Can Negative Thinking Make You Sick?

Would you say that people are generally untrustworthy? Your answer is a bigger deal than you might think.

You may know that stress can produce physical symptoms, like an upset stomach or depression often physically hurts. But a growing body of evidence suggests that negative emotions and thoughts may also have links to other serious health problems, like heart disease.

"Many negative emotions such as anger, fear, and frustration become problematic when those emotions turn into a more permanent disposition or a habitual outlook on the world," Emiliana Simon-Thomas, PhD, science director of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, told Health.

Here's what you should know about negative emotions and thinking patterns may lead to health complications and what to do about improving your well-being.

Cynicism and Health

Take cynicism, for example. A study published in 2014 in Neurology linked high levels of cynicism later in life to a greater risk of dementia than those more trusting.

That negative way of thinking may also hurt your heart. For example, a study published in 2020 in Psychophysiology looked at 196 people who took psychological stress tests.

The researchers determined that cynical hostility may cause a high risk of heart disease. With cynical hostility, a person continues to react to stressful circumstances with a similar intensity level, no matter how much exposure they have to other stressful situations.

Health Impacts of Hostility

Another bad attitude that links to poor health outcomes is hostility. According to a study published in 2014 in Stroke, people who scored higher on measures of unfriendliness, as well as those with chronic stress and depressive symptoms, had a higher risk of stroke than the friendly participants.

Depression and Your Health

Additionally, depression can have repercussions far beyond feeling sad or losing your appetite. Some evidence suggests that depression increases your risk of type 2 diabetes, heart attack, and disability later in life. So, seeking help for depression is important.

According to Simon-Thomas, negative thoughts and emotions have widespread effects on bodily processes, like: 

  • Metabolism
  • Hormone release
  • Immune function

One theory is that when you're stressed or depressed, levels of the hormone cortisol levels increase. Increased cortisol makes your immune system less able to control inflammation, which could lead to health issues over time.

Also, people with depression and stress may be more likely to smoke or drink alcohol or less likely to be physically active. All of those factors can affect your health. 

Or negative emotions might be an early symptom of a health problem rather than a cause. Therefore, consulting a healthcare provider may be helpful.

How To Cope With Negative Thinking

By simply changing your perspective, you may just improve your health. 

"We know that neural pathways are changing every minute of your entire life and that your brain is generating new cells throughout your life," offered Simon-Thomas. "And this neurogenesis is not only associated with the formation of new memories, but with mood stability, as well."

So, cynics, take heart. You have control over your attitude and your well-being. 

"We can be deliberate about shifting our habits of feeling and thinking in the world," added Simon-Thomas.

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) recommends self-care activities if you experience mild mental health symptoms that last for less than two weeks, such as:

  • Exercising, like aerobics and yoga
  • Engaging in social contact, either virtual or in-person
  • Getting adequate sleep on a regular schedule
  • Eating healthy
  • Talking to a trusted friend or family member
  • Practicing meditation, relaxation, and mindfulness

When To See a Healthcare Provider

You should talk to a healthcare provider if symptoms don't improve or worsen despite self-care efforts. Those symptoms include:

  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Appetite changes that result in unwanted weight changes
  • Struggling to get out of bed in the morning because of your mood
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Loss of interest in things you usually find enjoyable
  • Unable to perform usual daily functions and responsibilities
  • Thoughts of death or self-harm

A Quick Review

Negative emotions, such as anger, fear, and frustration, and negative thinking patterns, such as hostility and cynicism, are normal. But they can become problematic when your negative emotions turn into a habitual outlook on the world. If untreated, heart disease, diabetes, or disability may result.

Try shifting your habits of feeling and thinking in the world for a more positive outlook. Consulting a healthcare provider if you recognize the signs of a serious mental health issue may help.

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  2. Tyra AT, Brindle RC, Hughes BM, Ginty AT. Cynical hostility relates to a lack of habituation of the cardiovascular response to repeated acute stressPsychophysiology. 2020;57(12):e13681. doi:10.1111/psyp.13681

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  6. Noh JW, Kwon YD, Park J, Oh IH, Kim J. Relationship between Physical Disability and Depression by Gender: A Panel Regression ModelPLoS One. 2016;11(11):e0166238. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0166238

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  8. National Institute of Mental Health. My mental health: Do I need help?.

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