Distressing Thoughts and Stressing Our Cells

It was when my own physician, Dr. Anastasia Rowland-Seymour, at Johns Hopkins, said this to me that I began to understand how important my own inner dialogue was to my state of well-being

What is the direct relationship between letting our mind drift — ruminating about the past, worrying about the future, focusing on distressing thoughts, what’s going wrong, what isn’t fair, or what we’re afraid will happen next — and our cellular and physical well-being?

Although we can’t peer inside our cells in real time and see how mindful calm versus a racing mind have radically different health impacts, a new study published in the journal Health Psychology, sheds new light on the question. Researchers at U.C. Davis Center for the Study of Mind & Brain have conducted the first study which shows the direct relationship between using our mental resources to manage ruminating thoughts and stay with our immediate experience — and lowering our levels of the inflammatory stress hormone cortisol.

High levels of cortisol, a hormone produced by the adrenal gland, are, as we know, associated with physical or emotional stress. Prolonged release of the hormone contributes to wide-ranging, adverse effects — and are linked to every physical and mental disease imaginable.

Sometimes it helps me to remember what “stress” really is.  Stress is really a euphemism for our thoughts. Our racing, self-flagellating, ruminating, resentful, could-have, should-have, wish-I-had, wish-I-hadn’t thoughts that catch us in their trance. Or what I call, in The Last Best Cure, the “Pain Channel.”

All too often we can’t get out of the Pain Channel’s trance. We can’t turn the Pain Channel off. We keep tuning into what it has to say, and as we do, those thoughts help promote the production of stress hormones and cytokines that are, in turn, linked to higher rates of depression, heart disease, autoimmune disease, you name it.

Other research tells us that in the lab, the negative cellular impact of stress hormones look a lot like the negative impacts of the toxic chemicals I wrote about in The Autoimmune Epidemic.

So, here is my reminder equation.
Stressed State of Mind =  Pain Channel.
Pain Channel = damaging stress chemicals circulating in our body.
Damaging Stress Chemicals = what scientists call the “Negative Floating Brain.”
“Negative Floating Brain” = greater likelihood of emotional and physical health challenges.
Greater Health Challenges = more likelihood of being in a Stressed State.

This is not to say that our state of mind creates disease. That’s far too simplistic.There is so much at play — genetics, diet, environmental toxins.

But stress chemicals certainly add to our “barrel” of factors that work against physical and emotional healing. And even if moving away from the “Pain Channel” and the Negative Floating Brain doesn’t necessarily mean we overcome whatever physical challenge we face — turning down the “Pain Channel” volume can’t help but make us feel better, whatever chronic condition we’re up against. (For more on how I see that, see my OpEd for PBS’s online magazine, Next Avenue, called, “I’m Not Cured but I am Healed.”) (I really think the title should be, more accurately, “I’m not Cured, but I am Healing.”)

The practices that help us walk away from the Pain Channel and the Negative Floating Brain really do make a difference, and they are worth our time and our commitment.

For me, as a science writer, reminding myself of the science every day helps me remake the commitment to meditate, focus on mindful breathing, loving kindness, down dogging, laughter, nature walking…all of it. The science is my guide.

Post-doctoral researcher Tonya Jacobs PhD says that in the above study, researchers taught study participants attentional skills such as mindful breathing, observing mental events, and practicing cultivating benevolent mental states, including loving kindness, compassion, empathic joy and equanimity.

Individuals whose mindfulness scores increased showed a decrease in inflammatory disease-promoting levels of cortisol.

“The more a person reported directing their cognitive resources to immediate sensory experience and the task at hand, the lower their resting cortisol,” Jacobs says. She adds that training the mind to focus on immediate experience may reduce the propensity to ruminate about the past or worry about the future, the thought processes that have been linked to cortisol release.

We are all walking around listening to the Pain Channel way too much of the time. And we know that the negative floating brain damages our immune system and our cellular health.

The question is, what are we going to do about it?

In hopes that they might prove helpful, here are two upcoming offerings.

