Mindset Mastery: Your Gateway to Healthy Living
Mindset, mindfulness, meditation: These words are part of a modern wellness vernacular. But where in the past we may have considered our headspace separate — the mind versus the body — today researchers are uncovering the profound biochemical interplay between the two. In effect, integrated positive psychology may help you thrive physically as well as mentally. Let’s dig in.
Why Mindset Matters
It’s generally accepted that it’s human nature for people in modern society to search for mental states that encourage feelings of happiness, engagement, and fulfillment. The science known as positive psychology studies just this: what’s behind a healthy, flourishing life. Unlike more traditional “problem-focused” psychology, positive psychology is concerned with the states, traits, relationships, and institutions that lead to a positive rather than negative psychological outlook.
Taking this a step further, positive psychologists also study how these elements may impact physical health, particularly how links like positive emotions, life satisfaction, purpose, and social support are associated with metabolic health in a measurable way.
The science is unfolding in a positive direction: People who demonstrate more traits like optimism, forgiveness, vitality, self-regulation, and strong social connections also demonstrate improved health outcomes, including less frequent sickness, more physiological reserve, and more rapid healing from illness. (1) There’s also evidence to suggest that cultivating baseline positive emotion can impact longevity. (2)
The bottom line: In overall wellness, mindset matters more than you might think.
Stress: How Mindset Affects Biochemistry
Stress is one of the most prolific states affecting nearly every human in some capacity. Whether induced by a lack of fundamentals like food, shelter, or protections against disease or violence, such is the case in many third-world countries, or the high-achieving, material-based pressures applied to members of first-world societies, stress triggers biochemical reactions to “external” threats that can have a profound impact on mental and physical health.
The symptoms of acute and chronic stress run the gamut from headaches, upset stomach, and low energy to insomnia, autoimmune issues, and depression. Hence, stress is a great compartmentalization of the connection between mind and body.
For example, one often-cited study looked at both sides of stress, which has historically been considered a negative state. They explored whether simply beginning to view stress as “challenging” versus “threatening” could improve responses to stress. Meaning, could we alter cognitive, physiological, and affective stress responses simply by changing our mindsets about the nature of stress in general? The answer is yes.
To prove it, scientists in this particular experiment used multi-media film clips to “manipulate” the stress mindset toward either challenge or threat by providing positive or negative feedback to participants during a social stress test. The results were profound: During stress evaluations, the stress-is-enhancing mindset was linked to increases in “growth” hormones versus the stress-is-debilitating mindset.
The study also revealed supporting heightened attentional bias towards positive stimuli and greater cognitive flexibility in the first group versus the second. It’s just one insight into how literally changing our minds may have an impact on biological processes at a cellular level. (3)
Master Your Mindset, Compassionately
There is an abundance of research underway on this topic, from Berkley’s Greater Good Science Center to our very own Quicksilver Scientific lab, where chemists are studying the interactions between nutraceutical formulations and metabolic pathways in the body.
One of the most promising areas of research is what has been coined compassion training. An intriguing study suggests that this type of social-emotional awareness practice — where one cultivates a feeling concern for another’s suffering and wants to change it for the better — can actually improve positive affect, altering neuronal plasticity in the brain.
In one case, after setting controls to measure functional neural and subjective responses to “witnessing the distress of others,” scientists found that the deliberate cultivation of compassion created a new “coping strategy” that fostered positive affect in the brain. (4)
How to Build a Healthy Mindset
Knowing that this is just the tip of the positive psychology iceberg, you may be wondering how you can build a healthier mindset to affect more positive outcomes in all aspects of your own life. Are there biochemical supplements, lifestyle practices, or mental games that can alter wellness permanently? Are there ways to let go of anxiety, anger, and grief you may experience that you know are negatively impacting health? The answer is yes. Here’s how to change your focus and improve your wellbeing.
Cultivating mindfulness, which simply means becoming aware of your emotions as fleeting blips that enviably pass, may be the simplest place to start. Moment-by-moment social-emotional awareness, “checking” ourselves throughout the day, helps us become accustomed to “watching” our minds and making intentional choices in relation to emotions rather than letting them take hold and moving through life in a reactionary mode. Training your mind through meditation may get you to this positive pattern even faster.
The more we become aware of the activity in the brain — sometimes as simple as a few breaths between tasks or prior to speaking during conversation — the better chance we have to downgrade stress levels, not to mention lower blood pressure and even affect our genes, according to one Harvard study. (5)
Building compassion practices into your daily life is another proven practice. One simple yet super effective method is daily gratitude. People who learn how to count their blessings, typically by writing a few specific things they’re grateful for each day, will get further down the positivity pathway, ideally impacting positive outcomes in all areas of their lives.
Chris Kresser, M.S., L.Ac., a functional medicine and ancestral health expert and educator, offers some other helpful habits to start building a healthier mindset in his blog on positive psychology:
- Explore your character strengths and virtues. From bravery to creativity, knowing what makes you you and using those authentic strengths “can help you feel more engaged, productive, and positive,” he wrote.
- Challenge negative thoughts before they turn to words. You might default to the pessimistic more than you realize. Before you speak, work on quick check-ins like, “Is this problem permanent or actually temporary? Is the problem as personal as I’m making it? Am I in at least partial control of this problem?”
- Write 5 years in the future for 5 minutes. Putting pen to paper can do wonders to offset negative thoughts. Try writing by first imagining yourself in five years as reasonably successful, having accomplished some big goals, and how your life has improved. Did your sense of wellbeing or motivations change?
There are so many exciting ways we can learn to master our mindset. It’s the source of breakthrough research that will only continue to bring to light a deepening understanding between how the mind impacts the body in the short and long term. In an enlightened world, supporting your health requires a holistic approach.