Put Your Mind to It
As we are at the beginning of 2016, we want to encourage you to have a more positive outlook on your life and show you how the effects of that mindset can also benefit your health. We sat down with Dr. David Levy, a clinical professor at world-renowned U.C.S.D. Medical Center in San Diego, California, where he also maintains his practice. He is also a popular speaker and the author of Grey Matter, his auto- biographical account of the power of prayer. We talked about how the choices we make affect the brain including stress and fear.
“Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing.” 1 Thessalonians 5:11
Levy states, “We now know that the brain is like a garden. What we plant and water, in other words what we give our attention to, will grow and take up more space in the brain. Probably the most high-level decision making process we can engage in is to choose where to focus our attention every moment of the day. Not only will our choices determine how we spend our time, they take up real estate in the brain. The choices you make literally cause new connections to form in the brain. For example, the portion of a blind person’s brain that is usually devoted to processing visual information is instead taken up by hearing. People who are blind can listen to a book on tape at three times the rate that you or I could because they’re able to process the information so much faster. The brain neurons that sighted people use are instead available to the blind person for hearing. This is the power of what we focus on.
Furthermore, your brain has the ability to make a given belief “true” for you by selectively pulling in information. Usually what we want to believe has to do with minimizing pain and maximizing pleasure, in that order. Emotional pain, or what I would call social pain, is probably more significant than physical pain. Physical wounds do heal but psychological wounds many times do not, especially those acquired in childhood.”
In addition to Dr. Levy’s experience, research from the Mayo Clinic has found that health benefits that positive thinking may provide include:
- Increased life span
- Lower rates of depression
- Lower levels of distress
- Greater resistance to the common cold
- Better psychological and physical well-being
- Reduced risk of death from cardiovascular disease
- Better coping skills during hardships and times of stress
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:6-7
Levy goes on to say, “Stress is just a nice word for fear and it has a very serious effect on the brain. It stimulates the amygdala, which is the fear center, actually causing these little structures to get larger because the neurons get used more. You’re also secreting cortisol and epinephrine—stress hormones—into your system, which hijack your thought process and make it very difficult to think of anything other than getting out of the stressful situation. This causes serious damage to relationships because you just don’t care. Even the closest people to you become either an obstacle in the way of getting what you want, or a resource you can use to get what you want. Suddenly your ability to see another person as a human being worthy of love, deserving of permission to make mistakes, someone worth being in relationship with… all that is seriously diminished.
Our society doesn’t deal well with fear and stress. Without realizing it, a lot of people live in a state of chronic stress and it manifests itself as back pain, neck pain, and different physical ailments. Then they start on the medication cycle: pain medication, sleeping medication, anti-depressants, anti-anxiety. There is a tendency to address everything on a physical level without considering whether there might be a spiritual side to the problem.
The Bible has a lot to say about fear. It tells us not to fear, but rather to hold tight to the promises of God. In other words, to have faith. The truth is that, given how an individual’s brain might be wired, he may not have a choice except to fear. It goes back to the concept I talked about earlier, namely that our thoughts take up real estate in our brains. If an individual is stressed, the amygdala, the fear center, gets larger. The brain needs to be re-wired by choosing to think about things related to faith, hope and love instead of things related to stress, fear and pain. It’s difficult to do and takes time and effort, but it is possible.”
Put positivity into practice! It is so easy in our culture to criticize, worry or be anxious. Instead, let’s shift our thinking, attitudes and words from negative to positive. Take small steps towards that big goal! Here are some helpful tips to do that.
- Speak It-Say words of affirmation to yourself and to others. Rather than getting down, focusing on what went wrong, or complaining, look at the positive. Verbalize what went right.
- Write It- Write out Bible verses or inspirational quotes and post them up. From your locker, mirror, steering wheel, or your hand, place the verses in places where you need a daily reminder.
- Pray It-Ask God to help you see the positive in the situation. The apostle Paul is a great example of someone who maintained an upbeat outlook in spite of the circumstances. Check out Philippians.
- Work It Out-Take a walk, go to an exercise class or hike with a friend. Physical activity helps our mood.
- Live it-Surround yourself with like-minded people whose words are uplifting and encouraging. If you find that your friends are discouraging and constantly putting you or others down, it might be time to find a new set of friends.
To read our entire interview with Dr. David Levy click here.
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