Many of us, especially as we get older, struggle with our health.
Age-related conditions might seem inevitable, after all, with stiff joints and heart issues affecting so many.
Such health problems can easily start to affect our wellbeing…
So that not only do we have physical symptoms to manage, but also the emotional stress they cause.
Although does it really have to be this way?
For years, science considered the mind and body somewhat separately.
Health professionals were taught to isolate symptoms to determine the best treatment.
When you saw a doctor for a physical problem, for example, they were unlikely to ask about your mental health.
If there was a suspected link between the two, it was that our physical symptoms impacted our psychological wellbeing.
After all, someone that struggles with heart and breathing problems might easily become depressed if they’re unable to leave the house and see their friends.
But is it always a one-way connection, or can the mind affect our physical health too?
Increasingly, research shows that many of the physical conditions we once isolated are indeed affected by the mind.
Take, for example, the study which assessed the autobiographies of 180 Catholic nuns, born before 1917, showing that writing with more positive emotion was correlated with a longer life expectancy six decades later.
In fact, the nuns who exhibited traces of positive thinking, lived an average of 10 years longer.
The power of our mind to control our physical health still isn’t completely understood.
However, a strange effect uncovered in research studies might uncover a small piece of the puzzle…
In scientific studies assessing the efficacy of health interventions, participants are normally given a ‘fake’ treatment to ensure that the real treatment works correctly.
Although this was originally only intended to be a control for the experiment, the fake treatments often resulted in significant health improvement.
In one stunning example where study participants were given a sham knee surgery, their symptoms improved just as much as those who’d received the real operation.
Although the placebo effect still isn’t fully understood, it’s thought that the expectancy of a certain outcome can increase the likelihood of that very outcome.
This works both ways. For participants that are told to expect negative side-effects of certain treatments, those same side effects are experienced.
Such results show just how powerful our minds can be and the influence they often exert on our physical health.
So, is there a way for us to harness our psychology to improve our health, especially in older age?
Many older adults suffer long-term health conditions and chronic pain, which can be hugely debilitating.
Although changing the way we think about such conditions and symptoms certainly isn’t a magic cure or overnight fix, these are treatments that health professionals are beginning to utilise more.
Approaches like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, for example, which addresses the underlying psychological factors influencing certain health conditions, have been shown to have a positive impact.
So how can we begin to use our mind in a way that benefits us?
Meditation is a wonderful way to see how we feel about the symptoms we’re experiencing and to cope with those thoughts and emotions more skilfully.
When we suffer from illness or pain, there can be huge psychological resistance, which might be experienced as a repetitive, unhelpful series of thoughts.
If you imagine that the symptoms we experience are like car alarms, alerting us to certain issues, by ignoring or resisting those feelings, the warning signals may become even louder.
Meditation allows us to step back and acknowledge our symptoms, including our thoughts and feelings about them.
As a technique, it’s has been shown to have a range of health benefits, from improving our ability to cope with pain, to helping our immune system function correctly.
When we have an accurate picture of our thoughts and feelings through impartial observation, we can begin a process of reframing our thoughts.
It’s natural, especially as we get older, to experience negative thoughts in response to particular health conditions.
Alternatively, these responses might revolve around your current event or situation. If you feel cut off and lonely, for example, you may be subjected to a barrage of intense thoughts and feelings.
Such emotions, playing on repeat, can turn into a vicious cycle in your head.
With the suggestion that changing our perspective on a situation to extract any positives can positively benefit our health and wellbeing, reframing can be a valuable tool.
In the context of feeling lonely, instead of feeling completely disempowered, is it possible to use those thoughts as a catalyst to become more active in your community?
In this way, positive thinking through reframing can help us reappraise stress and adopt take more positive action.
After all, it’s only through facing and surmounting life’s challenges that we truly experience human growth.
Our environment, and in particular our support network, can be a vital addition to help us forge a more optimistic, positive mindset.
In this way, having friends or a group we can rely on in difficult times will help us share our struggles and buffer any stress we feel.
Indeed, evidence suggests that having strong social bonds contribute significantly to health and wellbeing.
Providing access to positive, supportive groups and activities for the elderly is one of our core missions at Mirthy.
By increasing access to caring environments for those in need, we hope to promote human connection and have a real impact on health and wellbeing in our community.
While the physical symptoms we suffer might be more obvious, it’s important that we consider the hidden psychological link, especially as we become older.
And while it’s not easy to change ingrained habits and beliefs, the benefits of working on the mind-body connection are evident.
By addressing our health holistically, we’ll be far more effective at maintaining our overall wellbeing and a good quality of life.
To see how Mirthy can help you or a loved one stay happy and healthy, get in touch.