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How You Manage Your Thoughts Has A Major Influence On Your Quality Of Life

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A healthy diet and a high quality exercise program aren’t going to do nearly as much to improve your level of wellness if you’re overwhelmed with negative emotions. Your emotions are arguably the single most important determinant of wellbeing, and because emotions are derived from thoughts, how you manage your thoughts has a major influence on your quality of life.

Wellness is a combination of both mental and physical health, and these two aspects of wellness are clearly dependent upon each other. But in regard to happiness, which is generally the ultimate goal of achieving wellness, physical health cannot compensate for the displeasure and pain caused by poorly managed thoughts. Therefore, learning how to effectively manage your thoughts is the most fundamental aspect of achieving a high level of wellness.

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How Stress Influences Your Health

The concept of mental thought having direct influence on physiological function was once considered nonsense and still is by some people. However, decades of research has proven it to be true. A significant basis for this influence is the “stress response” which a set of well-established physiological changes that occur in response to physical or mental strain.1,2 This response is more commonly known as the “fight or flight” response and is the reason why your heart rate and blood pressure increase when under stress. In short, poorly managed thoughts can unnecessarily invoke this response and cause your body to prepare for a battle that may not even exist.

Although the physiological responses invoked by emotions like anger or fear may help you avoid harm in some cases, modern life has the tendency to provoke these responses when they’re not needed. The stress response is ultimately a survival mechanism, but a great majority of today’s common sources of stress are far from being a threat to survival. How many people die as a direct and immediate result of a bad hair day or because their kids don’t listen? Nonetheless, when the negative thoughts surrounding such trivial circumstances are poorly managed, they subject the body to the burden of the stress response even though they pose no threat whatsoever to survival.

In some regards, the stress response triggers adaptations that make you more resilient to external sources of stress. Exercise is an obvious example. However, excessive activation of the stress response, referred to as allostatic overload, is similar in concept to wear and tear in that it can accumulate to the point of causing physiological dysfunction. Eventually, such overload can lead to chronic fatigue, inflammatory disorders including heart disease and autoimmunity, impaired immunity, weight gain and related metabolic disorders, impaired cognitive function, psychiatric disorders, and insomnia.1,3 And this is in addition to the rotten moods that poorly managed thoughts usually lead to.

The following are 4 of the most effective ways I am aware of to develop a perspective that reduces unnecessary activation of the stress response and promotes a happier, healthier, and more peaceful state of mind.

  1. Finding Value in Unpleasant Situations
  2. As painful as it may seem, stress is only a perception. Many people will disagree with this or have trouble accepting it, but it’s true. How else could one person experience happiness and another despair or frustration from the same set of circumstances?

    The fact of the matter is that your circumstances are your reality. While you can choose to let them persist as is or do something to change them, there’s no value in maintaining any of the negative emotions that may surround them. Doing so will only make your worries seem more unbearable and unavoidable. However, diffusing these emotions with a more rational and positive outlook will promote relaxation and allow you to respond in a more productive and effective manner.

    The basis of this approach is to identify the benefits of a situation that you find to be causing you grief. By focusing on the benefits you identify, your grief will eventually be replaced with appreciation, or at least acceptance, and these emotions are much more satisfying and enjoyable than any of the emotions associated with stress. As a result, you’ll be in a much better position to either tolerate the situation in a peaceful manner or calmly do something to improve it.

    Here’s a simple example. I enjoy listening to audio books while I drive, and when I’m stuck in traffic, I look at it as an opportunity to do more of something I enjoy. Even if the traffic will make me late, unless I have the choice of taking an alternate route, I might as well sit back and enjoy the opportunity. This is much more enjoyable than letting anger accumulate by the minute. The traffic is not my choice, but how I respond to it is.

    Another personal example is my experience with chronic fatigue syndrome. As my poor health pushed me to learn how to take better care of myself, I knew the process would make me healthier, more resilient, and happier, all of which turned out to be true to an even greater extent than I initially hoped. I could have absorbed myself in self-pity, which is exactly what some people do in response to health limitations, but I instead made the choice to have a positive outlook and do something to improve my situation. Even if I merely chose to accept my limitations, that would have left me in a much more peaceful state than resisting reality with anger and self-pity.

    You may question the effectiveness of this approach for more serious matters, and if you do, I refer you to Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. If this man was able to find value in being a Holocaust prisoner, is there really any misfortune in your life that you can’t find value in? This question isn’t meant to be judgmental, but rather to encourage you to challenge your own beliefs. Ultimately, the only person you must genuinely obey is yourself, and if you’re maintaining beliefs that are untrue or unproductive, then you’re being a difficult boss.

