Be mindful of your mindset

“To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.”
– Henry David Thoreau –

*First and foremost, if you think you are struggling with deeper issues of negative thoughts, depression, anxiety, anger, or a sense of hopelessness, do not hesitate to reach out to a qualified therapist or counsellor.* 

When I was eleven years old, I gave myself my first headache. I remember it clearly. I had come home for lunch and didn’t want to go back to school in the afternoon – not because I didn’t like school, but because I wanted to stay home with my Mom instead. My Mom was a business owner, a wife and a mother of 3. Needless to say, her time was limited, and I wanted some of her time to myself. But I didn’t want to lie and tell her I felt sick. So instead, I laid down on the couch and focused intently on giving myself a headache – because if I had a headache, then I could honestly tell her I didn’t feel well. After about 20 minutes, success was achieved – I had an ache in my temple! Not only did I get to stay home with my Mom, but I was also now enthralled with the idea that our minds could control our bodies.

At eleven years old, I certainly didn’t know that the brain truly does control our bodies. I didn’t know that when we’re thirsty, it’s because the brain realizes we need more water. I didn’t know that when we breathe, it’s because the brain tells us we have too little or too much oxygen or carbon dioxide every few seconds. What I did know, however, or what I proved to myself in my first unofficial headache research, was that my mind was more powerful than I could have ever imagined.

YOUR THOUGHTS CAN AFFECT YOUR HEALTH.

If my anecdotal story of an eleven-year-old doesn’t convince you of the power of the mind, here’s some other proof that our incredibly advanced brains can immediately impact the physiology in our bodies, and therefore our physical health. 

One of the most common examples is White Coat Hypertension or the White Coat Effect. Hypertension is high blood pressure. High blood pressure is an automatic reaction in your body when you perceive that you’re under stress or something is threatening you. When you’re stressed and feel threatened (activating your Stress Response), your body needs more blood (containing oxygen, nutrients, glucose, and more) in your cells. Increased blood pressure will get more blood to more cells, faster. White Coat Hypertension is a ‘syndrome’ in which a person develops high blood pressure when they are around doctors, who often wear white coats. Although it can be a legitimate sign of chronic hypertension (which must be taken seriously), it can also be the result of a nervous patient who is mentally stressed about having their blood pressure taken or being at the doctor’s office.

Another example. Think about something that makes you nervous – maybe it’s speaking in front of a crowd, having a difficult conversation with a friend or family member, being assigned new responsibilities at work on a tight deadline or something else. If you pay attention to your body (or think back to a time this has happened), you’ll likely notice a slight increase in your heart rate. This is the most commonly felt reaction in the body as a result of your Stress Response (aka Fight or Flight response) being activated. You just sitting here thinking about something stressful is proof that what you think can have a physical impact on your body.

Personally, I think this is incredible – that the way we think can affect our health. And if you really think about (no pun intended), perception is everything. I mean, I may be worried about seeing a doctor or speaking in front of a crowd, while it may not faze you at all. In other words, if you don’t perceive those examples as stressful, then you may have no physical reaction at all. It all comes down to perception. It all comes down to mindset.

IS YOUR MINDSET STRESSING YOU OUT AND MAKING YOU SICK?

In simple terms, your mindset is your outlook or your attitude. It’s an accumulation of your thoughts and beliefs. It affects how you feel and how you think. In more technical terms, mindset can be categorized into Growth Mindset (you believe your skills and abilities can grow with time and experience) or Fixed Mindset (your qualities and skills are fixed and cannot change). As a Coach, I know people can change so I know which category I’m in.

But when you delve into each of these 2 mindsets, the common denominator comes down to this: you either have a tendency to be positive or a tendency to be negative. And if you tend to lean towards negative – and that could mean judging yourself, others or the world – it can also negatively impact your health.

This is partly because negativity is considered a psychological stressor (thus it’s included in my programs as one of The Top 10 Stress Management Habits you want to master). When this stress, or any type of stress for that matter, is chronic, it can force your body to work overtime, for some systems to be worked harder than others, and as a result, it can contribute to disease.

