Is positive thinking the best medicine?

Written by by Douglas A. Schwan, DC, Dip ac. Posted in August

Can we really “think” ourselves back to health? Does being a “Debbie Downer” lead to increased risk of disease? It has been known for a long time that the mind has a powerful impact on the body’s function. In fact, drug companies have to take into account the powerful placebo effect when testing new drugs. Some patients just improve with sugar pills because they “think” they are taking a powerful drug.


Our bodies are vastly complicated machines with several control and feedback systems, including two separate nervous systems: autonomic and somatic. The somatic nervous system is under our direct control and moves muscles when we direct it to. The autonomic system automatically controls things we don’t consciously have to control—things like respiration, heart rate, digestion, etc. It would be a real pain without this automatic system, as we would have to remember to make our hearts beat!

The placebo effect implies we have some mental self-control over our body's ability to heal itself. Indeed, a few physicians today will actually prescribe a sugar-pill placebo and see results with anxiety, depression, pain relief, etc., stemming from the simple belief by the patient that they were taking a strong drug.

Western medicine has developed an entire discipline around training the mind to heal the body. It is termed image therapy. The therapy itself can vary but basically involves anything from self-hypnosis for relaxation techniques to vivid imagery where one fancies him or herself as a “White Knight” battling, say, cancer cells in their body.

But using the mind to heal is an ancient technique. Indeed, yoga is a thousand-year-old-plus Eastern discipline originally designed to induce a state of relaxation and focus one’s energies internally in an effort to exert conscious control over the body. Practitioners can voluntarily take over certain functions of their autonomic system, such as heart rate, temperature, blood pressure, and brain wave function to mention a few.

Although studies have delivered mixed results, patients with advanced diseases like cancer tend to show mild to moderate improvements, but patients have demonstrated clear reduction of risk factors like stress, blood pressure, and pain and have been aided in their psychological recovery from devastating illness.

The real benefit of positive thinking is not to “cure” oneself of a morbid disease (although some studies show improvement with directed imagery) but instead to put the body and mind at peace with itself and thus improve its ability to maintain health—not let disease get a foot in the door, so to speak.

Many studies have linked stress and anxiety to health conditions. Stress and anxiety seem to worsen or increase the risk of conditions like heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes, depression, stomach and gut problems, and asthma. People with stress and anxiety also tend to self medicate with food, alcohol, or tobacco, leading to obesity, cancer, and liver disease.

Our bodies have a fight-or-flight response when confronted with a stress-producing situation, such as an angry bear jumping out in front of us on a trail. We have to be prepared instantly to fight or run away, and our body is instantly flooded with stress hormones while our autonomic nervous system charges itself up to prepare for either option. However, in our complex society today, people have constant stressors, which can leave their bodies chronically saturated with stress hormones and a hyped-up autonomic nervous systems. This, in turn, keeps the body in an over-revved state, leading to early failures and energy exhaustion. Much like a car constantly running at a high RPM, it will start to fail sooner rather than later.

So we know that anything that reduces stress and allows us to relax can have a positive effect on health. So what positive steps can you take? One of the first things you can do is examine your life. Does your job keep you beaten down? Consider looking for another position or even a lateral move if your boss is the problem. Is your relationship a constant source of stress? Consider stepping “outside the box” by viewing your relationship objectively. Stress and anxiety can drive antagonism. If your spouse is screaming because you paid 25 cents more for organic lettuce, the problem isn’t the lettuce. Sit down and talk it out. Or stop wasting time hoping for change and seek a relationship that is less stress-inducing.

Learning to relax can be a major achievement. Just sitting in a chair or bath with your eyes closed and consciously releasing the tension in each muscle group from your head to your toes can be a liberating experience. Add a scented candle for some aromatherapy and relaxing music, and you have the perfect trifecta for stress reduction.

Mild exercise, such as walking around the block once per day or a light jog, will release stress-reducing endorphins. A regular massage has been shown to relax muscles and clear pent-up toxins, like lactic acid and other inflammatory acids, trapped in muscles. Consider alternative therapies. Acupuncture for stress and anxiety has been shown to have a calming effect on brain activity. Also consider a pet. Loneliness can be a killer, and pets provide companionship, a reason to exercise (“Go for walk?”), and someone to cuddle with—a simple act shown to reduce key stress hormones.

But perhaps one of the most effective techniques to reduce immediate overall stress is to add image therapy to your activities. If you toss and turn with insomnia over the events of the day, consider imagining yourself in some fantasy, perhaps piloting a spaceship or mentally designing an award-winning garden—anything to break the circular cycle of negative thoughts. Think positively with thoughts like, “I will wake up full of energy and ready to take on the day!” and avoid negative thoughts like, “I hope I don’t wake up sick.”

We only have one life journey, and it is important to get as much enjoyment from it as we can. Positive thoughts can lead to a better and healthier trip.❦

Elizabeth Scott