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Using Mindfulness to Improve Your Health

by Beth on October 16th, 2023

For years, Ellen Langer’s research has fascinated me. She is a psychology professor at Harvard who studies mindfulness, which she defines as the process of actively noticing things. One of her first studies was the Counterclockwise study in the 1970s. She housed elderly men in a retreat that was “retrofitted to suggest that time had gone backward twenty years” and asked them “to behave like younger versions of themselves”.  A week later their vision, hearing, strength, and physical appearance had improved. She concluded that our minds determine our body’s health.

Langer’s latest book, The Mindful Body, summarizes her research to date supporting what she refers to as mind-body unity, that every thought affects every part of the body. Here are a few of her findings:

  • People who were labeled “low prediabetics” with a blood sugar level of 5.7 were significantly more likely to get diabetes than people labeled “high normal” with a level of 5.6.
  • Using clocks to make people think they had slept more or less time than they actually had, performance on a variety of physical measures was worse for those who thought they had only slept for five hours.
  • People who were told they had a “tiring” gene had less endurance and poorer lung capacity when running on a treadmill.
  • On a vision test using a standard eye chart, people could read lines they couldn’t before when the chart was reversed, putting the largest type at the bottom. When words get smaller it creates the expectation that at some point you won’t be able to see them.

Being more mindful of our bodies and experiences can have a positive impact on our health. Langer proposes that a powerful way to do this is to pay attention to symptom variability. If we are diagnosed with a chronic disease, we expect our symptoms will stay the same or get worse. Noticing subtle changes lets us see that symptoms come and go. Noting the circumstances that might be contributing to the fluctuations gives us the opportunity to exert some control over the situation.

  • In one study, participants who recorded their heart rate every day for a week and noted the activity they were engaged in at the time were later able to raise and lower their heart rate when asked to do so in a lab.
  • Pregnant women who attended to the variability of the sensations they experienced reported having an easier pregnancy.
  • Patients with chronic pain who paid attention to the variability in their pain levels reported significant decreases in pain interfering in their lives.

Noticing symptom variability increases mindfulness, which is good for your health. It also helps you realize that you don’t have symptoms all the time, increases the likelihood that you find a solution, and lets you feel more in control. Rather than mindlessly accept a diagnosis or health issue as given, choose to be mindful and notice all the possibilities for improvement.

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