In the article, How do thoughts and emotions affect health, Dr. Karen Lawson of the University of Minnesota states that negativity (the emotion of anger in particular) is related to “a slew of life-altering health conditions”, a short list of which is below:

  • hypertension (high blood pressure, as you know),
  • cardiovascular disease,
  • digestive disorders (when your body is under stress, it immediately impairs digestion), and
  • reduced immunity (immunity is also impaired when your body is under stress).

Dr. Lawson also notes that the key benefit of positive emotions is resilience in the face of hardships:  “Resilient people are able to experience tough emotions like pain, sorrow, frustration, and grief without falling apart. Resilient people do not deny the pain or suffering they are experiencing; rather, they retain a sense of positivity that helps them overcome the negative effects of their situation. In fact, some people are able to look at challenging times with optimism and hope, knowing that their hardships will lead to personal growth and an expanded outlook on life.”   

MIND(SET) OVER MATTER.

When it comes to mindset – whether you’re positive or negative – you don’t have to be a wise old man or woman to realize that it can make or break your day, your week, your year, your life.

But the empowering and freeing truth is that, just like with everything else in life, you have a choice. You can choose to drink more water or not, knowing that proper hydration is required by every cell in your body and brain, impacting your metabolism, sleep, energy, muscle tension and digestion, and more. (Yes, that’s my subtle attempt to convince you to drink more water!). You can choose to shut down electronics before bed or not, knowing that if you do, you increase your odds of a restful sleep. You can also choose to be positive or negative, to have a good day or a bad day, to be kind to yourself and others or not. Nelson Mandela is just one example of how an optimistic mindset can dictate your outcomes, despite spending almost 3 decades in prison.

I’m not saying it’s always easy to turn a bad mood into a good one, or see the bright side of everything and everyone, everyday. And we all know that doing so can require more work on some days than others. But habit change is possible. You just need to want it. And if you can learn the art of being positive, you will have mastered one of the most rewarding habits of all. As Thoreau said, “To affect the quality of the day, that is the greatest of arts.”

THE TOP 10 TIPS FOR YOUR POSITIVE MINDSET TOOLBOX

Tony Robbins says, “whatever you hold in your mind on a consistent basis is exactly what you will experience in your life.” We need to start by being mindfully aware of when negative thoughts start creeping into our brain. Hence, you need to establish a practice that helps you get ahead of thoughts that limit the quality of what could be a beautiful day. Below are 10 ways you can train your brain for a positive mindset:

