How do our thoughts influence our physical sensations?
—Davide Razzoli, Italy
Jeannine Stamatakis, an instructor at several colleges in the San Francisco Bay Area, explains:
You may have noticed that when you think positively, you tend to feel more relaxed and energetic. When you are upset, you are more likely to feel tired and lazy. These sensations are not coincidental. The way we think—our attitudes and outlook on life—strongly affects our physical state.
The endocrine system, a network of glands that secretes different hormones into the bloodstream, is the powerhouse that regulates our moods. The feelings you associate with being angry, for example, arise from the stress hormones, such as cortisol and norepinephrine, that your brain releases on registering indignation. These hormones release stored energy and increase the amount of blood flowing to your muscles, which in turn elevates your heart rate, blood pressure and breathing while shutting down key metabolic processes, such as digestion and growth.
Similarly, endorphins alter your happiness. An endorphin release causes a natural high, commonly known as an endorphin rush or a runner’s high. This high is associated with elevated mood and reduced pain. A brain-imaging experiment by neuroscientist Henning Boecker of the University of Bonn in Germany showed that after highly conditioned male athletes completed two hours of endurance running, they exhibited elevated levels of endorphins in their brain and that an increase in these hormones was associated with the runners’ intense feelings of euphoria.
In short, making an effort to think positively, even if doing so feels like a strain, is vital to keeping your body healthy. Take the uplifting example of Norman Cousins, former editor of the now defunct Saturday Review. Cousins was told that he had ankylosing spondylitis, a painful and degenerative spine disease that typically affords sufferers a one-in-500 chance of survival. His doctor predicted that he had six months to live, but Cousins refused to accept the diagnosis. He surrounded himself with family and friends, watched numerous comedy films and sought out positive affirmations. Cousins ended up beating the odds and lived 26 years after his diagnosis. Although it is impossible to know whether his survival hinged on his positive thinking rather than genetic or medical factors, Cousins’s case suggests that an intensely optimistic outlook can help alter physical health.