What would happen if you were to eat something unhealthy but believe it was good for you … or something healthy but believe it was bad for you? It seems that what we believe matters more than we think.
Take the large US study that examined the connection between stress and health, for instance. Over the measured time period, there were more deaths among those who were listed as ‘high stress’ than in those listed as ‘low stress’. Fair enough. I think most people would get onboard with that.
But hidden among the numbers lay a surprising and startling statistic. The scientists had taken a note of people’s beliefs about stress as well as how stressed they tended to get. They asked them whether they believed that stress is bad for them or not.
It turned out that what they believed made all the difference. The death rate in the low stress group among those who believed stress was bad for them was actually higher than the death rate in the high stress group among the people who didn’t believe stress was bad for them – a seeming reversal of the whole stress-health thing.
In other words, it’s not the stress so much, but what we believe about the stress that seems to matter even more.
I think that’s really quite astonishing! In fact, even more so: When playing around with the numbers from the study, the scientists concluded that 182,000 people had died in the 8 years of the study from the belief that stress is bad for them. According to Dr Kelly McGonigal, who gave an inspiring TED talk on the subject, that means the 15th leading cause of death in the US in the year the study was conducted was actually the belief that stress is bad for you. Wow! A belief in the top 20 leading causes of death! That’s got to be some kind of a record.
I wonder, with many of the stress-health studies that have shown how stress is bad for us, if there was a strong nocebo effect going on – that’s the opposite of a placebo effect. Where a placebo makes people better, the nocebo effect makes people worse if they believe something is harmful for them. Believing stress is bad for you can act like a nocebo effect when you’re under stress, making the effect of the stress even worse.
What do we do with this kind of knowledge? Do we not bother about practicing stress management techniques? Do we dive into any stressful situation without a care in the world? Do we allow ourselves to get stressed and just say, ‘I’ll be OK’?
I’d caution against just allowing ourselves to get stressed. There is a difference between a thought and a belief. I don’t think getting stressed and saying, ‘I’ll be OK’ will cut it. Chances are you’re saying one thing but believing another.
At risk of swaying your beliefs, if we were to take the mind out of the equation, prolonged and consistent stress is harmful to health, and I think most people believe that. The study is powerful because it shows how the mind can sway the effects. There’s implications for all sorts of things, including self-healing, which I’ve written about in some of my books.
I think a healthier approach would be to moderate our stress levels but also remind ourselves, when we do get stressed, that occasional stress won’t do us any harm. It takes the pressure off.
I wonder how much our beliefs apply to the foods we eat. I started to eat a healthier diet around 12 years ago. Prior to this, I can honestly say that, despite being well educated (degree and PhD) and an amateur athlete at the time, I had almost no nutritional knowledge.
After attending an inspiring talk on nutrition, I made some dramatic changes to my diet. The modifications I made gave me more energy, especially in the afternoon, and a much clearer mind, which is very useful if you’re a writer. I also lost 18 pounds in weight in 7 weeks.
But once I was a healthier eater, I remember being worried about eating anything deemed unhealthy. I went through a phase of unintentionally (and frustratingly) imagining fat going onto my stomach any time I ate some bread, chips or chocolate. My first thought was, ‘This is bad’. But was it as bad as that or was it my belief that was ‘bad’?
My mind obsessed when I ate any of the things I used to eat. In some of my books and workshops I teach how visualization can be used a positive tool to heal the body. I was using it in the opposite way.
Before I became knowledgeable, I didn’t really think of my previous diet as bad for me. In fact, I actually believed that the things I was eating were good for me. I believed they gave me strength and energy. Now I was thinking of those kinds of foods as energy sapping, acid-forming, sugar-laden crap. Were they really all those things?
In the news, we’ve recently learned that butter isn’t the enemy after all. In fact, it’s quite good for us. But I wonder how many people experienced negative effects of butter in their diet because they believed it was bad for them.
How much do our beliefs about foods affect how the foods affect us? If we were to take the mind out of the food equation, chemistry still plays out. I’m a trained chemist. Chemistry happens by itself in test tubes. The thing is, if you put human consciousness in a test tube, it will modify the chemistry to an extent. That’s what the placebo (and nocebo) effect tells us. Some foods enhance our health in the long-term and some are, well, not so good in the long-term, but our beliefs will sway the effect either way.
In a mirror of the stress study, I suspect that eating a healthy diet but believing even the smallest slip-up is bad will have some negative consequences and eating an unhealthy diet but believing it is good for you will have some positive consequences. The question is how much of an effect the mind exerts.
To be honest, I’m not sure how much. Over the years I’ve cultivated what I think is a healthy approach. At least it brings me some peace of mind. I go for a healthy, balanced diet, rich in fruits, greens, and salads, and I eat mostly natural, unprocessed, things. But I also have a belief that occasional ‘treats’ won’t do me any harm. I believe this is a good approach. I know it’s just my belief, but I’m OK with it for now.
So long as I believe in it, I guess it’s doing me some good.
Copyright 2014 David R. Hamilton PhD.