  1. Become aware of when you have or say negative thoughts.
    • This may sound easier said than done but the first step in anything is to become aware. As you start to notice your thoughts and words, implement step #2.
  2. Practice positive self-talk.
    • Self-talk is basically your inner voice, the voice in your mind that says the things you don’t necessarily say out loud.  Positive self-talk makes you feel good about yourself and the things that are going on in your life. It’s like having an optimistic voice in your head that always looks on the bright side. Examples could be: “That wellness challenge was easier than I thought”, “I can definitely do this challenge”, or “I haven’t lost the weight yet, but I definitely understand my body better than before”   Negative self-talk makes you feel bad about yourself and the events happening in your life. It can even make something good seem, well, not so good. Examples could be: “I’ll never be able to do this challenge”, “I should be doing better”, “I’m never going to lose the weight”, “Nothing ever goes my way”, and the like.
    • To change the way you talk to yourself, do the following:
      • Listen to what you’re saying to yourself: Is this self-talk positive or negative?
      • Challenge your self-talk: Is there any evidence for what I’m thinking? What would you say if a friend were in a similar situation? Can you do anything to change what you’re feeling bad about?
      • Change your self-talk: Make a list of the positive things about yourself or instead of saying ‘I’ll never be able to do this’, try ‘Is there anything I can do that will help me accomplish this?’
  3. Become aware of when others talk negatively.   
    • Inevitably, as you start to become more positive, you will start to notice when others are negative and when their negativity drags you down. Over time, you may need to make a decision on how much time to spend with these people.
  4. Be social. But choose positive people and avoid negative ones.
    • In my article, Social Support – The Antidote for Stress, I mention that lack of social support is one of the leading causes of stress is today’s society. But research also shows that the quality of friendships is more valuable than the quantity. Be social but choose those with positive energy, not ones that drain your energy with negativity.
  5. If it’s out of control, get it under control.
    • Lack of control over an outcome is also considered a stressor. So if you’re feeling like something in your life is out of control, find a sense of control elsewhere. If work is an area where you don’t feel like you have influence over the outcome, then choose a hobby or get involved in your community.
  6. Be creative.
    • Creative expression releases endorphins and other feel-good neurotransmitters, reduces depression and anxiety, improves your immune function, relieves physical pain, and activates the parasympathetic nervous system. It can activate The Relaxation Response (opposite of The Stress Response), which means it lowers your heart rate, decreases your blood pressure, slows down your breathing, and lowers cortisol. Painting, writing, woodworking, doing jigsaw puzzles or even just looking at the sky to see what cloud-shaped animals and objects you find are great ways to express your creativity and use a side of the brain that we so often neglect.
  7. Do something good for someone else.
    • I remember hearing that if you ever feel bad about yourself, you should do something for someone else. Personally, I feel like this is one of the best ways to get out of a negative headspace, partly because it makes you feel good to help other people and it might make you realize how grateful you should be for what you have since others may not be so lucky. Studies have also shown that giving activates relaxation responses, which bolster the body’s natural self-repair mechanisms.    
  8. Be grateful. Keep a gratitude journal.
    • There are so many benefits associated with being grateful.  Even the act of saying thank you can make all parties involved feel better. Documenting what you’re grateful for can help you see the words on paper, elaborate on other positive feelings, and solidify in your mind that things might not be so bad. Quite importantly, realizing what you’re grateful for can keep you out of a negative mindset.
  9. Smile. Laugh. 
    • According to NeuroNation, the brain does not know the difference between a fake and real smile. If you’re feeling down or notice that you’ve not smiled in a while, fake one. The more often you fake a smile, the more likely smiling will become a more natural habit. When you smile, dopamine, endorphins and serotonin are all released into your bloodstream, helping your body relax and helping to lower your heart rate and blood pressure.
  10. Get in touch with tunes. 
    • Uplifting music, humming, and whistling are all legitimate ways to improve mood. Listening to music stimulates the autonomic nervous system, which is responsible for the control of one’s blood pressure, brain function and heart beat. Humming stimulates the vagus nerve, which extends from the brainstem down into your stomach and intestines, innervating your heart and lungs, and connecting your throat and facial muscles. Activation of the vagus nerve keeps your immune system in check and releases an assortment of hormones and enzymes such as acetylcholine and oxytocin, resulting in reductions in inflammation, improvements in memory, and feelings of relaxation. As for whistling, there isn’t a ton of research to prove that whistling has a connection to mood, but I think we’d all agree that it’s pretty hard to whistle and stay in a bad mood!

We’re all human. We have good days and bad days. But we can choose how to view those days. We can choose how they impact us. And even if you’re someone who has been a negative thinker for years, you can change your habits. You can change the way you think. You just need to want to change. It simply comes down to mind over matter. 

👩‍🏫 Want to know if Hidden Stress is keeping you from reaching your health and wellness goals? Take the What’s Your Hidden Stress Score Quiz to find out!

By Nicole Porter
Nicole Porter is a Stress Coach and Wellness Educator helping busy, stressed out professionals mindfully overcome the Top 10 Unhealthy Habits preventing optimal health, mindset and productivity. She is also a Registered Holistic Nutritionist, Registered Nutritional Therapist, Healthy Weight Loss Coach, and Pilates Coach with a background in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction and Behaviour Change.

Nicole Porter Wellness

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