Channeling negative thoughts into positive ones will not only make you happier in the short-term—it can also help you live longer.
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When times get tough—you got fired from your job, you're going through a breakup, you're dealing with a medical issue—it's all too easy to focus on the negative. In fact, these negative thoughts and emotions are normal; they're how we're hardwired to behave.
"From an evolutionary perspective, we focus on what's negative because our body thinks we need to be hypervigilant to make sure we don't get eaten by a saber-tooth tiger or touch a poisonous plant," says Shauna Shapiro, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and mindfulness expert. "We're Velcro for negative thoughts and Teflon for positive—they bounce right off because we think we don't need them to survive."
But it turns out we do need them. Positive thinking can have a huge impact on our health, both mentally and physically. (It can also help you get ahead at work.) Here, experts share why thoughts are so powerful—and how to harness them to improve your health.
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You Can Cure Yourself of Illness
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"The power of the mind to manifest physical reality is unlimited," says Prudence Hall, M.D., a leading practitioner of mindful medicine. Pessimistic as it sounds, "When doctors tell patients they have three months to live, they often comply," she says.
But positivity proves critical. "Our thoughts are one of the most powerful medicines the body already makes," says Dr. Hall. This is supported by research that shows as much as half of a drug's power can come from simply thinking it will work. Whether you're experiencing a more serious health issue, or just trying to lose weight, monitor and interrupt negative thoughts like, 'I'll never get better,' or 'I'll never lose the weight,' so you don't defeat yourself from the start.
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You'll Improve Your Digestion
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Strange as it sounds, 80 percent of serotonin—referred to as the "happiness hormone"—is in our gut rather than in our brains, says Stephanie Parmely, Ph.D., a psychologist at Mercy Medical Group in Folsom, CA. It's the reason why some people suffer from stomachaches when they're stressed, she explains. Reduced serotonin levels may also be the reason for issues like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and constipation, she says.
Not to mention, our digestive system and bowels are affected by blood flow. If we're in a fight-or-flight response all the time from chronic stress, that increases blood flow to the extremities and decreases it to the digestive system, causing stomach issues. Staying optimistic and simply remembering positive events, though, can directly increase serotonin production and improve digestion in the process, Parmely explains. Happy thoughts, happy stomach. Who knew?
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You Can Boost Your Immunity
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You really can worry yourself sick. When you're feeling stressed, levels of the stress hormone cortisol rise, impairing immune functioning, Shapiro explains. (Use this handy GIF to de-stress.) But positive thoughts do just the opposite.
Studies have found that cancer patients who completed a special course designed to make them more optimistic had stronger immune systems than those who didn't. And an often-referenced UCLA study found that law students who began their first semester optimistic about the experience had more helper T cells mid-semester, which amplify immune response, compared with pessimistic students.
To keep negative thoughts from impacting your health, try this mindfulness technique: Scan your environment and focus on something you would normally move right past. For example, stop to feel the sun on your face. Stay with that moment for three whole breaths. Says Shapiro: "When you stay for three full breaths, it becomes encoded in your memory and in your 'chemical soup,' the makeup of who you are, and helps you carve new pathways of positive thoughts in the brain."
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You'll Improve Your Sleep
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A stream of stressful thoughts is one of the core causes of sleep disorders, says Dr. Hall. But even just one to two minutes of quiet, positive thinking before bed can have a huge influence on healthier sleep. After you close your eyes, she suggests visualizing positive thoughts and letting yourself feel them as if they've already happened. (These products can also help with sleep.)
Not only will longer, deeper sleep improve your mood and your ability to cope with difficult situations, but research suggests logging enough shuteye will also lower your risk of medical conditions like obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.
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You'll Help Your Heart—and Live Longer
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Your emotions impact your heart, figuratively and literally. Over the long term, excess stress and adrenaline (a hormone that dilates blood vessels) can negatively impact cardiovascular health, says Parmely. In fact, a recent study found that people in the highest one-quarter of scores on pessimism were more than twice as likely to die of heart disease as those in the lowest one-quarter. Says Parmely: "Positive, optimistic people tend to live longer because of improved immune function, decreased depression, and improved cardiovascular function."
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