Change Your Beliefs, Change Your Biology!

A  Health Psychologist Admits, “I was wrong about stress!”

It’s not very often that a well-known psychologist confesses in a TED-X talk that she’s been practicing her craft in a way that’s been doing people more harm than good. So I give Kelly McGonigal credit for going very public with her confession. What she confesses to is her many years of telling people that stress is a negative thing–that it makes you sick. What changed her mind are the results from an eight-year U.S. study that freaked her out! (her words)

The results of the study showed that a person’s BELIEFS about stress were more important than the stressful events. So the bottom line in the study was that a lot of Americans (182,000!) died prematurely . . . not from stress, but from the belief that stress was bad for them!! The information from this research forced Kelly to change her goal as as a psychologist.

Can You Change Your Beliefs?

fork in the road copyThis is really a critical question, one to which most people would answer “no.” Our research from teaching hundreds of people how to resolve conflicts of values and beliefs disagrees. What we found is that most beliefs are formed by age 10 and often as the result of a traumatic experience, which people could recall while they were doing our exercises.

This means that beliefs typically have a deep emotional component that sequesters in the hippocampus or mammalian brain, which makes it difficult to impossible to access through logic. So beliefs are pretty deeply buried in the psyche and they don’t change just because we get new information. So how DO people change them? Here’s what we found.

We used the tool of dialogue to help people drill down into their beliefs. Initially people worked in pairs, listening carefully to each other as they talked about the more surface aspects of their belief–the logic, the things that reinforced their beliefs in present time. Each person reflected back what they heard and made sure there was a common understanding between them before moving on.

Then we asked people to identify any past events that caused them to form their belief, a sort of “archeological” approach. This part was SO interesting, because almost everyone could find some early childhood memory of an event that was intensely emotional, even traumatic, that contributed to the creation of their belief. Often they could recall and describe this life-altering event in great detail, almost in technicolor.

Long story short, we saw that people CAN change their beliefs during our conflict resolution classes. This only happened when a person shifted internally, primarily when they understood why and when they had formed their belief. This shift occurred when they recognized they had been seeing the issue in their belief through the eyes of a child, and that they had a “childish” view of it.

It was interesting to watch people re-examine their beliefs, to include their adult experiences and new information into their perspective. Their beliefs became more fluid, less absolute and black-and-white, and more in the gray area between. Here are some common childhood beliefs taken from the childhood beliefs website,

The Key to Changing A Belief

Back to Kelly McGonigal’s dramatic change in her belief about stress. She says very clearly in her TED-X talk, “You can see why this study freaked me out. Here I’ve been spending so much energy telling people stress is bad for your health. When you change your mind about stress, you can change your body’s response to stress.”

What she shares in these few sentences says that she had an intense emotional reaction (surprise? shock? shame?) when she heard that her approach wasn’t just inaccurate and outdated, it was also causing people harm.

Kelly’s belief about stress shifted to align with the research findings and with her personal and professional need for integrity. Internally, she had a sort of emotional shattering or collapse, and then reorganized herself and her belief system. This experience was so intense and so important that she decided to take the risk of sharing the transformation in her belief system via a TED-X talk.

So the Answer is Yes. You Can Change A Belief.

Listen to Kelly’s TED-X talk and decide for yourself!


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