05/26/2016 10:26 EDT | Updated 05/27/2017 05:12 EDT

Can Negative Thinking Make Us Ill?

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Young woman lying on her bed

They are just thoughts, no big deal, people often say when they find themselves engaging in bouts of anger, hatred, or cynicism. We hear plenty of that in this (or any other) election year where differences in opinion tend to become aggravated beyond normal. What we don't ask enough, however, is what all that negativity does to our health and well-being, not only psychologically but also physically?

Science is pretty clear on the mind-body connection of health issues, and negative thinking has long been recognized as a culprit for many illnesses -- as has the healing power of a positive mindset.

Negative thoughts and emotions can cause problems for your health especially when they manifest themselves over time as permanent dispositions or habitual outlooks on the world, says Dr. Emiliana R. Simon-Thomas, science director of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. Their destructive nature can adversely affect a number of body functions, including metabolism, hormonal balance, and the immune system. Long-term results can be chronic stress or depression. Powerful stress hormones like cortisol are known to promote inflammation, which can lead to any number of diseases, she warns.

Oftentimes it's not even outside events that cause the most damaging responses, but rather people honing in on their own shortcomings, disappointments and failures, says Wendy Lustbader, a psychotherapist and author of Life Gets Better: The Unexpected Pleasures of Growing Older.

"We make our own misery," she says. "Life is hard enough, but we make things worse by exaggerating our failings and missed opportunities, [...] while giving ourselves hardly any credit for obstacles overcome and small victories attained on the way to where we are."

Much of this, of course, is also a personal choice, although it doesn't always appear to us that way. We cling to these self-imposed all-or-nothing standards, Lustbader laments, that leave no room for more generous interpretations. To release ourselves from this perpetual self-condemnation, we must first acquire a different way of thinking.

That may include going back in time to the roots of our misgivings -- perhaps as far as childhood -- to make peace with unpleasant or hurtful memories.

Whether you feel guilt or shame, have regrets or are sorrowful about something that happened long ago, the only meaningful thing you can do now is to learn your lessons, move on, and leave the past where it belongs. Don't drag it around with you. It will only pollute your present life and probably even your future.

Memories are there to be enjoyed, and they are to be learned from in any case, whether we recall them as successes or mistakes, advises Jennifer Boykin, the author of "Breakthrough, How to Get on With It When You Can't Get Over It."

We may not always find that positive thinking eases our qualms, and expressing our displeasure may be a justified reaction once in a while. But negativity as an attitude is not something anyone should cultivate for long. If for no other reason, it's not healthy.

Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.

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