Heavy thoughts bring on physical maladies; when the soul is oppressed so is the body — Martin Luther, 15th Century priest.
A new Ohio University study has found scientific evidence for the correlation between our thoughts and our sickness. According to the study, thinking repeatedly about negative events can increase levels of inflammation in the body.
It is the first study to directly measure physical effects of such negative thoughts on the body.
“Much of the past work has looked at this in non-experimental designs. Researchers have asked people to report their tendency to ruminate, and then looked to see if it connected to physiological issues. It’s been correlational for the most part,” said Peggy Zoccola, an assistant professor of psychology at Ohio University.
The research team studied 34 healthy young women by asking them to give a speech about their suitability for a job to two interviewers in white laboratory coats, who listened to the speeches with stone-faced expressions.
Half of the women were asked to think about their performance in the public speaking task, while the other half was asked to think about neutral images and activities, such as sailing ships or grocery store trips.
After investigating blood samples from both groups, results showed that the levels of C-reactive protein [an indicator of inflammation in the body] were significantly higher in those women who were asked to dwell on the speech.
In the first group, even after the speech got over, the levels of this inflammatory marker continued to go up for an hour. In the second group, during the same one hour, the marker returned to the starting levels.
The C-reactive protein is mainly produced by the liver as the first response by our immune system. It rises when faced with traumas, injuries or infections in the body, Zoccola explained.
C-reative protein is a popular clinical marker to assess if a patient has an infection, and also if he or she may be at risk for disease later in life.
“More and more, chronic inflammation is being associated with various disorders and conditions,” Zoccola said. “The immune system plays an important role in various cardiovascular disorders such as heart disease, as well as cancer, dementia and autoimmune diseases.”
Zoccola is planning to investigate the effect of rumination on additional inflammation markers. Also, she hopes to study the phenomenon in other categories, such as older adults who would tend to ruminate a lot and also have a number of health problems.
Study co-authors are Wilson Figueroa, Erin Rabideau and Alex Woody, all graduate students in the Ohio University Department of Psychology. This study was supported with funding from the Ohio University Research Committee.