Mind matters

Feel like nothing ever goes your way? A simple change of outlook could improve your fortunes, says Dr Alice Boyes 

Telekinesis, hypnotism, cosmic ordering … long has the power of the mind been lauded by mystics and esoteric philosophers. But science also has a lot to say on the topic, and in recent years it has been able to prove a sunny disposition can positively affect the reality of your life. 

Belief and consequences

It turns out how you approach a situation is key to its outcome. In her 2013 TED talk, Dr Kelly McGonigal reviewed several studies showing that how you think about stress influences what affect it has on you. People who believe they can cope with stress well show fewer negative results. 

When people experience stress, they sometimes attempt to dampen down their physical feelings, using strategies to distract themselves. Try a different approach; consider reflecting on how your body’s natural stress response is designed to aid your performance in stressful situations. A 2010 study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology put people under stress by having them do a short, videotaped speech in front of two evaluators. Out of the three test groups, the ones who were informed prior to the speech how their body’s stress response could be helpful had better cardiovascular responses during the exercise. This group also performed best in an emotional appraisal afterwards.

Wear your heart on your sleeve

If you are feeling under pressure you may feel inclined to bottle up emotions in case they put you at a disadvantage – but there is a lot of evidence to show that talking about negative emotions, particularly giving them labels (such as scared or angry) makes the emotions easier to deal with.

A 2007 study in Psychological Science, showed that labelling emotions diminished the response of the amygdala (neurons deep in the brain’s medial temporal lobe) and other limbic regions when people were shown emotionally evocative images. This is another example of how paying attention to your feelings, in healthy ways, can beat distracting yourself.

While it’s good to talk about the way you feel, don’t dwell on things or you may find yourself emotionally bogged down. Dr Guy Winch, author of Emotional First Aid, outlines a simple technique for when you find yourself ruminating (or endlessly mentally replaying) negative emotional experiences. Sit quietly and bring the memory to mind, and then zoom out so you’re looking at the scene as an observer. Keep zooming out until you can see the scene unfold as if you were a stranger who was just passing by. Whenever you think about the painful experience, do it from this third person perspective. This technique is based on a 2010 study published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences

Positive mental attitude

If you listen to your body, name and acknowledge your negative emotions and then move on, you should find yourself able to tolerate stress and emotionally painful experiences without resorting to coping techniques. Remember, brushing things under the carpet to deal with later will just prolong and intensify those experiences. 

Research summarised by Professor Todd Kashdan in a 2011 Clinical Psychology Review article indicates that people who are fearful of their emotions and who worry that they won’t be able to control their feelings, tend to have worse mental health, lower job satisfaction and performance, lower physical pain tolerance, and more distress after experiencing physical pain. By comparison, thinking positively, mentally talking up your skills and abilities and being honest with yourself about the way you feel  can lead to a healthier body, mind and attitude, and a happier you. 

Alice Boyes, PhD, is author of The Healthy Mind Toolkit and The Anxiety Toolkit.

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