitness can influence physical fitness. People who were more pessimistic about their level of fitness were more likely to die during the survey period than those who were more optimistic.
- How you think about food impacts the way our bodies respond to it. Feeling deprived or thinking food is overly healthy (i.e. most diets) can lead to an increase in hunger hormones resulting in less satiety and more fat storage. The key is to mindfully eat, savouring and enjoying each mouthful so it becomes more like an indulgent treat, which can lead to lower hunger hormones and a greater sense of satisfaction.
- Focusing on stress as having negative effects is actually more debilitating and leads to greater fluctuations in the stress hormone cortisol, than seeing stress as a positive, motivating factor.
- Even ageing can be a healthier process if you have a positive outlook about it. Those who report feeling positive about getting older live on average 7.5 year longer and are less likely to respond to stress or develop inflammation than those who have negative associations.
The research that really impacted me was about sleep and insomnia. Those that fit into the category of ‘complaining good sleepers’, that is, those who think they are insomniacs or believe they have poor sleep even though monitoring suggests otherwise are more likely to experience increased daytime sleepiness, higher blood pressure, depression and anxiety. By contrast ‘non-complaining bad sleepers’ have less of these effects, so to confirm, less sleep but less side effects. By contrast, I consider myself a ‘complaining bad sleeper’ based on absolutely no monitoring (!) and so as an experiment I decided that for 1 week I would have a positive mindset no matter how much sleep I had had the previous night. Specifically, for me the issue is daytime fatigue, specifically mental fatigue. During the week I found that choosing to over-ride my concern about lack of sleep allowed me to get on and perform tasks I usually keep back until I have slept well (or at least, think I have slept well). I felt quite liberated from my own worry, and the researcher who showed the above effects indicated that worry about sleep has more negative effects on our health than poor sleep alone. Positively alarming!
So how can we use mindset to improve our health? I have jotted down a few ideas but I think there are many other empowering ideas in this field.
- Savour your food
- Start embracing the concept of growing older, in whatever way you can. I have a great role model in my mother, who at 70+ is going on 45.
- Think about and if possible set a positive expectation prior to exercising or eating
- Let go of sleep worry! Note to self! I did this by setting a positive intention for mental clarity and energy for the day
If you have any empowering ideas to contribute please comment below.
Robson, D. (2018, August). Mind Over Matter. New Scientist, issue 3192, pp. 29-32.