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The Placebo Effect, which has shown that people’s expectations for the success of medical treatment can directly impact actual outcomes, is one demonstration of the reciprocal relationship between our mental and physical selves. In fact, evidence suggests that simply thinking optimistic or pessimistic thoughts about physical health can positively or negatively impact our overall state of health.
This is not to say that we can entirely control our physical health by merely thinking positively. The unexpected can still occur, from catching a cold to breaking a bone to being diagnosed with cancer. But we do have some control over our expectations and the supporting information being fed into our psyche, whether it’s coming from within or from external sources like a worried friend or internet searches filled with potential life-threatening diagnoses. The same principles apply to our mental health.
A self-fulfilling prophecy occurs when someone has a belief or expectation that drives their behaviors, resulting in the prediction ultimately becoming reality. For example, simply waking up at the beginning of the day and thinking that it will be a good or bad day can often lead to the day manifesting itself according to that expectation.
Self-fulfilling prophecies exist because people tend to subconsciously behave in ways that support expectations. A person suffering from depression might feel worthless and therefore stop maintaining friendships or engaging in social activities. Without these connections, the person might see this as proof that they are worthless, and the cycle continues.
Often accompanying self-fulfilling prophecies, confirmation bias refers to the tendency for people to seek out only information that supports a pre-existing belief. An individual might feel as though nothing is going right in the world, which is leading to great amounts of anxiety. The person might spend hours on the internet reading articles about bad things happening, which not only exacerbates their concerns, but leads online algorithms to show them even more negative content. Ultimately, the person feels validated and as though they must be right.
Similar things happen within interpersonal relationships. The Pygmalion Effect describes the notion that expectations placed upon an individual will influence that person’s behaviors, whether positive or negative. For example, if a person is viewed by others as being honest and trustworthy, they will tend to behave in a way that is consistent with those expectations. Conversely, if a person is treated as though they are sneaky and dishonest, they will likely tend to behave more according to those expectations. This means that, as much as we should be aware of how our thought patterns are influencing our own behavior, we must also consider how our beliefs and expectations are impacting others and our relationships with them.
Just as with physical health, we cannot entirely control every aspect of our mental health. Mental illness is real, things happen that might cause anxiety, and life events might lead to depression. But just as we might try to eat healthy, exercise and be aware of where we allow our thoughts to take us in order to maintain positive physical health, we can take similar steps for our mental health.
Throughout the past year I have talked about ways to proactively work on building positive mental health and strategies for addressing specific challenges. There is a lot happening in the world around us, both good and bad. As we head into the New Year, perhaps there is an opportunity to seek out, find comfort in and share more of the good – for the sake of your own mental health and perhaps for those around you, as well.
Bryan Busch is a licensed mental health counselor in Cedar Rapids. He also works at Folience, the parent company of The Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.