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Think Yourself Well

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We all do it, give ourselves a little running commentary on our performance, our health, or our relationships.

Maybe we miss a deadline for a project at work and our brain says: "You idiot! How could you have forgotten something so important?" Or we break up with our lover and a sneaky little voice tells us: "It was only a matter of time. How could he love someone like you?"

Of course, not all of us have quite such a negative dialogue or response to stress. Some of us are little Pollyannas.

When things go wrong, we give ourselves a pep talk and, even in the face of startling evidence to the contrary, we believe that things will actually improve, or that we are without nasty flaws.

So is how we talk to ourselves in the face of life’s stressors a big deal?

Well, yes, as it turns out, as medical science slowly discovers that you can actually think yourself healthy, or think yourself unwell, and that this is not just some hippy dippy idea propounded by fringe practitioners.

What we think and how we respond to stressful situations, has the power to shape how well, how energetic, or even how young we feel and we are.

More specifically, our brain and our immune systems are intimately connected, and the messages that our running dialogue - or response to the world around us - generates is the start of a chemical reaction that will have a profound impact on our bodies.

"The immune system is almost an extension of the central nervous system,” says Dr Marc Cohen, Professor of Complementary Medicine at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.

“It secretes chemicals that directly influence the immune cells.”

These chemicals are molecules, short chains of amino acids called peptides and receptors, that can be found in your brain, but also in your stomach, your muscles, your glands and all your major organs, and they’re sending messages back and forth.

When your response to an event is “stressful“, your blood pressure rises, platelets becoming stickier, white blood cells mobilise, cortisol levels increase … in other words, your body is under attack.

“The mind has the key role in eliciting the stress response,” says Craig Hassad, a senior lecturer in the Monash University Department of General Practice, in Victoria.

“(Yet) events are just events unless our thinking interprets them as stressful and threatening.”

To date negative responses to stress have been linked with everything from the common cold to cancers and autoimmune disorders.

Medical researchers now know, for example, that high levels of stress and depression are as bad for increasing our risk of cancer and heart disease as eating a high fat diet, or drinking excessive amounts of alcohol.

In a paper published in The Lancet in 2004, scientists from the State University of Londrina, in Brazil, reported that chronic stress and depression “probably impairs the immune response and contributes to the development and progression of some types of cancer“.

“In general, both stressors and depression are associated with the decreased natural-killer-cell activities that affect processes such as immune surveillance of tumours.”

A better understanding of the communication between the brain and the immune system could contribute to new clinical and treatment strategies, they said.

Recently the Heart Foundation of Australia issued a statement saying that there is strong and consistent evidence that people who experience depression (really stress turned inwards) or are socially isolated are at greater risk of developing coronary heart disease.

“These factors can have as great an effect on risk as other, better-known factors such as smoking, high cholesterol levels or high blood pressure,” it said.

According to a study by the University of Colorado-Boulder, in the United States: “The disparity between physical stressors and psychological stressors is only an illusion.”

This mind-body science already has a name. It’s called psychoneuroimmunology and practitioners from disciplines including psychology, neurosciences, immunology, pharmacology, psychiatry, behavioural medicine, infectious diseases, and rheumatology, are all attempting to unlock its secrets.

“Can you think yourself healthy, or you think yourself unhealthy?” asks Cohen. “Absolutely.”

(He does add, however, that he doesn’t find the idea that people are somehow to blame for their disease helpful or appropriate. Rather, whatever disease you do have, having a positive attitude and reframing what the disease means to your life will have a very profound effect on your wellness, he says.)

The possible enhancement of immune function by behavioural strategies like relaxation, hypnosis, exercise and cognitive-behavioural interventions (reframing negative thought patterns into positive ones) is already generating considerable scientific interest.

Says Professor Ron Glaser, of the Department of Psychiatry, at Ohio State University College of Medicine, Columbus: “Although it’s not yet clear to what extent these changes translate into any concrete improvements in relevant aspects of health, the preliminary evidence is promising.”

Further good news is that you don’t necessarily have to see a therapist to have a healthier mind/body connection although you will need to make a conscious effort to retrain your brain.

“If you see a feelgood movie, or perform an altruistic act, that will be of greater benefit to your health than watching a horror movie, or suffering from a shock or trauma that depresses the immune system,” says Cohen.

“I also personally find every opportunity to have really positive thoughts. I consciously don’t have a television and I don’t watch the news because I am protective of what goes into my consciousness.

“I also meditate as much as I can, sleep well and love my work.”

Get Smart, Get Healthy

“The human body has an immense capacity to heal itself given the right conditions,” says Craig Hassad, a senior lecturer in the Monash University Department of General Practice. The “right” conditions are when your mind and body are relaxed (a state that, ideally, you would carry with you throughout your day.)

“Music and regular physical exercise are commonly used (for relaxation) and have wide ranging beneficial effects for the mind and body,” says Hassad.

“In more recent times other techniques such as hypnosis and biofeedback have been used. There are also significant benefits which many experience through prayer, self-expression, confession, creativity, good communication, effective time management and in many other ways.”

If you want to stay healthy, try to see the glass as half full most of the time and deal with stress in a positive way. Try.-

* Visualisation, or imagery. Imagine that you are at your favourite (holiday) destination and picture yourself and your surroundings in full, colour detail. This technique can be used at any time to reduce stress. We use visualisation in our Calm Zone Relaxation CD. 

* Cognitive behavioural therapy. You will be taught to reframe negative thinking patterns into positive ones by a qualified counsellor or therapist. Happiness coaching can also help you reframe your current and future life direction. 

* Hypnotherapy. Suggestions will be made to you about more positive ways to respond/behave while you are in a relaxed state by a registered hypnotherapist. Shirley Hughes is a qualified hypnotherapist. 

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