The power of belief: How intention and meditation can change our biology
By Charlotte Newman
Design by Aimee Lee
Up until recently there has been a predominant focus on the physical body when dealing with wellness in most of Western medicine. There is now a growing awareness of the importance of mental and emotional wellbeing, and the connection between the mind and body has become more apparent than ever.
When we have negative thoughts and emotions they trigger the sympathetic nervous system to put our body into ‘fight or flight’ mode, i.e. the stress response. In this mode of stress, our blood pressure and heart rate increases, we may experience nausea or other gut problems, tightened/quickened breath, and tension leading to headaches and fatigue. Experiencing this stress over prolonged periods leads to suppression of the immune system.
If we are calm and have positive thoughts, the chemical reactions triggered put the body into ‘rest and digest’, and a state of relaxation. The parasympathetic nervous system is activated, the immune system can work properly, muscles are relaxed, heart rate slows, blood pressure drops, and the gut digests properly.
We are either in a state of stress or in a state of relaxation. Our beliefs and thoughts have the power to determine which state our body is in.
Whereas the stress response would have been triggered by a wild animal in the past, today much of our modern stress comes through thoughts. Mindfulness cultivates an awareness of our thoughts and the realisation that we are not merely the sum of our thoughts and beliefs. Once we can recognise this and break the cycle of negative thinking, we can begin to cultivate gratitude and positive thoughts, which reduces stress levels and puts our body into relaxation mode.
In mindfulness we become aware that most of our thoughts are time based. We are either thinking about the past: ‘if only…’ thoughts that often carry guilt and regret, or we are thinking about the future: ‘what if…’ thoughts that often carry anxiety and worry. The first step to breaking the pattern of negative thoughts is realising that they are time based. The second step is realising that the present moment is the only moment we have ever, all life only exists in the present moment. The disconnect between present reality and where our minds go in negative thoughts causes even more stress. By recognising that we are having a time-based negative thought we can begin to detach from it. This is where mindfulness cultivates awareness. We recognise we are the awareness behind our thoughts, we do not have to be controlled by them.
Focusing on the breath is a useful practice to bring our awareness to the body and the present moment and detach from negative thoughts. It is a key foundation in a lot of different types of meditation. When we focus on the breath in and out of the body, we bring our awareness to the present moment and calm our body physiologically. We focus on gently receiving the breath and letting go of any tension we may be holding on the out breath. If we have a thought, we notice it without judgement and bring our attention back to the breath. By practicing noticing thoughts with non-judgement and loving kindness they begin to hold less power over us. By bringing our awareness and attention back to the breath we continually reconnect to our bodies and the present moment, which breaks the negative thought patterns, reduces stress, and brings us calm.
Cultivating gratitude is also useful in breaking the pattern of negative thinking. When we practice positive thinking and gratitude, we bring our awareness to everything we have in this present moment. This allows us to create a stronger awareness of how we are physically feeling. Having a gentle bell sound or notification go off on your phone or laptop a few times a day reminding you to
take some time to breathe mindfully, calm the mind and release any bodily tension is a valuable exercise. These simple practices over time cultivate good habits that allow us to break negative thought cycles, reduce stress and increase calm and a sense of wellbeing both mentally and physically.
At present, there is a distinct lack of discussion in formal settings about the power of beliefs and thoughts over the body. There are, however, many resources out there for those eager to explore the matter. Thich Nhat Hanh and Jack Kornfield are two great teachers, whilst Bruce Lipton has written extensively on the mind/ body connection and the affects our beliefs have on our biology. My own YouTube channel, TalkingCalm offers short videos, introductions and guidance on mindfulness and meditation. We have more power than we realise over our physical reality and through mindfulness we can become aware of the effect our beliefs have over our bodies and begin to change our lives for the better.