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How Your Thought Life Impacts Your Health

One of the foundational principles of my practice – and our “Wellness Wednesday” series – is that humans are multi-faceted beings, and all of the facets are interwoven. I am a spirit, I live in a body, and I have a mind, will, and emotions.

Interwoven Systems

The link between diet and physical health is well-documented — everybody knows that if you eat garbage, you will be sick. The medical world is beginning to recognize the effects of diet and exercise on mental and emotional health as well. People have recognized the link between spiritual health and mental health since the dawn of man.

What is less known is the link from mental health to physical health.

I need to thank my friend and colleague, Judy, for bringing this information to my attention. She is a real blessing to me.

If you’ve ever gone through a prolonged season of deep sadness, you probably spent some of that time fighting physical sickness. There is growing research linking dementia, which is a physical (neurochemical) issue, to depression, which is an emotional issue. Unforgiveness has been clinically linked to diabetes, heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s Disease, diseases of the colon, and dozens of others.

Of course, the Bible was trying to tell us this thousands of years ago when King Solomon wrote: “A merry heart doeth good like a medicine; but a broken spirit drieth the bones” (Proverbs 17:22).

More recently, a South African brain scientist, Dr. Caroline Leaf, published a breakthrough study called, “Who Switched Off My Brain?” I’ve talked about it here before. Her premise was:

“stress and anxiety harm the body in a multitude of ways; patchy memory, severe mental health issues, immune system problems, heart problems, and digestive problems.”

“Toxic Thinking” is her term for the physiological effects of negative thoughts. Her research has important implications for physicians, psychologists, and pastors alike.

Where Toxic Thoughts Start

Think about a time when someone hurt your feelings. How did you physically feel? You may have felt an initial jolt of shock, anger, or embarrassment. Your brain responded by opening the floodgates on up to 30 neurotransmitters, which charged up your body for “fight or flight.” That’s a natural reaction, and it usually subsides within a couple of hours. Your endocrine system (adrenal glands, thyroids, hypothalamus, and others) is designed to give off short bursts of neurotransmitters like adrenaline, cortisol, and oxytocin, to let your body know how to respond to stimuli around you.

The problem comes when you leave the faucets open too long. While you’re struggling with hard emotions, your body is suffering an assault like a spray of battery acid. The longer you hang on to your hard feelings, the longer the faucet stays open. This isn’t simply a psychological issue, it is a physical issue. The uncontrolled flow of neurotransmitters will physically damage your brain over time.

I’m not overstating it when I say, stress and anxiety can kill you. As I’ve often said, refusing to forgive is like drinking poison and watching for the other person to die. It’s not a metaphor — it’s a death sentence.

What Are Some Toxic Thoughts?

Dr. Leaf published a long list of thought patterns that are toxic to your mind and body. Here is Judy’s short sampling:

  • Unforgiveness (includes: bitterness, resentment, anger, hatred, violence) – toward anyone (e.g., mother-in-law, spouse, co-worker, or yourself.
  • Passive-aggressive behavior – saying one thing and doing another, not able to say how you feel, fearful of conflict.
  • Fear of man – always analyzing what others are thinking of you, being critical of others or yourself.
  • Self-hatred – saying you are sorry for thing, thinking you don’t measure up, comparing yourself to others, saying to yourself, “you idiot” or “what is wrong with you,” the inability to love yourself, lack of selfcare.
  • Guilt – feelings of worthlessness, shame, always feeling like it is your fault.
  • Negative words – saying things like “I can’t do it,” “I always mess up,” “things will never change,” “that’s not fair, “or “you always hurt me.”

Do you recognize yourself in any of these bullets?

It’s time to take inventory.

Mental and emotional health issues will ravage your body if you don’t deal with them properly. Stress suppresses your immune system, boosts your blood pressure, and tears up your digestive system. It’s time to ask: what are you stressed out about? Judy shared this excellent chart that breaks down some of the symptoms of anxiety — do you see any of these in your life?

There are things in life you can control and things you can’t control. Are you stressed about something you can’t control (the weather, other people’s choices, etc.)? Let it go. Are you stressed about something you can control? What are you going to do about it?

