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.
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”).
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.
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.
We must have been writing on the same wavelength in the same week! I wrote a blog post on a similar topic, and I heartily agree with your words here. I see the effects of stressful thoughts and beliefs on the lives, careers and health of my coaching clients ALL the time, and in my blog post, I wrote about a simple and powerful technique for inquiring into the validity of one's thoughts.
It's at http://www.entrepreneurialmd.com/index/2007/2/15/raising-your-resilience-a-success-secret-for-physician-entrepreneurs.html.
I look forward to your next post!
Thanks for your comment. It seems many of us have been thinking about beliefs recently, which is great!
I read your techniques for belief change and do like them. It helps a person focus on troubling beliefs (negative thoughts), evaluate their validity, seek alternative views, and see how things would change by thinking differently about certain things. That's all right on target!
There are other techniques that I'll be discussing in a subsequent post, but they follow the same themes.
I'm also going to write about a piece of software I used in my psychology practice to assess a person’s belief systems /cognitions, related emotionality (affect), and coping/reactive responses in a way that prioritizes one’s level of distress concerning major life issues and identifies the underlying cognitive-emotional factors. It then guides the person through a transactional problem solving process in which s/he examines troubling situations and related beliefs, determines if the problems are solvable, and then helps him/her change the situation and/or learn to cope with it without undue upset.
I look forward to any additional comments you may have.
Rather cool site you've got here. Thanks for it. I like such topics and anything that is connected to this matter. I definitely want to read a bit more soon.
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