Can You Think Your Way to Chronic Health?

I’m not sure. Is this good news or bad news?

Every thought we have may affect our health. Indeed, better health for all of us may be just a thought away.”

It’s from Ellen J. Langer’s new book, The Mindful Body: Thinking Our Way to Chronic Health.

It sounds likes a double-edged sword to me, this premise that our body’s health is so intricately connected to our mind’s health. Great—as long as you can keep a positive attitude. But what about those days when you can’t?

For example, Langer says it’s a myth that a medical scare will always improve behavior. If someone is given a pre-diabetic diagnosis, she says that it often makes them more likely to get diabetes down the road.

“Perhaps they become resigned to getting diabetes, and even after an initial attempt to eat differently, become less careful about their diets. Maybe they start exercising less, since they assume they already have the disease. Or maybe the body follows the mind, which now believes it has an early form of diabetes.”

Langer intends for her book to be positive though.

And overall, the book is positive.

Take Control, Even If Illusory

She points out that when given diagnostic results, patients need to understand that scores are often still only probabilistic guesses for future outcomes, not certainties. If your hearing test reveals your score is one point below normal, you may or may NOT need a hearing aid.

“When we recognize that rules, labels, and cutoff points are made by people, there is lots of room to question how any situation could be otherwise. We gain a newfound sense of freedom. We expand our possibilities. . . . The key is to question those things we mindlessly accept, to mindfully interrogate all of the descriptions and diagnoses that can hold us back. When we do, we can get better.”

Langer also writes that our illusion of control—yes, even when it’s only an illusion—can sometimes still prove beneficial. We feel better pressing the “close door” button of the elevator even if it does nothing. Placebos often help.

Regarding our bodies and the illusion of control:

“If we’re diagnosed with a dread disease and assume we have no control, we become helpless, which itself is bad for our health.”

So Langer suggests we practice “mindful optimism,” focusing on things we actually can control. During the pandemic, many of us did this by washing hands more frequently or wearing masks when in public. It didn’t eliminate our risk entirely, but taking a few steps helped us feel (and hopefully actually become) safer.

Good Enough Is Good Enough

Another practice Langer recommends for better health is “satisficing,” i.e. making a choice that is good enough instead of endless analysis to find a single best choice.

“I don’t think that more information, more time, and more calculations are necessarily better. Rather than all this information improving our decisions, it can result in dissatisfaction and almost crippling anxiety. . . .

My research suggests taking a limited amount of information available at the time and going ahead and choosing an option. Then, rather than worry about whether the decision was right, we should try to make it work.

Look at any advantages that accrue from whatever happens, and then play it as the ‘right decision.’ That is, don’t try to make the right decision, make the decision right.”

The Mindful Body is full of research as well as practical advice on how we can improve our bodies by including our minds. And vice versa.

“If mind and body are one, we can do more than change the body by changing the mind; we can change the mind by changing the body.”

It’s no panacea. We can’t think our way out of cancer or a broken bone or mental illness. However, we can use our minds to come alongside other measures to maximize our body’s healing.

So in the end, I highly recommend The Mindful Body. Knowing that our health isn’t totally bound by past experiences or conventional wisdom is freeing, both for my body and for my mind.

Share your thoughts in the comments.

Thanks to NetGalley + Ballantine Books
for the review copy of The Mindful Body

9 thoughts on “Can You Think Your Way to Chronic Health?

  1. Lynn D. Morrissey

    Tx for the review. I’m reading a book about a similar topic from a Christian who has done much research into neuroscience and neuroplasticity. She wrote it in 2013, and wow. It’s powerful. And in the ten years since, even more has been discovered about the mind’s affect on the brain and on the body. She says science is catching up to what God’s Word actually has shown us on the importance of our thinking. I read it a month ago, through, and now am going back to really THINK ON IT, and underline, etc. Very ppowerful read. Tx for sharing Miss Lisa!

  2. Lisa Blair

    This reminds me of a book I read by Norman Cousins, Anatomy of an Illness as Perceived by the Patient. He and his doctor combined medical care and laughter to cure him of a terminal disease. The motto, ‘Laughter is good medicine’ came from his experiment. This corresponds with your conclusion, “We can’t think our way out of cancer or a broken bone or mental illness. However, we can use our minds to come alongside other measures to maximize our body’s healing.”

  3. Jeanne Takenaka

    Lisa, I’ve not heard of this book. I appreciate what you shared about it. I know our thoughts can sway our actions and perceptions. I really resonated with what you shared, and some of it made me pause and think. This: “we can use our minds to come alongside other measures to maximize our body’s healing.” makes so much sense!

  4. Jean Wise

    illusion of control – interesting. Sometimes I “reframe” my thinking or try to be more positive and often wondered if I was denying or avoiding the issues. Many times I am not but doubted if it helped. Sounds like this is a good skill to use! Interesting info Lisa. Thanks

  5. Joanne

    Such an interesting book! I know from my degree in psychology that our brains can have a huge impact on our overall health. Thank you so much for sharing with us at Encouraging Hearts and Home.

  6. Paula

    Interesting Lisa. I often have the illusion of control in a not so much manner. Our minds are something else, I know anxiety and depression have at times wreaked havoc on my body. Then there’s Jesus, getting me through — Always.
    visiting today from Joanne’s.

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