How Focusing on the Present Can Keep Your Cells Healthy

Negative thinking can cause premature aging—but you can protect yourself.

Posted Jul 23, 2019

Have you ever noticed how quickly presidents age while in office? You're actually witnessing how stress accelerates the aging process. While stress changes hundreds of important biological processes, we've more recently learned that it's not only stress but negative thoughts that prematurely age us by impacting one of the key biomarkers of aging: the telomere.

What are telomeres? They are tiny protective sheaths that are located at the tips of our chromosomes. Telomeres help protect chromosomes, allowing them to replenish and replicate.

They've been described as being like the tip of plastic at the end of a shoelace. However, if that tip wears and frays, the shoelace won't work. Similarly, once telomeres dwindle or prematurely shrink, the chromosome can't properly replicate, causing age-related disease to follow.

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One study examined the effect of pervasively high stress on the telomeres of mothers of chronically ill children. The telomeres of these stressed-out moms showed as much as 10 years of extra aging. Aging is a complex topic, and it's been shown that many different lifestyle behaviors—such as sleeping and eating—also have an impact on our telomeres.

But could even our thoughts affect telomeres? In a study published in Clinical Psychological Science, psychologist Elissa Epel and researchers looked at how mind wandering affected the telomeres in more than 200 women, none of whom were meditators. In other words, they wanted to know how either a state of mind of presence and focus or a state of mind-wandering would affect telomeres.  

The results clearly illustrated the difference between having an engaged focus or being lost in mind wandering. As written in the study, "Those who reported high mind wandering had shorter telomeres, consistently across immune cell types (granulocytes, lymphocytes), than did those who reported low mind wandering, even after adjusting for stress." 

Digging a little deeper, it is the negative mind wandering that causes shorter telomeres—in particular, anxious thoughts, ruminating thoughts, and defensive thoughts. (On a good note, having a positive daydream or a creative thought will not harm your telomeres.) But defensive thoughts, or thoughts of cynical hostility as they are called, are particularly harmful to telomeres. 

So, if negative mind wandering or a negative mindset ages our cells, what's the antidote? 

The Fountain of Youth Lies Within

The above-mentioned study also made the point that "a present attentional state may promote a healthy biochemical milieu and, in turn, cell longevity." So the fountain of youth, for your cells at least, is an engaged presence and focus on what is happening right before you. In addition, it's important for you to cultivate an open and receptive attitude to what is occurring. Assuming a negative perception or taking a defensive perspective only harms your telomeres. 

This can be both a sobering and a hopeful idea. Sobering if you find yourself mired in negative mind wandering; hopeful, because you can use mindfulness and reflection to train your mind to be more present, engaged, and open. 

In my last two blogs, "The Power of Focus in a Distracted World" and "3 Ways to Make Friends with Scary or Negative Thoughts," we've been looking at the nature of thoughts and the mind. You can think of today's article as the final bookend in a series of three articles about refocusing attention away from negativity and developing open presence. 

While each article has taken a slightly different viewpoint, together they provide a greater understanding of the mind and how to train it. Read all three posts as often as needed, and you'll develop a spacious and engaged presence. In future posts, we'll talk more about how this can enhance relationships and other areas of your life. 

Below is another practice for developing presence and freedom from negative mind wandering. But first, let me share some inspiring and wise words. The first quote is from William James more than 125 years ago:

"The power of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will… But it is easier to define this idea than to give practical directions for bringing it about."

This second quote is from the Buddha, who advised:

"The secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, worry about the future, or anticipate troubles, but to live in the present moment wisely and earnestly."

Practice This

Anytime during the day when you notice that your mind is negatively wandering or that you are taking something personally, pause by taking a breath. Then, use the three steps here for cultivating a more open and spacious awareness. 

1. Name the Wandering Thought

This means that you can name your wandering thought. You can just say "wandering" or "thinking." These are objective, non-blaming ways of stating that your mind has wandered off. You might also say the affirming statement, "I am not my thoughts," or "I am not my negative or defensive thoughts."  

2. Reorient to the Here and Now

Press your hands together and rub them briskly for a few seconds. This is a wonderful physical grounding practice that helps get you present. 

3. Reaffirm Your Engagement and Presence

Now, you can easily bring awareness to whatever is around you. In addition, you can make an internal affirmation, "I am engaged, focused, present, and open to whatever arises." Of course, since you are just remembering, there's no need to be upset if you start mind wandering again. 

Be kind to yourself as you mind-wander again... and again. You don't have to be perfect with this, and no one is. That's why they call this a practice!