Blog 4: Don’t worry. Be happy! Is worry making you sick?

Blog: 8th Feb 2018

Using the imagination skilfully to sustain health & wellbeing.

I once worked with a gentleman who seemed to worry about everything. He worried about his work, his relationship, his health; he worried about the environment, the state of the world and all he read in the papers and heard on the news. He was, literally, making himself sick with worry.

When I invited him to take one of his scenarios and imagine a different outcome, he looked a little out of his comfort zone as he said, quite sharply, ‘Imagine a different outcome? I can’t do that! I’d know it wasn’t real!’. It didn’t take too long for the penny to drop when I asked which of his ‘worries’ he considered to be real.

‘Worry’, to quote Dan Zadra ‘Is a misuse of imagination’. When we allow ourselves to create and sustain negative thoughts and images in our heads, these may be perceived as challenges or threats by the brain. The brain does not distinguish between real and imagined threats and will begin the process of protecting the body from the ‘threat’. The sympathetic nervous system (stress response) is thus activated through the release of hormones- adrenaline and cortisol. The heart begins to beat faster than normal, pushing blood to the muscles and away from the digestive system and other vital organs. Pulse rate and blood pressure go up and muscles are tensed ready for action.

It’s easy to see how ‘worry’ over a sustained period of time, keeps the body in a state of ‘fight or flight’ with a constant fuelling of stress hormones that can result in a range of heart and digestive issues. Tension from taut muscles can lead to back, shoulder pain and  headache. On top of this the immune system is challenged making us more susceptible to illness.   We can how see how the idiom, ‘to be worried sick’ came about.

Thankfully, there is an anti-dote to this scenario. If an unskilful use of our imagination can lead us to sickness, then imagination can also work to restore our health and wellbeing.  Although Einstein suggested that ‘Imagination is more important than knowledge’, I would suggest a bit of both are needed in our quest to live a balanced and happy life.

Thanks to new imaging technologies, research scientists have now been able to demonstrate how thoughts and emotions cause distinct neuron-firing patterns within various parts of the brain. They can also observe how these patterns coincide with chemical releases and reactions throughout the body. It is clear that the kind of  thoughts we have may have a negative or positive effect on our body and mind. Indeed, as the peace activist Mildred Lisette Norman  said, ‘If you realized how powerful your thoughts are, you would never think a negative thought again.’

We are fortunate to live in an age where the scientific evidence of the body- mind connection is providing us with evidence that enables us to make skilful choices in our lives. This starts with skilful thinking and, just as worry and negative thinking can lead to the stress response, so, too, can skilful and helpful thinking lead to activating the opposite. Hormones such as endorphins and serotonin are released with the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system ( relax response), bringing the body into balance, strengthening the immune system and bringing about healing.

Imagination is a great thing when we use it skilfully so, ‘Don’t worry. Be happy!’.