It’s always darkest before dawn.
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.
We’ve all heard these platitudes a million times and that doesn’t account for all the times we’ve heard the other sayings that are just like them. Some of us love these little quips and others of us cannot stand them.
It turns out there is some concrete science at play when it comes to the power of positive thinking and health outcomes.
This is super important for us, here in Hendricks county, because if we continue to grow then we will need to reshape our strategies to improve community wide health. After all, we’re the third fastest growing county in the state, and we currently hold the 2nd highest rank for community level health. Let’s look at some of the ways we can use positive thinking to keep it that way.
A Spoonful of Sugar…
At some point in our lives, we’ve all been told outcomes to certain situations are less about what happens and more about how we respond to it. After all, a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, right?
Turns out, it does.
According to a series of studies that led to psychologist B. L. Fredrickson’s “Broaden and Build” theory, emotions and emotional thought processes can play an important role even outside of our brains. The theory essentially says that certain emotions prepare our bodies to react in certain ways. For example, being angry sets our body on the offensive while being thoroughly grossed out can lead us to lose our lunch.
When looking at Hendricks County in particular, over 15% of the county reports being dissatisfied with their lives. This can lead to an increase in negative thoughts and experiences that can cause these elongated heightened emotions and feelings.
Positive emotions and thoughts, however, are different and usually don’t result in such narrow, immediate, and visceral responses.
Dr. Frederickson went on to delve into this theory further with a team of researchers to determine just exactly how positive thoughts and meditation can lead to better lives mentally and physically. What they found was positive meditation increases daily experiences of positive emotions. This then increases mindfulness, purpose in life, and social support, while, at the same time, decreasing illness, symptoms and depressive symptoms.
Dr. Frederickson and her team from the University of North Carolina weren’t the only ones to find connections between positivity and better health. Three other recently published studies reaffirm these findings. These each find different but telling information about how positivity shapes our health.
For example, one of the studies found that stressful events can change immune system functioning. The researchers assessed people in the middle of a stressor or those who were currently living with a chronic stressor and found that negative thoughts and stress were linked to a serious reduction in what are known as “natural killer cells”. These cells are responsible for targeting and eliminating virus and tumor cells in the body.
That is a big deal! It means the way we think about and process stress is directly related to how our immune system fights illnesses.
The Emotional State of Hope
Right now, you may be thinking: “I’m just not the type of person who views the world through rose colored glasses”.
That’s okay and natural! When we are talking about thinking positively and how it impacts us, it doesn’t mean it needs to be all sunshine and rainbows all the time.
It doesn’t necessarily mean to downplay or to avoid all the things that make you unhappy.
What it does mean is that adopting a more optimistic outlook can allow us to seek out the most favorable outcome in all situations. This is commonly referred to as the emotional state of hope.
Basically, the emotional state of hope is what allows us to find those favorable outcomes and use them to our advantage to create positive action. Scientific research backs this up too.
Remember how we talked about three major studies before?
The findings suggest any positive thinking is better than allowing negative thoughts to take over. This makes sense because sometimes strong, negative emotions can last for hours or days – putting our bodies in a heightened state both chemically and emotionally.
Take anxiety, for example! Sometimes feelings of anxiety can last for hours upon hours, or in severe cases, maybe even days. Positive thoughts are simply the other side of the coin, because persistently thinking about a positive event lengthens feelings of joy just like how negative thoughts can lengthen feelings of anxiety!
As we learned earlier, these negative thoughts can wreak havoc on our physical health as much as our mental. Positive thoughts, alternatively, can turn the tide for our mental and physical well-being. The reason this works is due to the way our brain processes and analyzes information and thoughts.
Our brains are capable of some wonderful things, but unfortunately our subconscious brain, the part of the brain that is constantly thinking without us even knowing, can’t always tell the difference between what’s real and what’s imagined.
So, it’s not a surprise when you think about visualizing positive events as a perfect way to simultaneously reduce worry and increase joy. Another benefit of visualization is the increased likelihood of engaging in healthy behaviors and habits.
It turns out that positivity is the gift that keeps on giving. We now know that positivity can lead to improved immune system response and decrease the amount of time our bodies spend in a heightened emotional state. The third component of how positive thought processes can shape our health is by helping us to be invested in healthier habits.