The first is being offered by the phenomenal health advocate Elisa Rodriguez, who is launching one of the first The Last Best Cure Virtual Book Clubs to discuss and encourage us all on the journey … I’ll be joining in for a one hour discussion. I’ll also be sending signed bookplates to participants. To learn more, see Elisa’s video here. I’ve spoken with her several times now, and wow, she is just amazing. The beauty of The Last Best Cure Virtual Book Club is that you can join from wherever you are, and Elisa has found a way to make it easy and accessible to all.

The second is an upcoming retreat by my own beloved teacher, Trish Magyari, whose work I feature in The Last Best Cure. Magyari will be teaching a one day “Befriending Yourself” Mindfulness Retreat” on Saturday June 15 at Baltimore Yoga Village in Mount Washington (Baltimore, Maryland) from 1-5pm. Trish is a life-changing teacher. If you can take this opportunity to work with her, do.

I hope to hear from you about your own efforts to stay on the path.  What is working for you today?


12 thoughts on “Distressing Thoughts and Stressing Our Cells

  1. This is wonderful information Donna.
    I love reading your posts.
    Anytime my stress levels increase so does the inflammation process. I am still working on being mindful of this and making sure I am distressing. While in the midst of it, it can be very difficult to do. I get all caught up and then step back and go… whoa that was three days of crazy. My goal is to step back in the midst instead of waiting until it is over and then having to deal with the physical elements of the aftermath,
    I would love to attend the workshop. Unfortunately, it’s a bit far for me and I am still getting settled in and in the middle of my book tour.
    Your posts are comforting and educating and keep me on track.
    Thanks again and looking forward to your next post.

    1. Stacy, well said. Love your phrase, “Whoa that was three days of crazy.” Who hasn’t been there, looking back at a time when they were living in the mind’s chaos rather than stepping back and seeing what’s really here. I re-learn this lesson in every moment. Hugs to you Stacy! Good luck on your book tour (keep me posted! on that too!) (Oh, and The Last Best Cure virtual book tour club meeting is online, via Skype, so no travel necessary in case that helps anyone…) Happy Book Tour Stacy!

  2. Hi, Donna — I am continually rediscovering the power of the mind and thought to influence our levels of health and this is a timely post for me. I have recently been trying to focus on meditation/visualizations. Getting started (turning it off) can be tough but the end game is worth it. So easy to slip into past or future and you’re right — there really is only today.

    I do know that when I am in a negative environment, it affects my whole energy. This recently happened when two employees with whom I worked closely, both very dissatisfied with our boss and the department in general, found other jobs, the mood lifted. I liked both of these women; they were great people and I missed them. And yet, without that negative energy it was much easier to go to work and I found even the boss was a bit different, more outgoing, compassionate and “reasonable.” So sometimes that pain channel is external, but we turn it into our own and internalize it. A wonderful living example.

    Glad you are writing for Next Avenue. I work for a PBS affiliate and we periodically mention some of the content on that site on our social media pages.

    Lovely talking with you last week. All the best, jeanie

    1. Hi Jeanie, it was great to talk to you last week, our interview for the MORE magazine story was fabulous, you are wise and open and courageous and generous in the face of your many challenges. I was humbled to hear your story. Thanks for these wise comments. Yes, so often the situation that sparks the pain channel within is external — a difficult person in our life, a financial strain. I remember Jon Kabat-Zin once wrote that the fear that we are about to get bad news can be as damaging as getting the bad news itself. (I paraphrase). I am no stranger to how this happens and changes us and our interior state without our even noticing, or to the hard work that it takes to try to keep my own thoughts compassionate and reasonable, and mostly, mindful of the greater truth, that I am not my thoughts. All the best to you Jeanie!

      1. Hi, Donna — thanks for the nice words. It was a pleasure for me.

        This sounds a little whacked out and try not to do it public because it freaks people out, but lately (especially with the head shingles) I’ve started “talking to my body parts.” I have a little conversation explaining why I don’t have time to deal with you right now, so please lighten up a bit and let me get the things done that must be completed.” Somehow, saying it out loud is more powerful to me than just thinking it, because thinking gets me “in” my mind and speaking gets it “out.” For whatever reason, I’m dealing with it better. I know that literally it doesn’t disappear and if I stop to think about it, we’re right there. Yet I can see to let it go a bit and move forward. Sounds silly, but it’s working.

