The Effects of Thoughts, Attitudes, and Beliefs on Your Physical and Mental Health


Researchers have proven over and over that thoughts, attitudes, perceptions and beliefs have a direct impact on physical and mental health. They have shown that these complex mental states drive people to feel and act in one way or another towards the detriment or the advancement of their health. Genuinely positive thoughts and attitudes have been found to contribute to physical health and emotional well-being, while negative thinking styles and patterns have been shown to lead to adverse physical and mental health effects.

Thoughts and physical health:

The growing mind/body connection in the health field is now affirming what the French philosopher Rene Descartes observed back in 1667 at a time when the body and mind were seen as separate possessions of the physician and the church. Descartes deduced that “the mind is so intimately dependent upon the condition and relation of the organs of the body, that if any means can ever be found to render men wiser and more ingenious than hitherto, I believe that it is in medicine they must be sought for.”

Current day health psychologists who focus on the mind body interaction act on the premise that what people think and believe can either increase the risk of disease on the one hand or restore health and composure on the other. (3)

Several studies have demonstrated how obsessive ruminations serve as a self-defeating cycle and retard the body’s healing process. (4) Ruminations or recurring negative thoughts and images over past events have been found to be associated with various types of physical pain among research participants of all ages. In the recent objective findings of a European study it was demonstrated that ruminations were linked to dysfunctions of the immune system, particularly among the elderly participants in the sample. The results were independent of the mood state of the participants, confirming that “negative thoughts may be detrimental to health, independently of negative affect.” (5)

Furthermore, clinical trials have shown that brains of people who take what they think is a potent drug (but what is really a sugar pill or placebo) produce almost the identical neurochemical changes as the brains of actual drug takers. In one study, during which Parkinson’s disease patients improved on a sham drug, imaging showed that their brains were producing more of the muscle-controlling chemical acetylcholine as were the patients receiving the real medication. And like real drugs, placebos produced negative side effects when subjects thought those side effects were possible.

You too may have discovered that if you adopt a healthy frame of mind you will tend to eat well, keep physically active and attempt to remain disease free. But considering yourself unhealthy could incline you to pick up risky behaviors like smoking, not eating well and slacking off on working out. There’s evidence that your behaviors are more likely to stick if the motivation behind them is intrinsic. For instance, if you want to be more physically active, beliefs such as “exercise is enjoyable,” will fare much better than, “my doctor thinks I need to get in shape.” (3)

Thoughts and mental health:

Some research psychologists have repeatedly demonstrated that faulty thinking patterns cause maladaptive behaviors and “negative” emotions. If you harbor negative beliefs and negative thoughts, you attract negative thinking people, negative situations, and negative events. For example, if you believe that it’s difficult to make friends, then your life will reflect hardship when selecting and keeping new friends. In order to change this aspect of your life that is making you unhappy, you can learn to create changes from within yourself by choosing different and more adaptive thoughts and beliefs to build a social network of friends. Jeffrey Schwartz in his 2002 book, The Mind and the Brain, showed that we can sometimes choose to think differently about things, which in turn will change the physical wiring of our brain and, in doing so create, a kind of ”upward spiral” for ourselves. “None of this is to minimize the seriousness of depression, or to suggest that there aren’t real physical causes for it. But it does seem our creative human fullness may be more at play in determining our own happiness.” (1)

Thought restructuring:

In the late 1960’s, the psychoanalyticly trained psychologist Aaron T. Beck, among others, concluded that depressed patients need not focus on the origins of their mental anguish and pain but rather learn to examine and correct their erroneous assumptions and beliefs that lead them to accept that life is hopeless and unmanageable. He pioneered the widely used Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) treatment approach of today. Practitioners using this healing method will draw on a variety of strategies and techniques to dispute and dispel problematic beliefs, self-defeating assumptions, misperceptions, and negative interpretations.

For example, Cognitive Behavioral therapists who work with severely depressed patients will not ask them to dwell on their past childhoods, but will instead collaborate with them to identify their destructive negative thoughts and underlying assumptions that frame their psychic reality leading to their feeling bad. Then, systematically, patients learn to retrain their thinking patterns to adopt a more positive outlook and feel better about themselves. It is a process that enables patients to correct false self-beliefs that can lead to negative moods and behavior. The fundamental assumption is that a thought precedes a mood. Therefore, learning to substitute positive thoughts for negative thoughts will improve a person’s mood, self-concept, behavior, and physical state. (4)

A number of studies have concluded that CBT is an effective treatment for depression and other mental health conditions and is comparable in its effectiveness to psychotropic, behavioral, interpersonal or psychodynamic therapies. CBT, in combination with antidepressants, has been shown to be most effective in treating severe chronic mood disorder, has proved beneficial in treating patients who have only a partial response to adequate antidepressants, and has been known to prevent the relapse of symptoms. (2, 4)

After reading this article, if you find that you or someone you know is experiencing mood or behavior problems that are getting in the way of desired everyday functioning, contact the psychological association in your area or call 415-362-1067 for help.


1. Hart, Betsy (2007). DON’T WORRY: THINK HAPPY TO BE HAPPY. Sunday Times, January 14.
2. DeRubeis, Robert (2005). Cognitive Therapy As Effective As Drug in Treating Depression. The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 4.
3. Kotulak, Ronald (2006). Thinking Can Alter the Way Body Fights Disease, New Research Shows. News-Sentinel Fort Wayne, Indiana, October 23.
4. Spiegel, Alix (2006). More and More, Favored Psychotherapy Lets Bygones Be Bygones. New York Times, February 4. [Link] 5. Thomsen et al (2004). Negative Thoughts and Health: Associations Among Rumination, Immunity, and Health Care Utilization in a Young and Elderly Sample. Psychosoma Med, 66: 749-756. [Link]

Copyright: 2007. All Rights Reserved