The last of our three main studies outlines how this works pretty well. This study reviewed a massive amount of studies surrounding positivity and how it impacts us to create some solid concepts about how we benefit from positivity.
It found that happy people are less likely to engage in harmful behaviors like smoking, unhealthy eating, and substance abuse. It also suggests that short-term positivity can impact how much we engage in certain behaviors.
The findings of this align with the theory we observe from Dr. Frederickson’s research. Remembering the biggest aspect of her theory is that over time, positive emotions enable people to build personal, social, physical, and intellectual capital.
So, positive thinking enables you to create positive emotions like happiness, joy, resilience, and contentment and that make it easier for you to have a positive outlook on life. Our emotional state of hope, or level of optimism, helps us to interact with others and challenges in a positive way. These positive outlooks then provide us with some major return on investment when it comes to positive health outcomes.
For example, one of the studies included in the review study predicted a lower incidence of stroke, and sports-related injuries when we capitalized on positive thinking. The review also found that positive thinking is also associated with lowered incidence of heart disease, a higher quality of life, better physical recovery, and with less risk of heart disease.
Other studies confirm this by finding out how negative emotions and experiences lead to negative health outcomes. Examples of this include the increased likelihood of a mother passing away after the death of a child, and the increased incidence of a heart attack or stroke after a cancer diagnosis.
If we look at Hendricks County data again here, we see that as a community our biggest health concerns are focused on a lot of unhealthy habits like: obesity, chronic disease, and substance abuse. This suggests that our biggest community concerns could be addressed, in part, by implementing positive thought processing and improving our hopefulness.
So the next question is: how can we use the power of positive thoughts to improve our mental and physical health?
Use It or Lose It
Let’s discuss how we can identify negative thinking and combat it. There are actually some valuable resources out there for recognizing whether our thoughts, or self-talk, is positive or negative.
Some easy to spot landmarks of negative self-talk are:
- Focusing on negative aspects of a situation and filtering out all the positive ones.
- If something bad happens, you blame yourself.
- You automatically anticipate the worst.
- You perceive things only as either good or bad and there is no middle ground.
If you read and find yourself spending significant time lost in negative thoughts, then it may comfort you to know you are not alone and there are ways to reshape those thoughts. Some ways you can do this is by working on identifying ways to change your ideas.
We suggest that you take some time to self evaluate, take stock of what stressors and positive experiences you have. Recognize what is stressing you out currently, and seek to reshape your emotional state of hope by changing the negative outlook to a positive view instead.
Of course, at times, that is easier said than done, so we also have a few other tips you can take advantage of like:
- Give yourself time to laugh, poke fun at yourself and the situations you find yourself in.
- Spending more time exercising and less time ruminating on negative situations
- Cultivate a positive community by surrounding yourself with a group of friends or family who are supportive and spend more time giving positive reinforcement rather than negative
- Change your self-talk from negative to positive.
Implementing those simple strategies into your everyday life, even slowly, can make a huge difference in your life. Another option is to focus on your ability to manage your stress wisely.
We discussed the importance of the emotional state of hope and how optimism can help us spend less time stressing and more time feeling better, and now we will focus on how exactly we can shape our state of hope.
The research surrounding this suggests the best ways to manage stress are by practicing meditation, writing, and making sure that you have time to participate in activities that you love.
You can make the most of these opportunities by using meditation guides, premade journals to facilitate writing, and scheduling your day with fun opportunities in mind. You can also take advantage of some great community resources here in Hendricks county.
For example, using a service like Meet Up to find a group to try out some guided meditation (while practicing social distancing, of course). Or if meditation isn’t your style, you can try some more creative outlets such as participating at DIY Studio events around the county as they start to reopen.
Hope Healthcare also has services that can help you find your perfect stress management strategy.
Hope Healthcare services is offering various services via telehealth options that keep you safe and provide you with opportunities to help learn how to manage stress and have a more positive outlook. If you’re finding yourself surrounded by negative thoughts frequently, we’re here to help. Take advantage of our tele-psych program today to start feeling better about your stressors. Give Hope Healthcare a call at: 317-272-0708 to book an appointment to our Tele-Psych program.