It’s not only what you eat and how you move and how long you sleep that contributes to aging. What you think is also a factor. So think about chilling more.
Warning: thoughts can be harmful to your health
Recent research shows that certain thoughts can be so unhealthy as to contribute to an early demise. What you think doesn’t kill you immediately. It’s not like a cartoon, where a globe lights up over your head and the next minute it short-circuits. The problem is in your general disposition throughout life and how it plays out in the end.
Scientific studies show that what you think and feel about yourself and others affects your health and how you age. Your world view can influence everything from your skin to your brain, from getting wrinkles to getting dementia.
There is increasing evidence that psychological factors affect your risk for cardiovascular disease. Optimists have fewer heart attacks and live longer, while those harbouring a high degree of anger are more prone to heart disease and earlier death.
Avoid Cynical Hostility
The biggest killer among thought patterns is one known as Cynical Hostility. This is a type of cynicism based on mistrust of others. The American satirist H.L. Mencken described a cynic as someone who ”when he smells flowers, looks around for a coffin”. Those exhibiting cynical hostility would look for who to blame for the coffin being there.
Researchers studying Cynical Hostility found that people prone to it are five times more likely to suffer depression. This was still true 20 years into the long-term study. There is not only psychological evidence linking Cynical Hostility to dying younger, but also physiological proof found in telomeres. Those markers at the tips of chromosomes are often compared to the plastic tips of shoelaces, Telomeres serve to protect chromosomes from damage to DNA that can cause disease. Thus aging is signaled by telomeres growing shorter.
It’s all about long telomeres
People who score high on the Cynical Hostility Scale experience more shortening of telomeres, according to Nobel-winning scientist Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn and health psychologist Elissa Epel. They found that pessimism is also linked to short telomeres and shorter lifespans. Which didn’t surprise me, given that these two are punting their book, The Telomere Effect: A Revolutionary Approach to Living Younger, Healthier, Longer.
What did surprise me was their revelation of yet another dangerous thought pattern: rumination. Now I had understood rumination to mean contemplation, deliberation or pondering. As in: “I sat ruminating on the meaning of life.” I never knew there was anything dangerous about rumination.
Ruminate at your peril
Apparently the dictionary definition of rumination differs from its psychological meaning. Which is far more hazardous to your mental health because it involves “the act of rehashing problems over and over”. This leads to few solutions but feeds the relentless ruminatory cycle. Rumination is the opposite of letting go of the past.
“When you ruminate, stress sticks around in the body long after the reason for the stress is over, in the form of prolonged high blood pressure, elevated heart rate, and higher levels of cortisol.”
– Blackburn and Epel, authors of The Telomere Effect
They concluded that those who ruminate experience more depression and anxiety, emotions associated with – you guessed it – shorter telomeres.
What can be done to help ruminators kick this life-threatening habit? Is there a way to reduce high levels of cynicism and boost low levels of optimism? Is there a pill to take, along with those that older people use against high cholesterol, hypertension and other conditions?
No, or at least not yet. The pharmaceutical industry is surely already researching ways to control rumination and the Cynical Hostility it causes. But until such a drug is on the market, there is only self-help.
Before I relay the advice for keeping rumination at bay and your telomeres long, please note that we are heading deep into Mind Over Matter territory. Dr. Blackburn has stated that “Telomeres are listening to your thoughts.” So this anti-aging telomere management thing is basically up to you.
Rehab for Ruminators
In order to end the paralysis of pathological rumination and keep your telomeres youthful, you simply need to banish all cynically hostile thoughts. To this end you are advised to practice Thought Awareness, Thoughtful Introspection and Adaptive Self-reflection.
“Banish the thought!” The trouble is that this is easier said than done. It’s like being in a meditation session where a soothing voice is telling me to empty my mind of all thoughts. Thinking of nothing turns out to be really hard. According to psychologists, the technique of Thought Suppression is a non-starter.
Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy put it best:
“Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute.”
The more you try, the more you fail. And cause harm. Because avoiding negative thoughts has been associated with – what else but? – shorter telomeres.