How do we really process thoughts?

The influence of thoughts and feelings on health

It is not just the social environment that is one of the things that is often forgotten when it comes to researching the cause of certain diseases or symptoms. Certain psychological states also affect the body. And certain states of the body, in turn, are able to change the psychological well-being. Many naturopaths believe that thoughts and feelings, as well as general well-being and contentment, are an essential part - if not the most important part - of health. Even science now knows that body and mind cannot be separated and that thoughts and feelings are closely linked to (physical) health.

What exactly is the placebo effect?

Most people can spontaneously name situations where their personal attitudes have affected their perception of pain or their physical condition. Only very few people think about the fact that the psyche can influence health constantly and to a serious extent - in both a positive and a negative sense. Thoughts and feelings can be good for your health, but they can also be harmful.

The easiest way to illustrate and present the positive effect of thoughts on the body is with the help of the placebo effect. This effect can only arise because we as humans have certain expectations about things.

One can expect, for example, to get well or harm oneself by taking a medicine. Science and medicine have long known that just believing in the effectiveness of a drug can contribute to healing. Anyone who is skeptical about certain active ingredients and thinks that they may even stay ill or harm others has significantly worse chances of recovery. Incidentally, the placebo effect does not only work with tested drugs - it can also be effective with rituals by shamans, other spirit healing, dance and sound therapies and esoteric healing methods.

Even in Western medicine as we know it, factors such as actions, gestures, social interactions and the spoken word contribute immensely to a patient's recovery. And that in both conscious and unconscious form. Astonishing effects, for example in pain therapy, but also in numerous other health areas, can also be achieved using suggestive methods such as autogenic training or hypnosis.

Modern neuroscience explains these placebo effects, which have long been known in conventional medicine, more and more precisely: With the help of magnetic resonance imaging images, it can be shown that the brain activity actually changes with the placebo effects, in a similar way to the action of a "real" drug. Three brain regions are particularly active:

  • the rostral anterior cingulum
  • the amygdalae and
  • the periaqueductal gray

Christian Büchel, one of the scientists at the University Hospital Hamburg, who examined 19 students on the placebo effect with the support of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), explains:

“We know from these three brain areas that they are involved in pain processing, including the body's own inhibition of pain through endorphins - morphine-like substances that the body produces itself. Medicines containing morphine also develop their pain-relieving effect to a large extent via these brain regions. We therefore suspect that placebo painkillers trigger an endorphin release. The endorphins then inhibit pain perception in the three brain regions we have identified. "

The experience of pain (among other things) is consequently objectively changed solely by virtue of the thoughts.

How thoughts and the psyche manipulate health

Using the example of depression

With the placebo effect (or in the following example with the reverse nocebo effect, which is the opposite of the placebo effect and thus explains itself), the effects of thoughts and feelings sometimes seem to be more passive: A patient believes - perhaps not even consciously, but only deep inside - not actually on aspirin and only swallow the tablet because you do it that way or the doctor recommended it. The pill does not work and the patient condemns the medicine - which might have worked better if he had firmly believed that it would work.

But there are also cases in which thoughts and psychological attitudes in general influence health much more directly and clearly, yes, in which they actually manipulate the body. And that again in a positive as well as a negative sense.

Again, the best example of this is probably depression. Anyone who suffers from a serious depression is affected by a listed and serious illness themselves. In addition, depression often gives rise to other diseases. For example, depressed people also suffer a stroke much more often than healthy people. Therefore, it cannot be said that depression is a mental state from which those affected can simply free themselves.

However, depression does not always have to occur when it is at risk. And here those at risk have the opportunity to do something specifically to prevent depression from occurring.

Arm your psyche against depression

Genetic and physical influences can promote depression, but above all they interact with psychological and psychosocial triggers. Then there is mutual reinforcement and the interaction sometimes leads to depression.

That is why the prevention of depressive illnesses should not only be brought more into focus by science, but should also occupy everyone who tends to be regularly and noticeably upset. About a third of all depressed patients, as one hears and reads again and again, suffered from acute or persistently stressful living conditions before their illness. These can be drastic life events, such as the loss of a loved one, retirement (especially forced ones) or the birth of a child, but they can also be simply self-imposed actions or restrictions in everyday life.

This means very different things for which everyone is at least partially responsible and against which something can be done:

  • Negative thoughts (grinding)
  • Permanent anger or even feelings of hatred directed against others or oneself
  • Persistent laziness and / or lack of motivation
  • Chronic stress with various causes that are not investigated
  • No physical activity
  • and much more.

Even if symptoms suggestive of depression, such as sleep and appetite disorders, loss of sexual desire and intensification of anxiety reactions, and increasing social isolation become noticeable, those affected can still react. First of all, it makes sense not to attribute personal failure to yourself.

Anyone who notices sliding into a depression often blames themselves completely and thinks that it is now too late. Instead, it is important to get active, to do sports regularly, to meet up with friends, to say in an auto-suggestive way that it is only a phase and that everything will soon be better. By consciously manipulating the body and mind, even though they may “scream” something else, serious depression can often be averted.

The step of saying, "I'll talk to someone about the matter and then get well," is often healing. And that doesn't mean that you have to seek professional help straight away. The family or, above all, partners, to whom one can be open and whom one can trust, can often be helpful contacts.

By the way, finding a partner can help even those who are already depressed. Numerous pieces of advice on how best to do this can help you find someone who will bring you closer again. Who listens to you and confirms that your own thoughts and feelings can become more positive again and mobilize against the disease.

How repressed feelings can make us sick

Sigmund Freud, the founder of psychoanalysis, claimed that it made people sick in the long run if they suppressed feelings and suppressed thoughts. In everyday psychology, this theory has been scrapped for many years, but it has not been scientifically proven for a long time.