  • Anger is a choice.
  • Blaming someone is a choice.
  • Unforgiveness is a choice.
  • Revenge is a choice.
  • Self-pity is a choice.
  • Feeling like you are helpless to do anything is a choice – it’s a victim mentality and the root of bitterness. You are not helpless. There is always something you can choose – you can choose how you respond to circumstances.

What Can We Do About It?

Our responses to circumstances are based on thought patterns formed over time. The brain is not a container of information; it’s a living organ that grows and changes shape over time as it interacts with new information. Under a microscope, you can see the formation of patterns in the brain. Brain cells build on top of each other in the shape of trees, with branches interconnecting with each other. Every time you perform a new action it forms a branch. Every time you repeat that action, it reinforces that branch. Daily habits form into massive tree trunks in your brain. The thicker the channel, the harder it is to make a new one. But it can be done.

Dr. Leaf’s research suggests that it takes four days to create a new thought, and existing thought patterns can be overwritten with new tracks in 21 days. It takes discipline and practice, but you can entirely change the way you think in less than a month.

How?

Start with your words.

Try this test: silently count from one to ten. While you are counting, try to say your name out loud. Did you lose track of your counting? That’s because your mind will stop what it is doing to hear what your mouth is saying. Words are powerful. Romans 10:17 says that faith comes by hearing.

Proverbs 18:21 says, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” Negative words build negative thoughts; positive words build positive thoughts. People who talk to their plants know this. You can kill a plant by speaking negatively to it. You can ruin a person’s life forever by speaking mean words to them. You can cut your life short by speaking mean words to yourself. Words are important because people believe them.

There is no-one on earth whose words are more powerful in your life than you. Your parents may have spoken terrible things to you when you were growing up, but now it’s up to you to decide what you are going to say to yourself. You can’t go through life blaming them – you have to take responsibility for yourself.

Speak life.

Some people call these “affirmations” or “positive confessions.” At one time, there was a large industry of “affirmation tapes,” where a voice would say positive things for you to repeat, so you would hear yourself saying positive things. If you don’t know any positive things to say, it’s a good place to start.

Try It

My friend, Judy has a great exercise she does with people.

  1. Identify a big problem in your life.
  2. Name the opposite of the problem in a positive way. Do not use any negative words, or words that help to describe the problem.
  3. It is important to fill in both your first and last names.
  4. Use feeling words that would express your feelings after having accomplished your goal.

Example: Problem – anger. Opposite – self-control. Affirmation: I, Stephen Stohler, feel happy and confident as I walk in self-control each day.

  • Affirm this statement: “I am worthy of this goal and by the power of the Holy Spirit I will renew my mind and reach my goal.”
  • As you verbally say and claim this goal, see yourself doing it and experience the feelings described in the goal.
  • Be consistent in reviewing and saying your goal 3 to 5 times each day. Do this for at least 21 days (the average time it takes to develop a new habit.)

If positive thinking is new for you, it might be uncomfortable for a few days. Just like a new eating program or exercise program, the breakthroughs that will follow this new thought program are worth a few days of discomfort.

Let’s get mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and physically healthy, so we can be relationally, socially, and financially healthy as well!

Next Steps

If this was helpful to you, I hope you will take a few seconds to share it on social media. You never know who might be looking for exactly this information so they can be free of tormenting toxic thoughts and the damage it does to every part of their life. No matter how much I spend on boosting posts on social media, there are people in your friend list that I can never reach unless you introduce us. Thank you for your help getting the word out.

If you’re in the Naples area, join us for our next “Fundamental Foods Night,” Thursday, March 2nd, at 6:15 p.m. at my office behind the YMCA on Pine Ridge Road. We do these special dinners once a month, and they are growing every single month, so space is getting very limited very quickly. This time, we’re going to dive deep into a study of gut health in a way that I think will transform the way you think about your health on every level. I’m really excited to share it with you.

“At the end of your FEELINGS is NOTHING. At the end of your PRINCIPLES is a PROMISE.”  — Eric Thomas

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