The Physiology of Positive Thinking

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“The moment you change your perception is the moment you rewrite the chemistry of your body.” ~Dr. Bruce Lipton

For as long as I can remember we have been taught the importance of positive thinking.  My automatic response to this has always been somewhat skeptical.  How can something be that simple?  There has to be more to it, right?  However, after reading the The Biology of Belief,  by Dr. Bruce Lipton, I see that maybe it is that straightforward.  I know from experience that thinking positive thoughts does lead to a better outcome than getting stuck in a loop of negativity.  This is true whether we look at it through the lens of running or life in general.  It’s something I talk about often when I’m speaking to a group of runners, the idea that positive thoughts can change your race outcome, and your race experience as a whole.  We’ve all been on both sides of this equation.  We’ve pushed ourselves to our best performances with positive self talk and succumbed to mediocrity (or worse) by listening to that negative voice in the back of our heads.  Since we know that “thinking positive” works,  I want to answer the next question: why does it work?  How do these positive thoughts manifest in our physiology?

Our minds move information throughout our nervous systems.  Every thought we have stimulates the release of neurotransmitters.  Neurotransmitters are the body’s chemical messengers, which transmit messages between neurons and from neurons to muscles.  They’re also in charge of many biological processes, including the release of hormones.  When we do something new, our neurons form new connections with other neurons.  When we have repetitive thoughts, positive or negative, we are strengthening those neural pathways that we’ve have previously created.   

The article  “How Your Thoughts Program Your Cells” explains the details on a cellular level:

“There are thousands upon thousands of receptors on each cell in our body. Each receptor is specific to one peptide, or protein. When we have feelings of anger, sadness, guilt, excitement, happiness or nervousness, each separate emotion releases its own flurry of neuropeptides. Those peptides surge through the body and connect with those receptors which change the structure of each cell as a whole.  Where this gets interesting is when the cells actually divide. If a cell has been exposed to a certain peptide more than others, the new cell that is produced through its division will have more of the receptor that matches with that specific peptide. Likewise, the cell will also have less receptors for peptides that its mother/sister cell was not exposed to as often.” *

We see here that even on a cellular level our bodies make it much easier to stick with the status quo and stay in their comfort zones, rather than work harder to form new pathways.  This also explains how we become so comfortable with our habits, and how difficult it can be to change.  Our brains will always take the path of least resistance, so if those negative pathways are well established it will be quite comfortable continuing to use them, when no change is initiated.  The good news is that we have the ability to change this wiring, it just takes a conscious effort.  We can make positivity our default personality.  Throughout our entire lives, our brains have the ability to reorganize themselves by forming new neural connections.

How do positive and negative thoughts effect our actions?

The prefrontal cortex is the part of your brain that is in charge of executive functions.  This includes planning, decision-making, problem-solving, and self-control.  The prefrontal cortex is where positive thoughts are developed. When you think a positive thought there is brain growth in this part of the brain through the reinforcement and generation of new synapses.  Positive thinking improves your ability to pay attention, to focus, and solve problems faster.  Positivity also changes our perception to focus more on the “we” instead of the “me.” On the contrary, negative thoughts will draw energy away from the the prefrontal cortex.**  When this happens the brain isn’t able to perform at optimal capacity.  When we are stressed or operating out of feelings of fear, we have difficulty taking in and processing new material, and are not able to think creatively.  Negative thoughts also slow down brain coordination, making it difficult to process thoughts and find solutions.  This clearly does not set us up well to make good race, or life, decisions.

On a practical level, what can you do?  

  1. Begin to pay closer attention to you inner chatter.  Think of yourself as an outside observer of these thoughts.  You may notice that you have negative thoughts that you hadn’t been previously aware of (I sure did!).

  2. Improve your feedback loops.  Keep it simple.  Replace a negative thought with a positive one such as “I can,” “I will,” and “I’m strong” (and get rid of “I can’t,” “I suck,” etc).  Don’t attach the thought to a specific outcome,  focus on staying positive in the moment.

  3. Stick with it.  You can rewire your brain, it just takes a little time to develop new patterns of neural activity and actually change your neural structure.

  4. Be resilient.  One definition of resilience is “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties.”  This doesn’t mean denying the difficulties that you are facing; it means embracing them while maintaining a sense of positivity.

You have the ability to change at any point in life - all you have to do is make the choice.  We all have approximately 50,000 thoughts a day, and what we do with them is completely up to us.  Make the commitment to change your thinking, to stick with it, and to be positive and resilient person.  You may be surprised to see where this leads you, both in running and in life.

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