article7 min read

How thoughts affect the body

Questions regarding the potential unity or disunity between our mind and body have raged since classical antiquity. Yet modern developments in psychology and neuroscience are beginning to clearly show that our thoughts impact on our physiology, meaning that our minds and bodies are, in fact, engaged in constant communication. A key figure in this field is Steve Cole, Stanford University, CA. His research not only demonstrates how psycho-social events alter our genomic expression, but it also unveils how our natural, biological reaction to perceived threat can increase our risk of developing cancer, heart disease, and neurodegenerative diseases. This is undoubtedly disturbing news, yet there are cognitive and behavioural techniques that can help combat and positively alter this adverse reaction.

The core principle underscoring Cole’s findings is that the way we interact with our surroundings affects our genetics. No genome expresses all its approximately 20,000 genes at any one time, and a number of protracted situations – like low socio-economic status, social instability, bereavement, post-traumatic stress, chronic stress, depression, and even loneliness – change the activity and expression of genes within white blood cells. This happens predominantly through the fight-flight threat response. When we perceive threat, our sympathetic nervous system activates the release of stress chemicals that increase the activity in genes designed to help us survive the perceived threat. The mental recognition of threat, therefore, stimulates a bodily reaction programmed to protect us – the mind and body work in harmony, at least when under physical attack.

So, all is well. But, as Cole has found, when our body hunkers down and tries to defend itself against the perceived threat something potentially unhelpful occurs on a cellular and genetic level. 1 Myeloid cells that are programmed to find trouble (like tissue damage) and do something about it are sent whizzing around our body. This natural and evolutionary reaction worked fine when the predominant causes of death were infection or predatory assault. But nowadays not all threat is bacterial or physical. Some is psychological, even imagined, and can stem from feelings of rejection, loneliness, depression etc. When in these psychological ‘threat’ states, fear-inducing thoughts transpose into chemical reactions. The immune system receives signals coming from our brains and prepares to confront the threat, producing the same myeloid cells as it produced when a physical threat needs combating. Problems occur when legions of these primed immune cells circulate around the body trying to find, for instance, tissue damage that needs fixing, yet find nothing because the harm done is psychological, not physical. The reason this is problematic is because the surplus of anti-inflammatory cells inadvertently contributes to potentially fatal ailments, like heart disease, cancer and neuro-degenerative diseases, creating physical threat where there was none before. Here, according to Steve Cole’s findings, the microbial devil makes work of idle cellular hands, so to speak. The tragic irony is this: despite being programmed to protect us, our psychological reaction to ‘threat’ – that is, our perception of a situation (be it loneliness, uncertainty, rejection etc.) as ‘threatening’ – can actually precipitate the onset of serious, life-shortening diseases.

Scary thoughts

This explains why so many different types of primarily psychological and emotional adversities (depression, prolonged sadness, poverty) that do not cause direct physical harm often lead to physical disease. The scary part is that we are very good at mentally simulating threat and stress when there is none. Even when we just visualise things going wrong, with or without reason, our body up-regulates self-destructive genes. By outlining the significant impact our thoughts can have on our physical health, Cole reveals the truly devastating effect of our human, all too human tendency to scan the world for threat and project fear where there is none.

In one experiment, Cole revealed how protracted stress impacts adversely on physiology. Cole’s team injected a mouse with cancer. To discover the effects of stress on the metastatic growth of the cancer, the mouse was placed in special confinement for 2-hours a day. We know that fear and stress have a physiological impact: we sweat, our mouth dries etc. But stress did much worse things to the mouse. Only a small stress increase resulted in the cancer growing more rapidly than normal, indicating that the mouse’s psychological recognition of threat and the subsequent activation of the mouse’s threat-response cranked up the aggressiveness with which the cancer spread.

Similarly to the mouse, when we are placed in threatening or stressful environments, or feel isolated from our community, our body up-regulates inflammatory genes that produce monocytes. These are geared to fight bacteria, but with psychological threat there are no bacteria to fight, which only fuels the aforementioned self-defeating process. Our environments – be they work-, home-, or school-based, are constantly altering and impacting on our health and wellbeing, which is crucial also to our performance. Therefore, we must take control of the ways in which they alter us.

There are two imperatives that fall out of this, both of which Positive focuses on. We must 1) make the places we live, teach, and work in less threatening by building supportive, flexibly-minded, and collaborative groups/organisations; and 2) develop the cognitive skills to regulate our perception of and reaction to threatening circumstances, leading to more adaptive and protective thinking styles and behaviour.

Positively adjusting individual, team, and organisational thinking styles and behaviour to these ends is the key differentiator in the marketplace and should underpin an organisation’s culture because it benefits individuals and the wider group.

How do we do this?

Cole finds answers by looking at Barbara Fredrickson’s research around happiness and compassion. If we can increase our own happiness and compassion towards others, Cole surmises, we can create protective environments that may well decrease the potency of psychological illnesses that drive unhelpful biological processes.

In order to do this, we must look at the nature of happiness. Cole uses Fredrickson’s distinction, borrowed from Aristotle, between two types of happiness: hedonic (based on consumption and immediate gratification) and eudaimonic (deeper satisfaction derived from purpose, community, creation, discovery).

Cole found that both hedonic and eudaimonic pursuits correlate with lower levels of depression. But more interesting than this is what Cole found at the genomic level, where eudaimonic happiness correlates with healthy immune profiles whereas hedonic happiness does not.

This suggests that in order guard against the internecine between the mind and the body when under psychological threat, we should pursue things that feed us eudaimonically. Creating purpose, meaning, and direction supports the drivers of individual, team, and organisational performance, while also lowering the risk of both mental and biological illness – benefitting all involved.

As well as these long-term goals, we can also protect ourselves by making simple changes to the way we think. This starts with understanding that what drives these dangerous biological processes isn’t the threat itself – not directly, anyway – but our perception of and reaction to the threat. In essence, we must understand that it is not what happens but the view we take of it that helps or harms us, modifying our behaviour thereafter.

We have a choice about how we use our brains, about how we view the world. We can hijack our automatic – and as Cole has shown, potentially adverse – reaction to events and adjust our style of thinking. If we enhance this ability (and we do get better with practice) we protect ourselves against psychological and physiological illness, restoring a little more harmony between our mind and body.

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