by Carolyn Thomas
According to Mark Waldman and Dr. Andrew Newberg, this word can damage both the speaker’s and the listener’s brain. In a Psychology Today article published last month, they called it “the most dangerous word in the world.”
What word is it?
Any form of negative rumination – for example, worrying about your health – can stimulate the release of destructive neurochemicals. Waldman and Newberg explain:
“If we were to put you into an fMRI scanner – a huge donut-shaped magnet that can take a video of the neural changes happening in your brain – and flash the word “NO” for less than one second, you’d see a sudden release of dozens of stress-producing hormones and neurotransmitters. These chemicals immediately interrupt the normal functioning of your brain, impairing logic, reason, language processing, and communication.
“In fact, just seeing a list of negative words for a few seconds will make a highly anxious or depressed person feel worse, and the more you ruminate on them, the more you can actually damage key structures that regulate your memory, feelings, and emotions.
“You’ll disrupt your sleep, your appetite, and your ability to experience long-term happiness and satisfaction.”
These findings are distressing for those of us who are living with a chronic diagnosis like heart disease that can involve quite a bit of day-to-day serious rumination about one’s health.
Here’s what Harvard Medical School’s Stress Management Special Health Report suggests for folks who like to take life’s thorny issues and cultivate them until they are well-rooted deep and wide. According to Harvard researchers:
“Worrying, searching for a solution, and forecasting the future can move from pre-occupation to full-time work.”
Research also links the habit of rumination with dangerously high levels of the body’s artery-damaging stress hormones like cortisol. Australia’s Dr. Thomas Denson of the University of New South Wales found, for example:
“Self-focused rumination maintains high levels of cortisol following provocation.”
Dr. Daniel Brotman of Johns Hopkins Hospital was the author of a review paper on emotional stress and heart health published in The Lancet in 2007. He explained:
“Anybody who has narrowly avoided a car accident knows how much emotional stress can rev up your cardiovascular system. But having very frequent or ongoing bouts of ’fight or flight’ is not something the human body is designed to do.”
That’s where chronic stressors can become deadly threats to our hearts. Unmanaged stress, especially stress-related anger and hostility, has the power to clearly affect our health. It can cause:
- high blood pressure
- irregular heart rhythms
- damage to our arteries
- higher cholesterol levels
- the development and progression of coronary artery disease (atherosclerosis)
- a weakened immune system
When doctors and therapists teach patients to turn negative thoughts and worries into positive affirmations, the communication process improves, helping the patient to regain self-control and confidence, claim researchers reporting in the journal, Psychological Science.*
But Ohio researchers warn that there’s apparently an intrinsic problem here: the brain barely responds to our positive words and thoughts; they found that even with simple examples (such as showing research subjects pictures of flowers vs pictures of snakes), we tend to react to the scary snakes but barely register a reaction to those nice flowers.** That’s why, they suggest, we need to bulk up on those positives to outweigh the negatives.
Finally, Waldman and Newberg remind us of the findings of Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, (one of the founders of the field of Positive Psychology) and others whose work suggests that we need to generate 3-5 positive thoughts and feelings for each expression of negativity. They add:
“Our advice: choose your words wisely and speak them slowly. This will allow you to interrupt the brain’s propensity to be negative, and as recent research has shown, the mere repetition of positive words will turn on specific genes that lower your physical and emotional stress.”
Q: What do you make of the apparent dangers of ruminating on the negative?
- Do you think too much? How ruminating hurts your heart
- How runaway stress hurts your heart – and your brain
- Three things that make you happy – and three things that won’t
* Kisley MA, Wood S, Burrows CL. “Looking at the sunny side of life: age-related change in an event-related potential measure of the negativity bias.” Psychol Sci. 2007 Sep;18(9):838-43.
** Smith NK, Cacioppo JT, Larsen JT, Chartrand TL “May I have your attention, please: electrocortical responses to positive and negative stimuli.” Neuropsychologia. 2003;41(2):171-83.