Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Beliefs and Physical Health

How can a person’s beliefs affect one’s physical health? A belief, after all, is a type of cognition (thought) … it’s a mental phenomenon. So, why are beliefs important when it comes to the health of one’s body?

The answer lies in the relationship between beliefs, emotions and behaviors. Being a student of cognitive-behavioral and rational-emotive psychotherapy (Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis), I was trained in techniques of belief change designed to facilitate changes in people’s emotional and behavioral responses to situations they find distressing.

People who are stressed or upset may have certain types of erroneous beliefs, which exacerbated their distress levels. These beliefs include distorted/faulty (a) attributions (e.g., assigning the cause of the problem to the wrong person or thing, or believing that one is powerless to do anything about it) and (b) appraisals (e.g., making incorrect judgments about how bad a situation is, or prejudging certain people without adequate evidence). They are often expressed as irrational beliefs that are based on dogmatic demands that certain things shouldn’t happen; that elevate wants and desires into “needs;” that relate to a sense of “deservingness” or “deservingness;” that view things as black & white (e.g., all good or all bad) rather than in shades of grey); and that over-generalize, personalize, etc. When this happens, their negative emotions tend to be exacerbated, causing them to feel dread, stressed-out, hostile, hopeless depression, debilitating guilt or shame, etc. in situations where concern, frustration, annoyance, sadness, regret, etc. would be more appropriate emotions.

Instead of logically evaluating the situation with a calm and rational mind—looking for reasonable solutions and ways to cope—people maintaining these beliefs act in a self-defeating manner by, for example:

  • Being overly passive and avoid dealing with problematic situations
  • Having very low frustration tolerance and giving up quickly
  • Being self-deceptive
  • Feeling helplessness and hopeless
  • Feeling ashamed and embarrassed
  • “Eating themselves up inside” with stress
  • Over-reacting by, for example, attacking, blaming and ridiculing
  • “Self-medicating” with drugs and alcohol, over-eating, etc. in an attempt to lessen their emotional pain.
All these maladaptive reactions are self-defeating because they typically make things worse instead of better, or do nothing to improve the situation.
So, what does this have to do with physical health? A great deal! This belief-emotion-behavior connection is function of the mind-body connection. For example, many people do not follow their doctor’s advice to change their lifestyle (e.g., to exercise and eat better) because of beliefs that:
  • Exaggerate how difficult it is (“I can’t stand doing it…it’s just intolerable!”)
  • Minimize their own abilities (“I’m helplessness … it’s hopeless … I just can’t do it!”)
  • Focus on how unfair it is (“This shouldn’t be happening to me … I shouldn’t have to change … it’s not fair!”), rather than focusing on what they must do to improve their health
  • Blame others for their problems (“It’s my mother’s fault for over-feeding me …”) and seek to punish them (“So I’ll eat myself to death to show her”)
  • Result in self-loathing (“I’m worthless and don’t deserve to get healthy”).
People with belief systems such as these are unlikely to be effective in self-management of risk-factors and chronic conditions. They may have low frustration tolerance and motivation, become easily discouraged, “bury their heads in the sand” and deny the problem, become hopelessly depressed and give up, angrily lash out at others trying to help them, and some may actually want to die.

Furthermore, many people living or working in high stress conditions feel strong emotional distress related to similar kinds of beliefs, e.g., they may think “I can’t tolerate this place … They shouldn’t treat me this way … I’m trapped and there’s nothing I can do about it … “). These beliefs are erroneous because:
  • They ARE tolerating the situations, even though they are, no doubt, having unpleasant experiences
  • Everything that happens has causes; just because someone doesn’t like it, it doesn’t mean those things “shouldn’t” happen
  • People are never “trapped” in a bad ob or marriage; there are always alternatives, although they might not be comfortable and pleasant.
Beliefs such as these are likely to exacerbate negative emotions and stress levels, and there is ample research on mind-body medicine that demonstrates a strong connection between stress, negative emotions and illness.

They would all be much better off if they changed their beliefs, so they could think rationally and act responsibly by keeping things in perspective, evaluating options objectively, getting constructive feedback from others, developing a game plan and executing it assertively.

So, can a person’s beliefs affect one’s physical health? You bet!

The topic continues here.

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