We are what we think about all day. The thoughts that we think and the feelings that accompany them can shape our experience of the day. A Harvard study looked at how what we think affects our immune systems. The findings were that negative thoughts actually cause us to maintain elevated levels of stress hormones, while positive thoughts fill our bodies with the types of chemicals that soothe and regulate our moods. While antidepressants can help us artificially maintain elevated levels of serotonin in our blood streams, positive thoughts do the job naturally.
Thinking positive and uplifting thoughts will give us a different body to live in. The Harvard study set up two control groups to measure how thoughts affect our bodies and our emotions. The first control group was asked to watch films of Nazi war crimes. The second, films of Mother Theresa at work. After watching the films, each group had blood drawn. The group that had been watching Nazi war films had elevated levels of stress chemicals, such as adrenaline and cortisol. The group watching the Mother Theresa film had elevated levels of feel-good chemicals, such as serotonin and dopamine, nature’s antidepressants, that made them feel emotionally regulated and calm. Blood chemicals went back to normal after about 20 minutes.
But here’s the interesting stuff: In a second part of the study, subjects were asked to continue to run the images of the films in their minds throughout the day. Hours later, the results were the same. The group that had been watching Nazi war films had continually high levels of stress chemicals coursing through their blood, while the group that had been watching Mother Theresa experienced continued levels of feel-good chemicals.
So, not only does what we think about all day really affect how we feel, but thinking positive, affirmative thoughts is actually a proven approach to living a better and more balanced life. Those of us in the recovery world have known this for a long time. Treatment centers have been making affirmations a part of their community for decades. Try it – spend a few minutes consciously thinking thoughts that make you feel calm, happy and good inside and see what happens to your emotional state. And if you’re not convinced yet that calm is better, try thinking upsetting thoughts or watching something scary or disturbing on TV (easy to find), and see what happens to your emotional state.
If you want to bring calm to your emotions, you now have two powerful tools: calm your breathing and think uplifting thoughts or affirmations, which are positive thoughts.
TAKE A HEART BREAK
Calming your heart, or achieving what researchers at HeartMath call heart coherence, brings emotional calm to your whole body. Regulating heart rhythms also brings calm to blood flow and every body organ and system that the heart influences. You can achieve this coherence in heart rhythms in as little as one minute. Try the following next time you’re feeling stressed:
• Take a break and mentally disengage from the situation.
• Bring your attention to the area of your heart.
•Recall an experience in which you felt happiness, love or appreciation, or just meditate for a moment on those kinds of thoughts and feelings.
• Re-experience these feelings while keeping your attention on your heart. Let your breathing be relaxed and regular.
When I wrote Forgiving and Moving On 20 years ago, I did it to help myself and my clients see a painful circumstance in a positive light. I wrote affirmations each morning and they truly set my mind in a positive direction. That book has been my best seller and has now been made into an app along with One Foot in Front of the Other, an app for early recovery designed to disseminate program principles in an easy, available, user-friendly way. (Both are available on iTunes.)