By Michael Lardon, M.D.

Winners Circle - The Biology of Positive ThoughtCan we really choose to always think positive?

The concept of free will refers to our ability to choose what we do and what we think. Imagine an Olympic ski jumper moments before leaving the gates suddenly flashing on the possibility of crashing. The athlete must make a choice to let the thought pass and refocus his attention to the task at hand or dramatically increase his chance for disaster. Free will is the cornerstone of mental toughness for elite athletes. But the question remains, can we choose to think what we want?

Thoughts are a series of biologic processes in which millions of neurons communicate with one other by passing electrical charges via chemical messengers called neurotransmitters. The neurotransmitters that regulate mood and anxiety are norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine.

Our brain releases dopamine when we see our son hit a homerun in Little League. It is also released when we smoke cigarettes and more potently when drugs like amphetamines and cocaine are used. Our moods and thoughts are inextricably interwoven. They both create self-perpetuating cycles. When we feel good we tend to think positive and when we feel bad we tend to think negative.

When we are engaged in the cycle of feeling down and thinking negatively, our automatic or, as it’s technically called, our autonomic nervous system gets out of balance. The autonomic nervous system is made up of two components: the parasympathetic system which slows our heart rate and relaxes our muscles, and the sympathetic system which mediates our fight or flight response and releases adrenaline.

There is a delicate balance between the harmonies of these two halves of our nervous system. When an athlete is in The Zone or really on his game, he is relaxed yet focused. The parasympathetic system becomes proportionately more active. However, this is not an easy task even for the great athlete during the heat of competition. A little bit of nervousness is good. The increase in natural adrenaline increases our focus and increases our strength. However, too much activation causes our muscles to get tight and if we get so nervous we panic, we lose our ability to focus and process the environment around us.

Learning to use yogic breathing techniques or simply learning to breathe rhythmically with our diaphragm increases the influence of the parasympathetic system and helps relax our muscles regardless of the situation. Conversely, when we are depressed or thinking negatively, a chronic stress state ensues increasing our sympathetic tone beyond what is healthy. This makes our muscles very tight and we do not perform our best. It is therefore essential that our thought and mood be in harmony because they influence our nervous system, which in turn guides the precise action of our muscles.

Jimmy Shea was the world’s champion in skeleton (similar to luge but head first). His grandfather Jack Shea was a past Olympic champion and his father was also an Olympian. Jimmy had tremendous pressure coming into the 2002 Winter Olympics as America’s first third generation Olympian and medal favorite. Several weeks before the Olympics, Jimmy’s grandfather Jack was killed in a tragic automobile accident. Jimmy spiraled into a deep depression and was referred to me for treatment. The trauma and natural sadness around his beloved grandfather’s death exacerbated a severe depression. Jimmy could not think positive. His sleep, appetite, energy, and motivation were also severely disregulated. He publicly admitted to suicidal thoughts. I placed him on an antidepressant medication that increases all three of the brain’s major mood neurotransmitters. Jimmy started to feel better and to think more positive. In dramatic fashion, he won the gold medal by 0.05th of a second. The scene of him taking the picture of his grandfather out of his helmet and holding it up for the world to see is one of Olympic history’s indelible images.
For a person with a severe depression, a combination of medicines and therapy are most effective. Increasing evidence has shown that exercising at least 30 minutes a day, three to five times a week, improves mood and probably increases serotonin. Other research has shown that diets low in the amino acid tryptophan cause depletion in brain serotonin levels and this deficit creates depression in certain groups of people, so it is important to not only exercise but eat a healthy diet. The biology of thought is more than free will. Diet and exercise play central roles in how we feel and how we feel plays a central role in how we think. But so do the thoughts we choose.