The following is an excerpt from our first book "True Wellness". This portion is the first of our Four Steps to Optimal Health – Step One: Build Your Positive Mind.
You may be asking yourself, what does the mind have to do with heart disease? Quite a lot, in fact. Recent studies have shown that strong emotions such as hostility, depression, loneliness, and grief are even stronger predictors of coronary artery disease than smoking and elevated cholesterol. From a biochemical point of view, such emotional states are known to increase IL-6 (interlukein-6), a marker of chronic inflammation. As we have seen, chronic inflammation is instrumental in the development of various types of heart disease.
How to Build Your Positive Mind
A positive state of mind is paramount to your success, allowing you to carry through with any change you wish to make. It is the key to healing on all levels. Practitioners of widely varying systems of medicine, from Eastern to Western, have all noted the same thing: patients with a positive attitude generally heal faster and remain disease-free much longer than those who do not.
Our mind is a very special entity. It has tremendous power and can contribute both positively and negatively to our health. If used to create positive changes, the mind can help heal many illnesses, whether psychological, physical, or spiritual.
Changing the mind can change behavior; changing behavior can change health, relationships, and life circumstances.
A positive mind makes positive physical changes: relaxed muscles, reduced heart rate and blood pressure, balanced metabolism and blood sugar, and improved production of digestive enzymes. A negative mind produces negative physical results: tight muscles, irregular or fast heart rate, elevated blood pressure and blood sugar, low energy, poor metabolism, decreased enzyme production, and difficulty sleeping.
Some of these negative physical results had a purpose in the past. It would have been an advantage to have elevated heart rate, blood pressure, and blood sugar when running from a predator or combating a foe. This physical state, caused by the release of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, is known as the fight-or-flight response. It was instrumental to our survival as a species, but in modern-day life we do not allow ourselves to recover from these extreme episodes. We subject ourselves to many daily stressors, strive to meet sometimes unrealistic expectations, and often fail to nourish our bodies and minds. Physiologically, we are forever preparing for the next battle, just as our ancestors were; however, the constant secretion of these stress hormones can be detrimental to the body and the mind.
Your mind affects not only these physical elements, but also influences the social, behavioral, and interpersonal aspects of your life. It goes without saying that most people prefer the company of positive individuals. A positive mind involves love. Positive individuals often exude love. Love brings joy, healing, and happiness. Giving love and receiving love both arise from a positive state of mind. Love does not have conditions or bias. Love involves giving, selflessness, compassion, and kindness. Love produces healing results through a sense of inner peace. You love your family and your friends, but it is the love and compassion you give to yourself that will make the difference in your healing journey. It will allow you to develop a positive mind and lead a healthy life by quieting the fight-or-flight response and decreasing the release of stress hormones.
A positive mind that is calm and compassionate can help control emotions and cravings. This is why some people are better able to manage stress and achieve their objectives. A positive mind can improve your mental ability, concentration, and determination; however, other aspects are involved in reaching your goal.
Every action, such as altering habits, is predicated on making a decision to change and then actually carrying out that decision. A person's ability to follow through on resolutions can be influenced by many things. While many emotional components are involved, profound behavioral changes are not a matter of willpower alone.
From a Western perspective, making lifestyle changes requires not only desire and determination but also healthy brain chemistry. The compounds that convey messages throughout your brain and body are called neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters are influenced by many factors, such as sleep patterns, exercise, nutrition, and meditative practices like qigong and tai chi.
Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that is released when you perform any action that results in a feeling of accomplishment. Any such pleasurable activity increases the secretion of dopamine. You can use this reaction to your advantage when trying to reinforce behavioral changes. The reward could be large or small. It may help if the reward reinforces the behavior you are trying to reinforce; for example, downloading great new music for your workout or purchasing a fancy kitchen gadget to prepare new, healthy recipes.
