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The Psychology of Health

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How do our minds influence the health of our bodies? Some people maximise their chances of having long healthy lives. With all the genetic advantages anyone could hope for, others seem determined to destroy their health as fast as possible. Why? What can we do (and not do) to maximise our physical and mental health?

Throughout history, people have sensed and referred to the possibility that the mind heavily influences the health of the body. Various ancient (and current) religions have ascribed illness to what was going on in the ill person’s mind before becoming ill. Others attribute illness in the body to spirits in the mind. The term psychosomatic was first used by Heinroth in 1818 and referred to the processes that cause and the study of how the mind impacts the health of the body.

Today, few people challenge that mental processes can affect physical health. Phenomena that confirm the truth of psychosomatic illness are all around us. Almost everyone knows a hypochondriac who works themselves into such anxiety that they cause their illnesses. We counsel each other not to damage our health by allowing ourselves to be stressed. Many students in medical school start to experience the symptoms of the disorders that they are studying at the time.

There is no doubt that how we use our minds and what we think and feel can directly impact our physical state and health. For instance, when we close our eyes and think of the happiest time in our lives, our bodies quickly change to reflect what is in our minds.

If we think of when we were in the most danger, our heart rate will increase our blood pressure and breathing rate. Chemical changes take place nearly instantly in our bodies, for example, the release of adrenalin due to what we think. All bodily systems are directly or indirectly connected to brain functioning. That means our minds can hugely impact our health positively and negatively.

How can we use that knowledge to our benefit? Listen to our bodies. They will tell us when what we are doing mentally is having a negative impact on our health.

Psychosomatic symptoms appear quickly. The most common symptoms brought on psychosomatically are fatigue, insomnia, bodily aches and pains, high blood pressure, headaches, and skin disorders.

All of the symptoms induced psychosomatically can also have physical causes. That makes it more difficult to persuade someone, for whom all physical causes have been ruled out, to believe that they are, unknowingly, causing their illness in their minds.

What comes next will shock many people. When I was doing the research for my 2018 book, Self-responsibility Therapy, I asked physicians, and other clinicians, what percentage of their patients were coming to them for problems that the patient had, unknowing, caused themselves. None of the experts said less than 65%, and no one said more than 95%. Most thought that 75-85% of people with health problems had, in some way, unknowingly, caused that problem themselves.

To those who have studied the most up-to-date research, those figures may appear on the low side. It now appears that around 90% of all cancers are behaviourally caused (directly or indirectly). That is, perhaps, most of us, unknowing, cause our cancers.

Here is an alarming figure. Only 3% of the population follow the big five pieces of health protection advice, which are:

  • Don’t smoke
  • Exercise regularly
  • Keep your weight within healthy limits
  • Eat at least five pieces of fruit and vegetables per day
  • Abstain from alcohol, or drink at very low levels

That means 97% of the population are using their minds to behave in ways that are seriously injurious to or increase the risks to, their health. Here is another alarming figure: 75% of premature deaths can be attributed to not following the big five.

The figures around the causes of ill health seem to be broadly in line. Some illnesses are genetically caused that are outside our control. Indeed, the gradual deterioration of our genes beyond the age of 30, after the genetic end-cap, the telomeres start to shorten, is outside our control, or that is what we used to think.

Recently, a healthy diet, exercise, stress management, and social support can result in telomeres staying in place for longer, buying us more healthy time. That might explain why some people grow old more slowly than others. It may also explain the greater longevity of people who live a healthy lifestyle.

While some deleterious health effects have environmental causes outwith our control, most of what causes illness seem to be within our sphere of self-responsibility.

The most constructive psychological approach we can adopt toward health is to take as much self-responsibility as possible without becoming paranoid or hypochondriacal.

Trying to take responsibility for things beyond our gift will cause stress, which damages health. Taking too little self-responsibility will subject us to avoidable risks, damaging our health.

We are best served by finding the sweet spot, that happy, moderate, balanced level of responsibility for our health that leaves us feeling relaxed and confident that we are doing our best.

It seems that our mind is both the biggest cause of ill health and the best tool we have to stay healthy for longer, depending on how we choose to use it. If that is so, then perhaps our approach to healthcare will change, from reactive to proactive, from curative to preventative.

In years to come, will medicine move more towards behavioural medicine, mostly about educating and persuading people to do what will keep them healthy for longer? Will the most effective science in medicine come from the art of health self-responsibility?

Professor Nigel MacLennan runs the performance coaching practice PsyPerform.


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