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Think positive, feel positive: can we think ourselves better?

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.

  • Positivity can improve your happiness, your health and even your life expectancy
  • There are many simple steps we can take to improve our health
  • Some experts say it’s be better to be realistic, rather than overly optimistic.

A positive outlook is in your grasp

The placebo effect of positive thinking

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 [1] .

‘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.

Positive thinking: what you can do

Research has shown that thinking positively is enough to aid recovery from even serious illness [2], 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.

Dealing with stress symptoms for healthy living


Dr Rangan Chatterjee says that health exists on a continuum.

‘At the top right we've got disease and at the bottom left we've got optimal health. We’re always moving up and down that continuum,’ he explains.

As a result, he believes that there’s a lot we can do to reduce stress and positively affect our state of health. There are many different causes of type 2 diabetes, for example, which include the more obvious triggers such as a high-sugar diet and lack of exercise.

‘But it could be that there's something else,’ he suggests, ‘perhaps the fact that you’re chronically stressed, which raises levels of cortisol in your body. And raised cortisol raises your blood sugar which causes insulin resistance.’

Dealing with stress symptoms: what you can do


Talking therapies such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) have long been known to help people tackle stress symptoms – but they don’t work for everyone.

Scientists at the University of York found that Behavioural Activation (BA), where a person focuses ‘on meaningful activities driven by their own personal values, can be as effective as CBT – whether that’s walking, drawing or dancing.’

It sounds simple, but it’s also important to get a good night’s sleep. Sleep deprivation is linked to stress symptoms, with similar effects.

‘In some people, one night’s sleep deprivation can give you as much insulin resistance as six months on a junk food diet,’ reveals Rangan.

Think yourself fit?


‘Mental imagery is a process that uses all of your senses to imagine performing a skill, rather than physically doing it,’ explains Tony Kay, Professor of Biomechanics at the University of Northampton.

Tony’s work sits amongst other research that suggests even sitting still and simply thinking about exercising can make us stronger. In one study, conducted with the BBC, he found that after a month of spending fifteen minutes a day imagining pushing a heavy plate with their feet, volunteers’ calf muscles got 8% stronger on average.

‘They got better at recruiting the muscles in an orderly fashion,’ says Tony, ‘so they could activate a larger percentage of the muscle. That produced more force and so they became stronger.’

Thinking yourself fit: what you can do


However, the real impact comes when you combine mental imagery with physical exercise.

Give your workout a boost by imagining your muscles contracting as you work them.

‘If you go for a run around the block when you’re stressed out, it’s one of the best solutions when dealing with negative emotions,’ says Ilona.

For those with injuries, or unable to do physical activity, mental imagery is one way of improving your fitness, strength and degree of healthy living.

Practising positivity properly

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 [3].

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.

Sources

[1] 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/

[2] 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

[3] 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 2pp 167–175 https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF01173206