        On another note, your book arrived and I have started! Reading is slower with these headaches but many spots early on (even in the forward) have resonated to me. In fact, I was reading a passage to Rick and I started to cry because it was so spot-on. I’m looking forward to it, writing about it and sharing with others.

        1. Lovely Jeanie, and I think having the conversation publicly can help others to think of what might help them. One thing I might add is that my teachers have taught me to also “send a little friendliness” to the body parts that are speaking up and announcing discomfort, pain. Or, even, for me, to speak to my fatigue and stamina issues that, although they are so much better, still cause me to have slower days.

          If I can talk out loud to my fatigue, “hey yes, it’s okay, this too is okay, forgiven, forgiven, for not being able to get all this done today, it’s okay sweetheart, this too is okay…” (I learned these lines from both Trish Magyari, and Tara Brach, and combine them to my own hybrid, one which works for me…) it’s so helpful.

          My point being to send a little love in the message and then acknowledge the desire to move on, keep going and do what you can. But in a loving way, a way that sends loving kindness to yourself. Does this make sense?

          I think it will make more sense as you read The Last Best Cure. It is the hardest thing for me to do (I write about that too!) to forgive myself for my own imperfect physical state. But I feel better when I do.

          Keep me posted Jeanie!

  3. Yes donna,
    That has been my experience so very clearly although I came across these facts from a different non medical source ( in the end they all come from one source, let’s face it….That mysterious yet present and all intelligent source of us all….).
    I would only caution all to make sure that once they identify one of those stress generating thoughts in themselves , that they beware to simply watch it ( as one would watch a movie ) and refrain from judging it as ( bad ) or ( negative ) ( a more fashionable way of saying ” bad ” ).
    If we can simply watch the thoughts go by we are reporting something new to that all intelligent ” intelligence ” that runs our cells organs brains bodies namely Oh isn’t that interesting ? and more usefully we can begin reporting ” this is not I …not me it’s just a thought I am free to entertain it as true or not…
    Notice the difference between not true…not accurate….erroneous..and ” wrong ” ” bad ” ” negative “.
    If I decide that one of the thoughts I observe in my self is erroneous , I have options…
    If I decide that that same thought is ” bad ” , that intelligence that runs my body ( if even it is mine , but that another subject…) begins to generate the flight or fight process to protect itself from a danger.
    This has been proven numerous times …The thought of a snake generates the same process as the sight of a snake…..
    So every time I say or feel that anything is ” bad ” or ” wrong ” or ” negative ” I am reporting a danger and that intelligence that runs my body ( its body ) takes the appropriate action to protect its body from that harm be it imaginary or real.
    Then it has no choice but to repair itself because the chemicals enzimes pumped into the body need to be cleaned out ( if there had been a real emergency, the chemicals would have been used to move the body to run or fight or perform some unusual feat to protect someone else.
    The repairing is a cleansing process which can be painful or damaging to cells and eventually leading to organ breakdown.
    There is more to it obviously but the basics remain.
    This is shared in the hope that it may give hope …
    Jacques Bessin

    1. Jacques, the idea of mindfulness — watching our thoughts and not judging them, just naming our thoughts, noting our feelings and habits of mind — this is at the heart of mindfulness based stress reduction. So important, thanks for your comment

  4. Great post Donna! I really appreciate the message and how you broke it down into a “reminder equation.” It’s empowering to consider that by calming our mind, we can also help to calm our body. I can’t wait to delve more into this topic with The Last Best Cure Virtual Book Club!! 🙂

    1. Thanks Eliza, I’m really looking forward to The Last Best Cure Virtual Book Club! Glad you like the “reminder equation!” We all need to re-commit to the Life Channel everyday, and for me, the science is inspiring and helpful to bear in mind. We can talk about that and more when we chat in our book club group!

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