Is there a link between positive thinking and our physical health? We look into the science and studies that suggest that being in a positive frame of mind can reduce stress and improve our physical wellbeing.
Writing for LV= life insurance, science journalist Holly Cave explores the powerful effects of positive thinking.
It’s well-established that the placebo effect is real when it comes to influencing the effectiveness of a ‘medicine’, even if it’s just a sugar pill.
Placebos can also help the healing process alongside effective medicine. By speaking positively about treatments, providing encouragement and positive reassurance, doctors can reduce their patients’ anxiety, and enhance their feeling of being cared for. This can improve symptoms and recovery for a range of conditions including pain, sleep disorders, depression and even Parkinson’s disease  .
‘Optimism can reduce vulnerability to illness,’ says Dr Ilona Boniwell, a psychologist based at Anglia Ruskin University. ‘There’s a famous study demonstrating that nuns who were much happier lived about nine years longer than nuns in the same convent who were less happy.’
The study Ilona is talking about was on the links between positivity and longevity in over 600 Catholic nuns of the School Sisters of Notre Dame. The research team read short autobiographies the nuns had written in their twenties and found that those who used positive emotional language to describe their experiences were more likely to be alive and healthy fifty to seventy years later.
Research has shown that thinking positively is enough to aid recovery from even serious illness , and can help disaster victims overcome the psychological scars of their trauma.
Visualisation is one way of doing this. Visualise your body fighting back against the problems you’re experiencing. Ilona suggests wearing an elastic band around your wrist and snapping it every time you experience a negative emotion.
‘Once the band forces you to acknowledge the negative emotion, you can try to understand why it’s there and where it’s coming from,’ she says.
But there are arguments that positive thinking can be a hindrance. One study found that women embarking on a weight-loss programme with the most optimistic attitude lost the least weight .
Critics of the power of positive thinking remind us that, by itself, it’s often not enough to steer us in the direction of healthy living.
Performance coach Jamie Edwards suggests that people instead focus on thinking about what’s possible.
‘When you’ve understood what’s possible, it gives you clarity. When you commit to dealing with everything in advance, you can then ask yourself: 'Is it possible I could make this happen?’
A positive outlook can help people with an illness or injury improve their health, or those looking to get fitter increase the impact of their exercise, but the mental side is only part of it. To achieve your goals, you’ll need to find the balance between high hopes and a decent dash of realism and flexibility.
 Martin Bystad, Camilla Bystad, and Rolf Wynn, 2015.How can placebo effects best be applied in clinical practice? A narrative review. US National Library of Medicine
National Institutes of Health, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4319464/
 British Heart Foundation, 2015. Positive attitude lowers the risk of further heart attack, surgery and death for heart patients. https://www.bhf.org.uk/what-we-do/news-from-the-bhf/news-archive/2015/march/optimism-and-heart-attack-recovery
 Gabriele Oettingen, Thomas A. Wadden 1991. Expectation, fantasy, and weight loss: Is the impact of positive thinking always positive? Cognitive Therapy and Research, Volume 15, Issue 2, pp 167–175 https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF01173206