In a world of uncertainty it is always important to know what we don't know. In the world of health it is safe to say that we really don’t know enough. One thing that we are starting to get a grasp on is how very important our mindset and perceptions are in determining our health.
For many years now people have been aware of the “placebo effect.” In these studies, participants assume that the sugar pills they are taking are actually providing some type of therapeutic effect. The powerful influence of our mindset goes well beyond what we can comprehend. However, there are some poignant examples in fairly recent research that demonstrate how our brains can change the outcomes of our health.
Perception Alters Our Physiology
Consider this, in 2007, 84 hotel maids were divided into two groups. One group was instructed that their work alone was enough to achieve the recommended amounts of weekly physical activity. The other group was given no instruction at all. Four weeks later, the researchers checked in with both groups of hotel maids to re-measure some important health markers. The group that was told they were doing enough physical activity actually showed improvements in their blood pressure, hip-to-waist ratio, and a decrease in their body mass index (BMI). The group that was given no instruction showed none of those positive changes. These improvements were made without either group changing their physical activity!
It is phenomenal to think that by simply challenging our own perceptions we can see improvements in our health. The keyword in the previous sentence being perception.
Perception of Stress
Most individuals around the world are very familiar with stress. Not stress in the way an engineer might think about it, but stress from a mental and biophysical stand point. We can see that stress is having major impacts on our health. Interestingly enough, the degree that we perceive stress has a negative impact on our lives is related to having poor health and the risk of premature death. So, while most of us have stress, how we feel about that stress changes what it does to our bodies.
Perception Can Be Misleading
It is through these same perceptions that marketers make money. Someone who is skilled in psychology and knows how to adjust an audience’s perceptions, can play a big role in our behaviors.
For example, I often hear people use the following terms to describe their bodies: words such as tear, degeneration, bone-on-bone, the worst [insert body part] that a doctor has ever seen, disc bulge, nerve pinch, etc. All of these terms lead to perceptions of what someone feels about their body, and these perceptions influence their health. For this reason around 1 o’clock in the morning there will be numerous TV advertisements about the next best treatment option for all of the above problems. Most of those options have little to no research to support their use, and are most likely to only make a difference with the “placebo effect”.
There are a great deal of studies that show how individuals with numerous types of structurally pathologies will have no symptoms (references with the asterisks). Which indicates that in the realm of which pathologies count and which ones don’t probably comes down to what our perception of those pathologies mean. None of this indicates that the pain is all in your head. By no means. Only that what we think about what is going on in our bodies, actually changes our response to any given symptom.
The Brain Changes
The beauty in all of this is that our minds are extremely plastic. Our thoughts, beliefs and perceptions are constantly changing. As we continue to learn we change the way we perceive the world, as well as changing the way our bodies respond to the world we live in. Meaning, what we felt yesterday, (sadness, pain, fatigue, etc.) does not dictate what we will feel tomorrow (joy, strength, energized, etc.).
A lot of times all we need, to change the trajectory of our perceptions is some guidance. Someone to help us by setting a road map for our nervous system to change. That is where a skilled professional can be a huge help. From coach to psychologist, trainer to physical therapist, and chiropractor to physician you should be offered a plan to help you feel well and think well.
Keller, A., Litzelman, K., Wisk, L. E., Maddox, T., Cheng, E. R., Creswell, P. D., & Witt, W. P. (2012). Does the perception that stress affects health matter? The association with health and mortality. Health Psychology, 31(5), 677.
Crum, A. J., & Langer, E. J. (2007). Mind-set matters: Exercise and the placebo effect. Psychological Science, 18(2), 165-171.
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