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How Mindset Matters For Health & Well-being

Mindset is the set of beliefs, assumptions and attitudes that condition how you see the world, and how you interpret what you see – including some less-than-fully-conscious beliefs. Mindset matters because it has a significant and measurable impact on well-being. That's why it's one of the three groupings in my Stress Resilience Blueprint (a concise description of what you need for effective stress management).

An example: in research on pain, surgery patients were given morphine in one of two ways. Half were injected by a doctor in the normal way, while the other half received automatic injections from a machine – they got the same dose, but didn't necessarily know when they were receiving the morphine. The result was that the doctor-injected patients experienced significantly more pain relief. The only real difference was the perception that they were being cared for – by another human being.

This sounds like an example of the placebo response, but while it's related, it is different because both groups received real morphine, not a placebo.

The example comes from a video of a TED talk by researcher Dr Alia Crum. She gives other examples of how mindset makes a difference to health and well-being – how beliefs and attitudes affect biology, how they change how the body responds. We're not talking about delusional beliefs that you feel better, we're talking about objective, measurable changes in biology (see end note 1). The video is well worth a viewing:

In an earlier article in this series, I discuss the power of stress mindset: how you view stress makes a difference to whether it helps you perform better or harms you.

What Actually Causes The Change?

How do these physical changes come about – is it belief that is causally efficacious?

There's some evidence that placebos can still work even when you know it's a placebo (end note 2).

My idea is that it's actually imagination that counts.

In another article I wrote about mind as experiential simulator: for any idea that comes into your head, an automatic part of the mind asks what would it be like? - and then creates the feeling, right here and now, as an answer. It's an actual feeling – i.e. a bodily change – albeit probably weaker than the real thing.

An example of imagination in action for improved well-being is hypnotherapy. Hypnosis is simply an altered state in which the mind's rational censor is in abeyance and the imagination is more dominant. You can imagine much more clearly what it would be like to be free of smoking, or anxiety, or whatever it is(end note 3).

Mindset, Imagination & Stress Management

This is relevant to stress because people suffering with anxiety, panic or depression are often the unwitting victims of this mental dynamic of experiential simulation. Imagination is working against them rather than for them. In anxiety we tend to imagine things going wrong, and this creates some of the bad feeling in the here and now. In depression we tend to imagine the future is going to be more of the same misery we experienced in the past.

We can start to help ourselves, by noticing how and when imagination creates bad feelings in the present, and choosing instead to use imagination constructively. How did it feel when things went well? What would it be like if things started to get better? This might sound challenging but it's really just the same faculty of mind in operation.

End notes

1. Brain imaging studies with Parkinson's patients showed that placebo could induce changes in brain activity in key affected areas, as well as functional improvements (in movement). For more on this see Jo Marchant's book “Cure”.

2. Again see Jo Marchant's book "Cure".

3. Marchant also looks into hypnotherapy in her book "Cure".

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