"We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think". Buddha
It is well-known in psychology that our thoughts have a wide sphere of influence. Thoughts hold the power to affect our mood, guide our behaviours and impact our performance.
Yet when you pause and look in the mirror, has it ever crossed your mind that your thoughts have contributed to the grey hair on your head or the crow's feet lining your eyes?
When you can't quite remember details that used to come so easily to you, or your body doesn't bounce back quickly from a dose of illness, would you have attributed that to the string of words that flow through your mind?
Research from Nobel laureate Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn and health psychologist Dr. Elissa Epel recently demonstrated that the way in which we think can influence our genetic expression and cause premature ageing. Specifically, negative and unhelpful thought patterns can cause your telomeres to shorten, in turn speeding up the ageing of individual cells within your body.
What are telomeres?
The human body is made of many different cell types (e.g. skin, nerve and muscle cells), which all operate to keep us functioning optimally. Every cell contains a set of chromosomes, which hold our DNA or the genetic material that makes each individual unique. At the end of each chromone sits the telomere, which keeps genetic material from unravelling. Think of telomeres like the hard caps at the ends of your shoelace.
How are ageing and telomeres related?
As we age our cells divide and replicate. Every time this division occurs, our telomeres naturally shorten. When telomeres become too short, their cell stops dividing and the cells die. Think about the cells in your hair that hold your hair pigment. When the telomeres in that particular cell become too short, the cell dies, and your hair turns grey. This is ageing.
Five thought patterns have been identified to shorten telomeres, therefore speeding up the ageing process. Yet, on a hopeful note, the research also highlights when people are able to increase awareness of their thinking patterns and implement useful strategies to shift those thoughts, they have an ability to reduce and in some cases reverse this process. In doing so, people have an ability to increase their "health span" (the number of years you stay healthy and active). In accordance with Buddha's phrase, scientific research at a cellular level truly shows that "we are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think".
What are those identified thought patterns, and how can you turn them around:
Cynical hostility is defined as thoughts that induce heighted anger and represent distrust in others. Imagine the last time you were trying to merge from an off ramp on to a busy motorway, and the other motorists wouldn't let you in. A person experiencing cynical hostility might rage that the other drivers have never heard of "merge like a zip", and think "they are purposefully blocking me".
Those who experience frequent bouts of cynical hostility (often higher in men), have been shown to have higher systolic blood pressure, fewer social connections and reduced optimism linked to increased heart concerns, short telomeres and premature death rates.
• Take deep diaphragmatic breaths to calm your brain
• Bring on positive emotion – think of someone you love or a favourite memory. Listen to good music.
Pessimistic thinking represents a loss of hope and inability to see a path forward in the midst of challenging situations. In the face of adversity, people who experience regular pessimistic thoughts will often self-blame, view the situation as never-ending and believe that the adversity is like to spread to other areas of their life. Pessimistic thinking has been linked to higher cortisol levels and slowed physical recovery from illness and injury.
• Reframe your thought to be realistically optimistic. Ask yourself:
o How long is this challenge likely to last?
o Is this challenge likely to impact other areas of my life
o Could this have happened to anyone?
If we were on a farm, rumination would describe the action of cows chewing the cud. In human psychology, rumination refers to the act of repeatedly mulling over unhelpful thoughts where no processing or shift in perspective is occurring. Rumination leads to enhanced stress and cortisol levels, reduced mood, heighted anxiety and of course, shortened telomeres.
• Distraction – exercise, clean the house, write lists
• Make a plan to respond to unhelpful thoughts. You don't have to action the plan, the process is useful in itself.
When life throws us negative curve balls, or we are required to face unpleasant or difficult situations, people can find it hard to face the emotions and thoughts connected to these events. At times, they may choose to avoid or suppress those thoughts in attempt to escape distress. Research has demonstrated that when we attempt to suppress thoughts, eventually those thoughts return with heightened strength.
• "Let it Go" - give up trying to control your thoughts. Researchers have found that when we let ourselves think about the thing we are trying to block, we process those thoughts far quicker. Of course thinking about thoughts isn't the same as acting on them!
Harvard Research has highlighted that people spend 47 per cent of their day mind wandering, usually lost in past and anticipatory thought. Unless your mind-wandering is to pleasant memories or exciting upcoming events, negative mind-wandering has been linked to increased unhappiness, stress and shortened telomeres.
Practicing mindfulness is one strategy that trains the brain to hold your attention in the present moment. Here are some ways to practice:
• Try a mindfulness mediation app: Headspace, Calm, Smiling Minds
• When in nature, utilise your senses to hold your mind present in the moment
• Put your phone away and remain present when talking with others
Jacqui Maguire is a clinical psychologist and Managing Director of Umbrella Ltd.