Five thought patterns have been identified to shorten telomeres, therefore speeding up the ageing process. Yet, on a hopeful note, the research also highlights when people are able to increase awareness of their thinking patterns and implement useful strategies to shift those thoughts, they have an ability to reduce and, in some cases, reverse this process. In doing so, people have an ability to increase their “health span” (the number of years you stay healthy and active). In accordance with Buddha’s phrase, scientific research at a cellular level truly shows that “We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think”.
What are those identified thought patterns, and how can you turn them around?
Cynical hostility is defined as thoughts that induce heightened anger and represent distrust in others. Imagine the last time you were trying to merge from an on-ramp onto a busy motorway, and the other motorists wouldn’t let you in. A person experiencing cynical hostility might rage that the other drivers have never heard of “merge like a zip”, and think, “They are purposefully blocking me”.
Those who experience frequent bouts of cynical hostility (often higher in men), have been shown to have higher systolic blood pressure, fewer social connections and reduced optimism, linked to increased heart concerns, short telomeres and premature death rates.
- Take deep diagrammatic breaths to calm your brain
- Bring on positive emotion – think of someone you love or a favourite memory. Play good music around you.
Pessimistic thinking represents a loss of hope and inability to see a path forward in the midst of challenging situations. In the face of adversity, people who experience regular pessimistic thoughts will often self-blame, view the situation as never-ending and believe that the adversity is likely to spread to other areas of their life. Pessimistic thinking has been linked to higher cortisol levels and slowed physical recovery from illness and injury.
- Reframe your thoughts to be realistically optimistic. Ask yourself:
- How long is this challenge likely to last?
- Is this challenge likely to impact on other areas of my life?
- Could this have happened to anyone?
If we were on a farm, rumination would describe the action of “cows chewing the cud”. In human psychology, rumination refers to the act of repeatedly mulling over unhelpful thoughts where no processing or shift in perspective is occurring. Rumination leads to increased stress and cortisol levels, reduced mood, heightened anxiety and, of course, shortened telomeres.
- Distraction – exercise, clean the house, write lists
- Make a plan to respond to unhelpful thoughts. You don’t have to action the plan, the process is useful in itself.
When life throws us negative curve balls, or we are required to face unpleasant or difficult situations, people can find it hard to face the emotions and thoughts connected to these events. At times, people may choose to avoid or suppress those thoughts in an attempt to escape distress. Research has demonstrated that when we attempt to suppress thoughts, eventually those thoughts return with heightened strength.
- “Let it go” and give up trying to control your thoughts. Researchers have found that when we let ourselves think about the thing we are trying to block, we process those thoughts far quicker. Of course, thinking about thoughts isn’t the same as acting on them!
Harvard Research has highlighted that people spend 47% of their day mind wandering, usually lost in past or anticipatorythought. Unless your mind wandering is to pleasant memories or exciting upcoming events, negative mind wandering has been linked to increased unhappiness, stress and shortened telomeres.
Practising mindfulness is one strategy that trains the brain to hold your attention in the present moment. Here are some ways to practise:
- Try a mindfulness mediation app: Headspace, Calm, Smiling Minds
- When in nature, use your senses to hold your mind present in the moment
- Put your phone away and remain present when talking with others.