How does your mindset affect your health? Does positive thinking improve heart health? Can it reduce your risk of premature death?
To answer these questions, a group of cardiologists scoured the medical literature and came up with 15 pertinent studies involving more than 229,000 participants. Their analysis of these studies, which was published in an online JAMA journal, revealed that a “mindset of optimism” is linked with significantly better heart health.
People with a positive outlook had a 35% lower risk of cardiovascular events, including angina, heart attack, stroke, and death from cardiovascular causes. They further concluded that “promotion of optimism and reduction in pessimism may be important for preventive health.”
Change Your Thoughts, Improve Your Health
The strong relationships between heart health and emotions, attitude, and outlook on life became crystal clear to me early in my career as a cardiologist. I was in my mid-30s at the time, and I was seeing major cardiac events in people my age! It was evident that many of the heart attacks, sudden cardiac arrests, and episodes of arrhythmia and extremely high blood pressure we were seeing were related to anger, rage, fear, extreme anxiety, and other manifestations of emotional stress.
I realized that optimal patient care required acknowledging the mind-body connection and addressing these issues. So, I committed to the extensive postgraduate coursework and clinical training to become a Certified Bioenergetic Psychotherapist. My colleagues at the hospital probably thought I needed a psychotherapist myself to embark on this path.
It took a lot of time and energy, but it was worth it. Helping people really understand that what they think affects how they feel—and teaching techniques for changing thought patterns, defusing stress, and developing a positive mindset—is an integral part of my prescription for better health.
Positive Thinking Can Be Learned
Positive thinking doesn’t come easily for some people. Environmental factors, life experiences, and even genetics influence our perceptions about ourselves, the world around us, and our expectations and hopes for the future.
Even if you’re a generally positive person, your ability to look on the bright side can be tested by serious illnesses, emotionally traumatic news and events, and simply the challenges of life—establishing a career, raising a family, caring for aging parents, or getting older yourself.
Yet, I am convinced, based on 40 years of clinical practice, that you can learn to curb negative thoughts and react to stress in a more positive way. Whatever your circumstances, you can adopt practices to develop a more constructive, hopeful mindset. Improvements may be temporary at first, but like building muscles or acquiring a new skill, benefits accrue with practice and over time.
Rx for Optimism
Thousands of books have been written to motivate, inspire, and nudge readers towards optimism. Common themes include focusing on the positive, living in the present rather than dwelling on past grievances, and visualizing a better future. There are many techniques for accomplishing these, and I have used a number of them myself and with my patients.
Here are three quick and easy techniques that you can practice at most any time:
Make a habit of acknowledging the things in your life that you are grateful for. This forces you to recognize and appreciate the good things and shifts your focus away from thoughts that may be dragging you down. It doesn’t matter if what you are thankful for is as mundane as the roof over your head and the food on your table, or if the best you can do is to be grateful that things aren’t worse—at least you’re reframing negative thoughts. This practice is all about harnessing the positive energy of gratitude.
To provide structure to your practice, keep a gratitude journal. Spend five minutes or so a day writing down three or four things you are thankful for. Sharing your thoughts with others, say at the beginning of meals or at bedtime, also helps to cultivate gratitude.
You know how great it feels to take off your shoes and dig your feet into a grassy lawn or on a sandy beach? When you walk barefoot on grass, sand, dirt, or even concrete, you are connecting with the Earth’s natural healing energy. We are bioelectrical beings, and the free electrons you soak up when you directly connect with the Earth recharges your batteries.
This is the essence of grounding, or Earthing, as it is also called. It is a powerful yet grossly underused therapy. As documented in a 2019 review study, grounding improves stress, inflammation, blood flow, sleep, and overall vitality. Whenever you can, walk around barefoot outdoors or on a concrete basement or ground floor for 10–15 minutes. If weather and circumstances prohibit this, look into grounding pads and other products.
Laughter is powerful medicine. Studies have shown that laughter activates neural pathways and stimulates the release of feel-good endorphins that boost mood. It diffuses tension and reduces levels of cortisol, making it a great antidote for stress. A good belly laugh also works out the muscles in your core, deepens your breathing, and temporarily lowers your blood pressure.
Hundreds of scientific papers have discussed the health benefits of “laughter therapy,” and a growing number of hospitals and healthcare practitioners are using humor to help their patients reduce stress and pain, boost immune function, and improve mood and well-being. Create your own laughter therapy program with comedies and sitcoms, funny books and articles, humor websites and apps, and visits or calls with people who make you laugh. It’s hard to feel down and out when you’re laughing.
More Effective Techniques for Cultivating Optimism
Here are a handful of other proven practices for turning off negative thoughts and developing a more positive outlook:
- Meditation: I’ve long recommended meditation for a healthy heart and it may be the most powerful therapy of all. It takes some practice to the hang of it, but here’s a video to help you get started.
- Breathing exercising: Simply observing your breath redirects your mind to the present. Other techniques, such as belly breathing and alternate nostril breathing, help to balance your autonomic nervous system and reduce stress.
- Yoga and tai chi: These ancient practices benefit your body, mind, and soul—and yoga has many benefits for heart health. Look for instruction online and classes through local studios and community centers.
- Music: Music has profound effects on our mood. Soothing music—Bach’s concertos are a favorite of mine—helps you to relax and wind down, while more upbeat tunes can boost your mood and energy. It’s hard to be in a funk when you crank up the volume on the Beatles or the Beach Boys!
- Mental imagery: One of many versions of mental imagery is to recall a moment when you were extraordinarily happy, dwelling on the smallest details and your feelings at the time. Another is to focus on a future event or situation and visualize the outcome in a positive light.
- Prayer: Turning to a higher power and acknowledging your many blessings is an excellent attitude adjustment for many people.
- Counseling/therapy: Do not hesitate to seek help from a counselor or therapist. Pessimism can lead to depression and other mental disorders that must be treated. Even optimistic people can gain insights from therapy.
Give some of these suggestions a try—and watch their benefits spill over into all areas of your life.