Is it All in Your Head?

“Is it all my head?” Patients ask me this question all the time. Perception is powerful. What you focus on shapes what you experience.

Here is an example. A recent study found that back and shoulder pain in middle school children was more closely associated with a perception of their backpacks’ weight than with the actual weight of the bag. In other words, if a child thinks her backpack is heavy, the more likely it is she will report pain. Even if it is heavy but she doesn’t think of it as heavy, the less likely she is to experience discomfort.

Examples like these abound. Your perceptions influence what happens. Perceptions can also influence behavior:

Time and again, research has demonstrated the power of an individual’s self-fulfilling prophecies – if you envision yourself tripping as you walk across a stage, you will be more likely to stumble and fall. New evidence suggests that previous studies have underestimated not only the effect of our own negative prophecies, but also the power of others’ false beliefs in promoting negative outcomes.

In one eye-opening experiment, researchers tested whether parents’ negative expectations could predict alcohol consumption in their teenagers over the course of the year. The teens also filled out questionnaires about their drinking habits before and after the experiment. Parents who expected their children to drink reported drinking more. According to one researcher:

Higher expectations for risk-taking and rebelliousness predict higher levels of problem behavior, even controlling for many other predictors of such behavior.

The predictions you make are powerful. I don’t recommend unbridled Pollyanna optimism but a dose of realistic optimism—combining a positive mindset with and understanding of the challenge—can make all the difference.

I wish you all the best,

Dr. Samantha Boardman