An excerpt  ....

The power of Belief: If I believe it, will it happen?

“If you believe it, it will happen” is, in my humble opinion, one of the most destructive lines in the history of destructive one liners. Usually because it is often said in reference to career aspirations in the ‘Glamour’ entertainment industries (Film, Music, Theatre, Photography, Journalism etc…). The truth is that this is a self-fulfilling lie somewhat perpetuated by the people who have made it. In many of their minds they don’t like the thought that chance played a big part in their success, they want to believe that they did it their own way. They believed more, worked harder, were more committed, read the signs better. Now to a degree that may be true true, but often we see people who are more talented, work harder, and are even more committed just not get there. The idea that you’re pre-destined to be a star is kind of bullshit.

In the past I’ve also believed this to be true of a spiritual connection to healing and your personal health. For years I’ve heard so called ‘healers’ profess the benefits of a certain tonic, a particular artefact, a method of alternative treatment or the power of words to magically heal your ailments. The additional catch always seems to believe that it will work for it to work. I’ve always seen this as the cue to run quickly in the opposite direction, but it turns out they may actually be onto something. Scientifically I suppose it is actually less about the power of spiritual interventions, and more about the power our minds and attitudes have to dramatically impact our physical health.

One of the ways we can see this is through experiments they do with things called blister boxes. Theses are boxes that attach to your body and then gently rub without any pain until a small blister is formed. Scientists then measure the time it takes for the blister to heal as a way of tracking how well you natural immunity system is working. By using these packs a number of studies have shown that when couples are arguing, or when people are in the presence of others that they have a stained relationship with, their immunity levels drop and their body is less able to heal itself. A distressed mental state actually puts the body in a physically distressed state that has real physical on our bodies and overall health. 

This was like manner from heaven for organisational psychologists in the 90’s and early 00’s. because to be able to spread the gospel of anything, you need a great evil. The gospel of mental health in the workplace needed an evil adversary with which to battle against, and we had found it. Workplace stress. The crusade of the workplace in the fight against evil bosses who put their workforce under too much stress had begun. The word spread to all corners of the globe and researchers confirmed that highly stressed people were indeed likely to die earlier, and that a lot of what they were dying from was clearly stress related. Which would have been really convincing if in fact it was true.

Now, I may be being a little dramatic in that it wasn’t all a complete lie, but it turns out it wasn’t the whole truth either. In 1998, researchers conducted the National Health Interview Survey and cross referenced it to the prospective National Death Index mortality data through 2006. (ref: Does the Perception that Stress Affects Health Matter? The Association with Health and Mortality, Abiola Kelly et al.) All in all they asked around thirty thousand adults in the United States how much stress they had experienced in the past year and whether they thought stress was harmful. Eight years later, the researchers confirmed that high levels of stress did indeed increase the risk of dying by about 43%…but only for those people who believed that stress was harmful.

Even more fascinating, the other 57% of people in high stress jobs who didn’t believe stress was harmful were no more likely to die than those in low stress jobs. In fact, they were the least likely of anyone in the study to die. It seems that stress, and a positive attitude toward stress might actually be healthy for you!.

The point is that stress itself is not actually bad. It is the belief that stress is bad that is bad.

If you search for psychologist Kelly McGonigal you’ll find a great TED talk that explores this in some more detail. In her book The Upside of Stress she reflects on the research saying:

“Over eight years, 182,000 Americans may have died prematurely because they believed that stress was harming their health. Over 20,000 deaths a year! According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that would make ‘believing stress is bad for you’ the fifteenth-leading cause of death in the United States, killing more people than skin cancer, HIV/AIDS, and homicide.”

And it’s not just attitudes to stress that seem to have an impact, beliefs about your metabolism and self-confidence seem to affect your ability to lose weight. Indeed, there is a  lot on the internet regarding the healing benefits of certain foods or practices to cure everything from skin rashes to cancer and even speed the recovery of broken bones. Turns out, it may actually be the belief that these things will work that make them work – or at least make them more effective.

If you believe it, it’s got more of a chance of happening than not it seems.

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