How do our thoughts and feelings affect our health?

Written by Lou Coles

I invite you to come with me, for a moment, on visual journey …

Imagine you are in a kitchen. In front of you is a basket of lemons. You reach out and select a ripe yellow lemon. You can feel the weight of the lemon in your hand and feel the smooth waxy skin in your fingers and that familiar dimpled lemon texture.

You lift the lemon to your face and breathe in that sharp citrusy smell. Then you take out a knife and slice the lemon open. As the bright yellow flesh is exposed you see the juice run out. A fresh lemony aroma fills the room. You cut a wedge and pop it in your mouth. You bite down on it and as you do you can feel the juice in your mouth as it’s released from the lemon wedge. Your mouth fills with the taste of fresh lemon juice.

Now take a moment to check-in with yourself and notice what is going on in your mouth, face and body right now. What sensations did you experience throughout that visualisation?

You, in the last minute, used your mind to create a cascade of physical reactions in your body. How powerful is your mind?!

I wonder what other ways your mind and emotions have been affecting your physical body?

Are you using the power of your mind-body connection to the detriment or benefit of your wellbeing?

When you think about it, the cells, organs and physical systems of our body are bathed in our thoughts, beliefs and emotions 24/7, 365 days of the year, even when we are sleeping.

For most of us we don’t relate to our thoughts and feelings as a choice like we do with food and exercise – “Ooooh, that slice of frustration looks yummy! Or shall I have the compassion sticks
instead?”. It’s not like we purposely choose 40 reps of worryburpees over 50 gratitude-squats– but we repeat those habitual thoughts over and over anyway without even realising that they are learned and conditioned patterns that we can change if we want to. Building up resilience in our nervous system or strengthening new neural pathways in our brain is not much different to choosing what kind of fitness to aim for or which muscle we want to strengthen.

Why would we want to choose to change our conditioning anyway?

Let’s compare the biology of stress to, the opposite of stress – kindness.

Body system What STRESS doesWhat KINDNESS does
Blood pressureUpDown
Cardiovascular systemDamagesProtects
Immune systemSupressesBoosts
Nervous systemTensesRelaxes
ProducesCortisol “The stress hormone”Oxytocin “The love hormone”

So it seems that kindness is good for our health. Personal interactions such as a smile, a wave or even a hug release a whole cascade of hormones, that foster trust, reduce stress, kill pain and induce pleasure.

As the modern way of living moves away from living in connected communities with extended families and more towards socially isolated living and working, I believe it is important for us to learn ways to maintain those protective qualities that regular social interactions and opportunities for
kindness would have historically provided us.

Luckily for us we can cultivate kindness within. The Buddhist tradition has already perfected and packaged the perfect practice into the simple, yet profound, Loving Kindness meditation.

This simple and short practice, also called Metta meditation is an exercise of extending unconditional kindness out from ourselves to all beings. It changes your physiology in the moment, and with regular practice over time, it has amazing benefits as it changes our brain and changes how we relate with ourselves and everyone else we encounter through-out our day. One study of
this meditation observed shifts in people’s daily experiences of a wide range of positive emotions, including love, joy, contentment, gratitude, pride, hope, interest, amusement, and awe. It associated these shifts with increases in a variety of personal resources, including mindful attention, self-acceptance, positive relations with others, and good physical health. They concluded that the gains in personal resources led participants to become more satisfied with their lives and to experience fewer depressive symptoms.

I would like to share this beautifully simple practice with you. You will find a free recording I made of the Loving Kindness meditation at The more
loving kindness we can have in the world and in our community the better for all of us – and the better our health will be too!