July 8, 2008

How to Think Yourself Better

By Anastasia Stephens

Positive thinking can help ease pain, improve fitness and prevent illness. Anastasia Stephens explains how to harness the power of your mind


A new Australian study suggests that the faster speed that athletes achieve when taking performance-enhancing drugs is all in the mind. The study compared athletes on growth hormones with those given a placebo. Those taking the dummy pills sprinted faster, jumped higher and were able to lift heavier weights than those taking the hormones. The results imply that if you think you will perform better, you really will. That's not news to many professional athletes who for years have used creative visualisation to boost performance. "If you visualise being stronger, running faster or winning, you are priming your nervous system to do just that," says Dr Aimee Kimball, the director of mental training in sports medicine at the University of Pittsburgh. "Studies have found that the method can enhance physical performance significantly, sometimes by 20 per cent or more."

WHAT TO DO: Visualise your forthcoming race or match. See yourself win with ease, confidence and coordination, in as much detail as possible. Feel the appropriate emotions as you play and win, and get a sense that you really "know" you can do it.


Imagining longer menstrual cycles and less menstrual pain may be able to actually alter your cycle, according to researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Twelve out of 15 women who used imagery for three months lengthened their menstrual cycles by nearly four days. They also slashed their perceived levels of premenstrual distress in half and reported fewer mood swings.

WHAT TO DO: Focus on the area around your womb. Imagine any bloating, tension, heaviness or pain dispersing in a watery mist. Imagine the area immersed in a cooling light of whatever colour springs to mind.


Visualisation may be able to help depression caused by all sorts of factors. In a study at the University of South Florida, guided visualization significantly lessened symptoms of anxiety, depression and fatigue in patients with chronic bronchitis and emphysema. According to a study in the Journal of Holistic Nursing, the method alleviated depression and improved self-esteem in women suffering from post-natal depression.

WHAT TO DO: Imagine yourself in a calm, beautiful place, smiling. You are surrounded by friends who are praising you for your qualities. Imagine feeling joyful and strong while getting what you want, and doing what you want in the world.


A study in the American Journal of Clinical Hypnosis suggested that women could increase the actual size of their breasts simply by imagining it. Thirty-five women attended hypnosis sessions in which they were asked to visualise images of their breasts pulsating, with warm water flowing over them, helping them to grow. After 12 weeks, 84 per cent of the women's breasts had grown, by an average of 1.3in. A stunning 46 per cent of them needed a larger bra size.

WHAT TO DO: The study raises the possibility that you could use the mind for tissue regrowth of all sorts - especially to help healing. If you are bruised or injured, vividly imagine the area emersed in a healing white light. In this light, see your tissue becoming "vitalised" and growing back until the area is fully healed. Repeat two or three times a day.


Leading gastroenterologists are calling for hypnotherapy to be used more widely in treating irritable bowel syndrome. Images such a fast-flowing river in the gut slowing down and soothing the bowel may be able to significantly improve IBS symptoms, say researchers at King's College London. In one study at Withington Hospital, 12 weeks of hypnotherapy helped 71 per cent of patients ease their IBS symptoms for five years after the treatment.

WHAT TO DO: Sitting quietly, imagine your whole body becoming softer and heavier, limb by limb. Visualise a soothing river flowing through your gut. Imagine the river flow first at the "current speed" of your bowel, then slow it down to the "imagined" speed needed for symptoms to cease.


The simple act of relaxing before a medical procedure could bring a whole range of benefits. In a study at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, hypnosis-induced relaxation was given to 200 breast cancer patients who needed a biopsy. After 15 minutes of hypnotherapy, which included suggestions for relaxation and pleasant mental images, the women needed less anaesthetic during the procedure. They also reported less pain, nausea, fatigue and emotional distress afterwards.

WHAT TO DO: Before a stressful event, spend 10 minutes consciously relaxing each limb of your body, allowing each area to "melt" away stress and to become heavier, calmer and more peaceful.


In a study at University College London, migraine sufferers reported a decrease in the intensity of their headaches after being trained in guided imagery, though electronic monitoring devices showed no change in migraine activity.

WHAT TO DO: Joanne Walters says: "Breathing deeply, imagine your headache wash away as a stream of cool blue light or fluid runs through your head, dispersing the pain and calming the whole area down."


Imagining that your immune system is strong may be all that you need to do to increase your body's levels of natural killer (NK) cells - the ones that kill viruses and cancer cells - according to Danish researchers. While it is far from being a cancer treatment, cancer patients using daily imagery for a year managed to increase the numbers of a range of immune cells.

WHAT TO DO: Find an image for a strong immune system that you most closely relate to - such as a coloured light pulsing in the area that needs attention, or an army of fighting cells destroying an invader. Feel your body as stronger and healthier as your immune system "wins".


A study in a neonatal intensive care unit in Holland found that women produced more than twice as much milk when, on a daily basis, they imagined milk flowing from their breasts and the baby's warm skin against theirs.

WHAT TO DO: As in the study, imagine your milk flowing freely through your nipples to your baby's mouth. There is as much milk as you need. Vividly imagine the warmth and smell of the milk and how it feels in your breast. Spend 10 minutes doing this exercise twice daily.

Anastasia Stephens is a medical herbalist and hypnotherapist at London's Hale Clinic (020-7631 0156) and a member of the General Hypnotherapy Standards Council. www.anastasiastephens.com

How mind and body are linked

Research suggests that the body's brain and nervous system can't always distinguish an imagined situation from a real occurrence. This means it can tend to act on any image or verbal suggestion as if it were reality. This is the theory behind medical hypnosis, used to treat conditions from chronic pain and depression to irritable bowel syndrome. Patients are put in a state of deep relaxation and enter a state that's very susceptible to imagery. The more vivid this imagery, the greater the effect on the body. People are often depressed because they "see" their lives as hopeless and going nowhere - and this very thought changes brain patterns and cuts levels of feel-good brain chemicals. Seeing and feeling yourself as happy and positive, or succeeding at sport, sets up a new pattern in the brain - and you are more likely to experience that very effect. Relaxing by breathing slowly is very powerful too, as it allows the parasympathetic nervous system to take over. It is medically established that when this is active, the gut relaxes, improving digestion, circulation and immunity.


Before using any of the suggested techniques, spend five minutes sitting peacefully and actively relaxing your body. Remember: using your mind to affect physical or psychological changes is most effective when the images are vivid. Don't just think of a mental picture; imagine emotions, smells, tastes and textures too. Be creative: if you feel pain somewhere, imagine a numbing liquid, or the pain actually leaving your body. While these exercises won't be as powerful as a professional hypnotherapy session, they can still have a palpable effect, and the more you practise them the more effective they're likely to be.

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