Never has our society been so preoccupied with what we eat and drink, how much we exercise, or sleep. Every day there are articles in every media outlet that inform us how to live healthily.
While I am all in favour of eating and exercising in a healthy way, there lies an almost unnoticed, but far more important conversation regarding the thoughts we entertain and take in. Are they healthy or sick?
Recent studies are increasingly showing the relation between consciousness and health, especially in experiments regarding the placebo and nocebo effects. In a recent article in Psychology Today, Lissa Rankin, MD, wrote:
“The placebo effect is real, it works about 18-80% of the time, and it’s not just in your head – it actually dilates bronchi, heals ulcers, makes warts disappear, drops your blood pressure, and even makes bald men who think they’re getting Rogaine grow hair! … But the placebo effect has a shadow side. The same mind-body power that can heal you can also harm you. When patients in double-blinded clinical trials are warned about the side effects they may experience if they’re given the real drug, approximately 25% experience sometimes severe side effects, even when they’re only taking sugar pills.”
Once we’re aware of this, the logical question is, how do we learn to recognize and deal with the negativity that comes to us every day? Like food that is less than healthy, negative expectations are fully available to all consumers. Then there is the negativity that arises from what we have learned or experienced. How do we learn to deal with all these harmful thoughts?…
A more discriminating approach is needed for what we mentally consume, which also recognizes habits of thought that go round and round like a hamster on a wheel. Anyone who has been through a weight-loss program learns that being aware of what we eat, and keeping track of it, is the first and vital step to success. Could this same idea be applied to how we think?
At one time, I needed to lose the weight of those negative arguments that, like the pounds on my body, seemed so easy to accrue. I decided to test the idea of keeping watch over my thoughts, rather like in those weight-loss programs. I made a list of ten thoughts I recognized as healthy, such as compassion, patience, gratitude, and forgiveness. During one week, I kept actual track of how often I entertained and used them, but also noted the intruding negative thoughts that I know are unhealthy, such as anger, frustration, resentfulness, and defensiveness.
I learned how to do four things from this experiment:
1. Detect – Hearing oneself – being aware of what one is thinking – is vital. Do I really hear the things I am saying or thinking that are not only detrimental to my own health but to that of others?
2. Reject – Where do those thoughts take me? Is it somewhere that is not good for others or me? Such thoughts can be rejected from my mental space.
3. Replace – With one of the thoughts on my healthy list.
4. Affirm – We are not helpless prisoners to our thoughts and beliefs, our history and habits. They can be changed when we give our mental consent.
The result of my one-week experiment was instructive. For one thing, I had not expected it to be so hard – this observing of thought. Watching what I eat was MUCH easier; I could choose to not even bring those cookies I love into the house. But, certain gloomy, negative thoughts seemed to be entering my mental space, forever wanting to be consumed. I needed help.
To get that help, I turned to prayer. Many people think of prayer as only for the religious, and as an intercessory – or a pleading – activity. But prayer can provide a practical, quiet, safe space to sort out one’s thoughts. In this case it did: this spiritual, contemplative approach to the problem taught me to listen to my thoughts in a disciplined way that was constructive.
I also learned that it wasn’t just a matter of positive thinking. While positive thinking may be a great start for many, there was a deeper more profound point. I learned that understanding my connection to the divine could be the basis for defining a new me, which in turn could be a standard for rejecting thoughts that did not align with that new definition. And I became confident that harmful thoughts could not only be controlled, but also eventually barred from entering my mental space. I was not a victim of negative thoughts!
And there were results. When I began my experiment, I was feeling quite lethargic, tired and generally depressed, but by the end of the week I felt energized and more alert. My food diet had not changed, but the quality of the thoughts I entertained had.
Healthcare is not just about how we care for the body; it is also about how we watch and care for our thoughts, and our very identity. I would go so far as to say our health depends upon it.