It was only a few years ago that a systematic review of a newer version of Freud's theory began. The first meta-analysis was published in 2012 in the journal “Health Psychology”. Kristin Mitte and Marcus Mund quantitatively examined the connection between emotional repression and physical illness. All individual results available worldwide that examined the occurrence of diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular diseases, asthma and diabetes in connection with displacement tendencies were collected and examined more closely.

It turned out that there are indeed connections between certain illnesses and the repression of feelings. Suppressing unpleasant feelings is a general defense mechanism that is relatively normal and that everyone uses from time to time, according to Marcus Mund. However, there are also people for whom the principle of defense is much more pronounced than for others. In the technical jargon of psychology this is called "repression".

For this reason, the study also examined data from people in whom the repression is clearly evident. The so-called repressors usually claim that they are not afraid, but at the same time they are extremely defensive. You don't like to take risks and always try to keep critical situations and yourself well under control.

As soon as repressors are exposed to increased psychological pressure, however, clear physical fear reactions emerge: those affected begin to sweat or their pulse accelerates, for example. And this is exactly where it becomes clear that those who suppress emotions also influence their physical well-being.

According to the study, there is also a clear link between repression and high blood pressure. Chronic high blood pressure, on the other hand, can sometimes cause serious complications such as coronary heart disease, kidney or eye damage.

Although there is apparently no connection between the suppression of emotions and the risk of developing diseases such as cancer, diseases that occur can be more severe with repressors than with non-repressors. But they don't actually have to, because repressors have a great need for control. This means that they are actually disciplined and motivated and can use this energy to adapt their lifestyle to the illness, which can have a positive effect on the success of the therapy.

Stress and illness

The stress already mentioned elsewhere is worth a detour. Because stress, which every person feels in some situation and form - some more, the other less - every now and then does not make you sick per se, but if it lasts for a long time it can contribute to getting sick.

Mental stress occurs especially when one has the feeling that the demands and expectations of the environment can no longer be met. As is already clear here, it is often just a "feeling" - another person, for example, whom you are trying to do justice to, may not see it the way you do. With chronic stress, the situation is extreme because those affected are emotional and psychologically react regularly or permanently in a certain way, which can even lead to behavioral changes. These in turn can have a strong impact on susceptibility to disease.

In addition, a balance is often sought to deal with chronic stress: This is rarely a positive balance, like sport. More often, extremely stressed people start smoking, drinking, sleeping less, eating unhealthy food or even taking less exercise.

Although not everyone suffers from stress, it has long been proven that stress can even promote the development of various diseases in many people - including depression and cardiovascular diseases. Stress should therefore be prevented individually as much as possible.

Correctly counteract and prevent stress

  • Since your own thoughts and feelings have an effect on the stress level, it is important to learn to deal with them “correctly”. Negative feelings need to be dealt with and patiently to process them. On the other hand, repression unconsciously fuels more stress.
  • Other people can help make situations easier. Getting help elsewhere is not a sign of weakness.
  • Positive and solution-oriented thinking lead to faster completion of tasks and a sense of achievement, which have a positive effect on reducing stress.
  • Anyone who feels that they are no longer able to cope with something should communicate this with those involved. Otherwise your own thoughts can continue to make you ill because there is no solution.
  • Various relaxation methods can be used to learn not to take things so seriously, to think more positively, not to put yourself under pressure or allow yourself to be put under pressure, and just to relax. So meditation, muscle relaxation techniques and the like should definitely be given a chance.

Emotions as the key to health?

The difference between feelings and emotions is not really clearly defined in any science, and especially in philosophy, psychological impulses and sensations as well as their physical consequences are always a hotly debated topic. Basically, however, feelings are often classified as less strong than spontaneous impulses (emotional impulses), short-term reactions, etc., while emotions are assigned a deeper psychological meaning.

Today it is assumed that certain, sometimes traumatic or at least negative experiences from the past, so to speak legacy, which have not been dealt with and are deeply rooted in the unconscious, can be responsible for pain and illness. They form, so to speak, negative emotion molecules that are stuck in the body and can cause damage there. In order to prevent this, it is important to deal with repressed emotions and to process them gradually.

It is important that people learn again to reflect more on themselves in general and to deal more intensively with their own thoughts and feelings as well as emotions. Rash reactions, such as defending yourself against outbursts of anger, panic or even signs of burnout or assigning blame to others or yourself, must be discarded. Instead, finding causes deep within yourself is important. Methods to make this search easier, such as hypnosis techniques, can be quite helpful (scientific studies today prove the effectiveness of hypnosis or hypnotherapy).

The return to your own deep emotions and the contact with causes that hardly appear in consciousness can sometimes save you from serious illnesses or help you avoid them.

Of optimism and pessimism

Finally, a small supposed contradiction: While it has always been said that repression can make you mentally and physically ill on the whole and in the long term and that you have to face your thoughts and feelings, there is also a major exception . Here we are moving back to philosophical realms: namely, the optimist, who generally sees life positively, successfully suppresses the fact that everyone he loves will die at some point and that it will affect him too. It may also suppress the fact that climate change is destroying the planet and that at some point there will be no more space on earth for the many people.

Despite these repressions, he is fine. Compared to the realistically thinking, less repressive pessimist, he leads the more beautiful life - even if the pessimist is probably closer to "the truth". But what does truth mean in this case? Is it more important to feel good about yourself and sometimes look past cruelty or is a clearer view of things and the risk of falling ill with this insight a more honest, more meaningful way? The truth seems to be somewhere in between. Which, once again, means that the right amount is what keeps us healthy.


20th December 2018