  3. Calming Your Nervous System
  4. The stress response discussed earlier is regulated by the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the autonomic nervous system. The sympathetic branch is responsible for much of the stress response as well as most conscious activity. In contrast, the parasympathetic branch can inhibit the stress response while also promoting recovery and other restorative functions. Although the activity of these two branches is constantly shifting back and forth, the problems typically associated with stress tend to surface when the activity of the sympathetic branch becomes dominant.

    Deep breathing exercises are a simple and well established method for countering the effects of the stress response. They work by promoting an increase in restorative parasympathetic activity. Other relaxing practices such as meditation, Tai Chi, and Qigong are believed to have similar effects. Although there are a variety of specific protocols for deep breathing, many of which are derived from yoga, my experience is that it can still be very effective when practiced in a less formal manner. The following is the simple approach that I prefer to use: inhale slowly and deeply through the nose, hold for a moment, exhale slowly through the nose or mouth, hold until the urge to inhale is present, and repeat for as long as desired.

    Although these methods of calming the nervous system can be used to relieve acute stress, they’re best used as part of a regular practice with the intention of improving your ability to maintain a relaxed and worry free state of mind. It’s also important to realize that while these methods may relieve your stress, they won’t address the cause of it, so you may still find it necessary to focus on managing your thoughts more effectively.

    Heart Rate Variability and HeartMath

    Heart rate constantly fluctuates, and the measure of this fluctuation is referred to as heart rate variability. The fluctuation is caused by the continuous shifting of activity between the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the nervous system.11 As such, heart rate variability is a valuable indicator of stress and nervous system balance that can effectively be used to promote wellness.12 For example, the feeling of appreciation has been shown to promote a smooth and distinct pattern of heart rate variability that’s indicative of reduced sympathetic activity while anger causes a much more jagged pattern associated with increased sympathetic activity.13By combining the use of heart rate variability with a variety of thought management techniques, the Institute of HeartMath has produced a powerful way to promote a more healthful, peaceful, and grateful state of mind. The most basic HeartMath technique is called Freeze-Frame and involves catching yourself in a state of stress, calming yourself with breathing techniques, invoking thoughts that generate a sense of appreciation, and then thinking of a more sensible and beneficial way to react to the original source of stress. In addition to improving heart rate variability,14 this approach has been shown to increase levels of secretory IgA15 which is an indication of enhanced immune function.

    Another HeartMath technique called Cut-Thru expands on the Freeze-Frame technique to promote an even deeper understanding of stressful thoughts. There’s also the Heart Lock-In technique which is intended to be used on a regular basis to promote a more frequent sense of appreciation and a more healthful heart rate variability pattern. The use of these two techniques has been shown to improve psychological state, reduce levels of cortisol, and increase levels of DHEA,16 all of which are indications of a reduced perception of stress and a higher level of wellness.

    Further supporting the role of stress in the progression of disease, a number of studies have shown the HearthMath techniques to improve a number of health conditions. These studies are described in the Institute of HeartMath’s Science of the Heart publication. For more information on the HeartMath techniques and how to use them, I highly recommend reading The HeartMath Solution by Doc Childre, Howard Martin, and Donna Beech. The Institute also offers a software package called emWave Desktop which displays your heart rate variability pattern on your computer screen. It’s a great biofeedback tool, and although it’s meant to be used with the HeartMath techniques, I often use it while practicing deep breathing.

  5. Embracing the Present Moment
  6. Life is ultimately nothing more than one present moment after another. Past and future only exist in our minds. Although much easier said than done, the ability to appreciate each and every present moment as genuinely and deeply as possible is really all that’s needed to experience happiness. Yet, many of us deprive ourselves of this opportunity by obsessing over perceptions of the past or expectations for the future. In the process, we literally become oblivious to reality.

    This may sound like an argument against thinking, but it’s not. The point is that when thoughts are poorly managed, the mind can become a detrimental distraction instead of being an asset. We need thinking to learn from our mistakes and to make choices that will enable us to get the most value out of each present moment. However, when thinking becomes negative and unproductive, it’s a wasteful distraction from the reality of life. At this critical moment, which all of us are prone to experiencing, we can choose to redirect our focus to the present moment, or we can subject ourselves to a spiral of negative and unfounded thoughts that will ultimately make us feel miserable. Consider the cumulative effect of either choice being repeated many times day after day. Such simple choices can indeed be the difference between happiness and despair.

