Think back to your first kiss. Do you feel your heart beat faster? Or warmth in your chest and belly? Your brain just recreated that experience in your body based on a thought–a mere memory. This is happening within you all the time.
Here are some less pleasant thoughts I hear daily as a body-worker:
“I’m just getting old.” “My mom has the same problem with her knees.” “My body is failing me.” “I injured my knee in high school, and my doctor told me I would likely get arthritis in it when I got older.” “I’ve had my back pain for decades.” “I am broken.”
In each of these cases, the client is unconsciously relinquishing his or her sense of agency.
With each of these thoughts, the underlying belief is, “I am destined to have pain. I am powerless to prevent it.” In some cases, the client is also unknowingly identifying with the pain by calling it “my pain.” But why does this matter?
It matters because our thoughts shape the world around us.
The Physiology of Negative Thinking
We know that our thoughts have a tremendous impact on how we see the world. What many do not realize, however, is that your thoughts can actually have a physical impact on your body.
Your thoughts have the power to release a cascade of chemicals (hormones, neurotransmitters, and neuropeptides), which can alter your physical state. (1)
This is evidenced most clearly in the placebo effect. In dozens of cases, researchers have seen that if a person believes that a drug or treatment will benefit them, they often get better. Conversely, if they think a treatment will harm them, they get worse.
Actual physiological alterations can occur as a result of taking a placebo, including changes in blood pressure, heart rate, cortisol levels, growth hormones, etc. (2, 9).
Studies have discovered that even verbally suggesting that a treatment will increase pain, can cause cortisol levels to rise. (9)
This power of suggestion even has the capacity to change how the human body reacts to food. “In one study, participants who drank a milkshake labeled as ‘indulgent’ showed reduced levels of the pro-hunger hormone ghrelin compared with those who drank an identical milkshake labeled as ‘sensible.’ (9)
Maybe the lesson here is to tell yourself that pizza is a powerful antioxidant!
What You Think Your Brain Makes Real
The HeartMath Research Center has also been diving into the power of thoughts (and the feelings they create) on the state of the heart. Their research has clearly shown that emotions affect the heart. Negative emotions cause the heart rhythm to become erratic and disorganized; whereas, positive emotions cause the heart to become more coherent.(8)
Flashback to that first kiss again, and notice how your heart reacts.
All this is to say, what you think, your brain makes real. It’s like we are living in a Matrix created by our own thoughts.
This concept of brain-body connection, that our thoughts create physical changes in our bodies, is one of the main tenets of the biopsychosocial model of pain which states that pain is multi-dimensional.
While pain may be experienced as a result of tissue damage (e.g. a herniated disk or a torn muscle), a person’s experience of pain is also influenced by social and psychological factors like beliefs, emotions, lifestyle/health/social factors, physical habits, and coping strategies. (3, 4)
How to Use Thoughts To Support Healing
So, how can you use this concept to improve your health? The first step is to become aware of the undercurrent of thoughts running through your mind.
Observe your thoughts with compassion and curiosity. Watch them rise up, allow them to be, and examine them. Note that the thought is just a thought. It’s not a fact. Tune in to how the thought feels in your body.
As you begin to become more aware of your thoughts and the impact they have on your body, you can start to try on new thoughts.
The practice below will guide you through a “thought ladder” where you move from a thought that’s no longer getting you the results you want to a thought that is believable to a thought you might want to choose to believe. (6)
Guided Thought Practice:
Step 1 – Stand in Mountain Pose
- Stand with your bare feet on the floor, about hip-distance apart.
- Let your arms hang down by your sides.
- Take a breath in through your nose, and with the exhale, close your eyes.
- Settle your attention at the point where your heels, the balls of your feet, and your toes connect to the floor beneath you. This will help pull your awareness deeper into the body.
- Check-in with your breath, your heart-rate, the state of tension or ease in your face and shoulders, the pace of your thoughts.
Step 2 – Within your mind, repeat the phrase, “I am broken” three times.
- Feel the words “I am broken” inside you.
- What do you notice happening within your body?
- Has your posture shifted?
- What has altered in your breath, your heart rate, your muscle tone, your pain level?
- Below is an image of the sort of posture I often see when someone has been repeating “I am broken” to them self for years.
Step 3 – Within your mind, repeat the phrase, “I am” three times.
- Feel the words “I am” inside you. Pretty neutral, right?
- What changes within your structure and your physiology with this neutral thought?
- Below is the sort of shift in posture I often see with this shift in thought – notice she’s standing a little taller.
Step 4 – Within your mind, repeat, “I am resilient” three times.
- Feel the words “I am resilient” inside you. Different, right?
- How does that feel in your body?
- Do you notice any change in your face, your shoulders, your heart, your perception of pain?
- Below is the postural shift I often see in someone who chooses to think an empowering thought like this.
Step 5 – Get a piece of paper and divide it into 2 columns titled “Conscious” and “Unconscious.”
- Write down the 5 thoughts that are most constantly on repeat in your mind in the “Unconscious” column.
- In the “Conscious” column, write down a neutral or a positive thought you substitute for the negative.
- Take this new way of thinking with you into your day and notice how your body responds.
As humans, we are complex multidimensional entities. We cannot always control what happens to our bodies, but we do have the power to become aware of our thoughts, to gently change them to thoughts that better serve us, and in the process provide a more hospitable environment for healing, recovery, and action.
Related Article: The Secret to the Change You Crave: How to Change Your Mindset
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- Dispenza J, Amen DG. Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself: How to Lose Your Mind and Create a New One. Carlsbad, CA: Hay House; 2015.
- Shmerling RH. The placebo effect: Amazing and real. Harvard Health Blog. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/the-placebo-effect-amazing-and-real-201511028544. Published November 2, 2015. Accessed July 9, 2019.
- Chaitow L, DeLany J. Clinical Applications of Neuromuscular Techniques. Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone; 2000.
- Recovery Strategies – Pain Guidebook. Greg Lehman. http://www.greglehman.ca/recovery-strategies-pain-guidebook. Accessed July 9, 2019.
- Katie B, Mitchell S. Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life. New York: Three Rivers Press; 2003.
- Castillo C. Life coach training certification at The Life Coach School: Brooke Castillo. The Life Coach School. https://thelifecoachschool.com/podcast/26/. Published April 12, 2019. Accessed July 9, 2019.
- Leibovici L. Effects of remote, retroactive intercessory prayer on outcomes in patients with bloodstream infection: randomised controlled trial. Bmj. 2001;323(7327):1450-1451. doi:10.1136/bmj.323.7327.1450.
- Chapter 04: Coherence. HeartMath Institute. https://www.heartmath.org/research/science-of-the-heart/coherence/. Accessed July 9, 2019.
- Wager TD, Atlas LY. The neuroscience of placebo effects: connecting context, learning and health. Nature Reviews Neuroscience. 2015;16(7):403-418. doi:10.1038/nrn3976.