The purpose of the reward is to increase dopamine release. Then you will want to take the next step in your transformation. Pamper yourself with larger rewards for each accomplishment. If you never find time to read, curl up with a good book. If you love to paint, enroll in an art class. Play sports with friends, treat yourself to a movie, or purchase a new item of clothing. All these sorts of activities will release dopamine and you will want to continue on your healing path. Every time you reward yourself for performing a positive behavior, you will strengthen the association between that behavior and a feeling of well-being. You will reinforce positive, healthier habits.
Western and Eastern Perspectives
Western neuroscientists have observed that positive reinforcement actually changes the way your brain functions. Using special magnetic resonance imaging studies called functional MRIs, it has been shown that people who practice this technique increase the number and activity of neural connections in various parts of the brain. They are, in fact, changing their mind. This property of the brain is called neuroplasticity, and studying it is altering the way conventional medicine looks at the brain, from both a physiological and psychological point of view.
From an Eastern perspective, successfully making changes is a matter of common sense. Food, rest, activity, and self-reflection must be balanced to lead a healthy life. In today's hectic world, we may need some reminders about how to build a positive mind to achieve physical, emotional, and spiritual equilibrium.
The mind and body are intricately intertwined. Any variation in one aspect will cause changes in the other. This is why building a positive mind will have such an important impact on your body. The question is, what can you do to alter internal processes on such a deep level? There are three interconnected ways to approach this task:
• Change the way you breathe.
• Change the way you think.
• Change the way you act.
You may have noticed that some of the calmest, most centered individuals are those who engage in an activity that involves slow, deep breathing. These may be yoga practitioners, tai chi or qigong enthusiasts, or those who regularly meditate; maybe they only follow the habit of taking three deep breaths whenever they are upset. But the link between a tranquil demeanor and deep breathing is no coincidence: there is a direct connection between how breathing patterns are interpreted by the brain and the resulting emotion that a pattern will evoke.
Thoughts and emotions are two different things. While they are inextricably linked, they are not the same. An emotion does not arise spontaneously. It is felt in response to a thought. It is not possible to change an evoked emotion, but it is possible to change the way you think.
So, how do you go about changing your thoughts? You challenge them. Take a step back and examine your thoughts about yourself and the world around you. Often our thoughts produce negative emotions such as fear and self-criticism. But is what you think really true? Are you exaggerating your situation, if only slightly? If your thoughts are true, then what? For example, say you are giving a big presentation at work. You know it is important. You might even get a promotion if you do well. You worry that if you botch it, your boss and coworkers will think less of you. You might even make yourself anxious thinking about it. But take a moment and challenge these thoughts. If your employee or coworker is giving a presentation and stumbles, do you think she is an awful person? Would you fire her? If you are working in an environment where this could be true, then consider how it is affecting your life and your physical and emotional health. It is certainly reasonable to acknowledge your nervousness before entering into a stressful situation such as public speaking, but with practice you can stop that emotion from generating a downward spiral of negative thoughts.
Use Your Fear
Fear is a double-edged sword. It can be a powerful motivator or a destructive force. Fear of blindness caused by diabetes can prompt you to control your blood sugars. Fear of a stroke might make you exercise and meditate to lower your blood pressure. However, fear that immobilizes you is debilitating: it stops you from acting to prevent that which you fear. This in turn makes you more fearful. Being stuck in this vicious, unproductive cycle generates many negative physiological responses in the body and mind. You are forever in the fight-or-flight response, in a constant state of stress.
What would happen if you let this unproductive fear go? It is not easy to have a fear-free life, but it can be achieved through practicing mindfulness. Preparing answers and actions for things that could happen helps remove fear: preparing for the worst thing that could happen can help you be less fearful and less stressed. Through your actions, you may be able to avoid negative experiences, but if something really happens, you will know how to deal with the situation.
The above is an excerpt from True Wellness for Your Heart: Combine the best of Western and Eastern medicine for optimal heart health by Catherine Kurosu, MD, LAc, Aihan Kuhn, CMD, OBT., Publication Date, May 2020, YMAA Publication Center, ISBN 978-1-59439-735-6.