    Being able to embrace the present moment partially depends on finding value in misfortune. Obviously, some of the moments you experience are going to be much less pleasant than others. However, as I mentioned earlier, there are really only two productive things you can do. You can choose to accept the moment for what it is, or you can calmly choose to do something that will promote a future change. Anything else is a futile attempt to resist reality and will most likely worsen your negative perception of the situation. The present moment is the only reality that exists, and cooperating with it is the only possibly way to live an enjoyable and peaceful life.

    Happiness truly is a choice, and if you don’t agree, it’s an indication that you’re resisting reality. Happiness is seeing each moment as perfect, not because the moment is what you might imagine to be ideal, but because it’s reality and nothing else is possible. Provoking change may make the present moments you might experience in the future more favorable, but nothing can change the moment that exists right now, so what value is there in associating negative emotions with it? And contrary to what you may think, negative emotions are not needed as motivation to provoke favorable change.

    For quite some time, Viktor Frankl’s reality was being a Holocaust prisoner. As long as he was unable to change this reality, it was in his best interest to appreciate each moment as much as he could manage. Maintaining the anger he must have experienced would have certainly been justifiable, but it would have only made his misfortune seem more unbearable, and it wouldn’t have done anything to help resolve the injustice he was forced to endure.

    This perspective clearly takes a lot of work, and I certainly don’t claim to be an expert at it, but I will say that simply trying to adopt it has helped me a lot. And contrary to what some people seem to think, this perspective certainly doesn’t imply becoming passive and letting life have its way with you. In fact, the improved clarity that it promotes should help you navigate the difficulties of life more easily and effectively.

    For an excellent explanation of embracing the present moment and how it applies to a variety of circumstances, I highly recommend reading The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. Although it’s very philosophical and seems somewhat like a “spiritual teaching,” if you interpret it with an open mind, it will likely help you come to realizations that are both significant and practical. I had to go through it twice to fully embrace some of the concepts

    In conjunction with this perspective, the more mechanical practices used to calm the nervous system can be used to distract yourself from your unproductive thoughts and regain your focus on the present moment.

  7. Investigating Your Thoughts
  8. Investigating the validity and value of your thoughts is in my opinion the most powerful way to promote happiness. The process has a natural tendency to make you let go of unproductive thoughts, and in turn, be free of the negative emotions that accompany them. We can’t control the thoughts that enter our minds, but we can choose how we respond to them. Repeatedly trying to respond to negative thoughts as objectively as possible seems to be the most direct way to replace resistance to reality with an appreciation for it.

    In her book, Loving What Is, Byron Katie presents four simple questions that can be used to investigate stressful thoughts. The point of these questions is not to come up with specific answers, but rather to evaluate your thoughts through different perspectives. As such, the power of the questions comes from how they’re put to use. To fully understand their application, I highly recommend reading the book. The premise is very similar in nature to The Power of Now, but it’s presented in a much more practical manner.

    The four questions encourage you to investigate a single thought by evaluating its validity, considering the influence it has on you, envisioning how you’d feel and act without it, and identifying if there are any stress free reasons to maintain it. In many cases, you’ll find that you’re causing yourself unnecessary pain by maintaining unjustified beliefs or expectations. Consistently working towards such realizations progressively makes it easier to resolve a wide variety of negative emotions in a calm and productive manner.

Being Happy without Reason

Learning how to effectively manage your thoughts and maintain a peaceful state of mind will likely lead you to a new understanding of happiness. It seems to me that the most common perception of happiness is the temporary thrill associated with something good happening. The problem is that this happiness is dependent on an external event, and it usually doesn’t last long. In fact, this type of happiness is probably more accurately defined as excitement because it’s like an intense emotional high that depletes energy and will inevitably be followed by a low.

In my experience, when I’m able to consistently stay grounded in the present moment and appreciate it for what it is, I unexpectedly find myself in an effortless and worry free state that’s more enjoyable than any other mood I’ve experienced. In contrast to the excitement described above, this state of mind is relaxed. It’s also sustainable and will persist for as long as I let it. That is, until I allow stressful thoughts to corrupt my perspective. What’s significant about this state of mind is that it develops internally. It’s not dependent on anything other than my appreciation for reality. Ultimately, life is pretty simple, and so is happiness. It’s our own thoughts, and the beliefs we base on them, that tend to make life difficult.

Unhappiness arises when you develop a belief that something is wrong with your life. But is your life really the problem, or is it your perception? As Byron Katie explains, a piece of dust on a projector lens results in a flawed picture, but it doesn’t mean the picture itself is flawed. How you see your life is nothing more than a projection, and the quality of that projection depends on the clarity of the lens you choose to view it through. And yes, it is indeed a choice.

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