By consciously practicing gratitude every day, we can help our immune system, our central nervous system, pain response, sleep, even our memory and cognitive function. The effects of gratitude, when practiced daily, can be almost the same as medications in strengthening neural pathways.
Here’s what happens when we express gratitude:
Feelings of gratitude activate the hippocampus and amygdala, the two main sites regulating emotions, memory, and bodily functioning. Gratitude significantly impacts psychological conditions like stress, anxiety, and depression by producing a feeling of long-lasting happiness and contentment. The physiological basis for this lies at the neurotransmitter level. As we feel grateful, our brain releases dopamine and serotonin, the two crucial neurotransmitters responsible for our emotions, thereby enhancing our mood immediately.
By regulating the level of dopamine, gratitude can reduce subjective feelings of pain. A study conducted to evaluate the effects of gratitude on physical wellbeing, Counting Blessings vs Burdens (Emmons & McCullough, 2003), indicated that 16% of the patients who kept a gratitude journal reported reduced pain symptoms and were more willing to exercise and cooperate with the treatment procedure.
Studies also show that gratitude practices significantly reduce cardiac diseases, inflammations, and neurodegeneration.
A study by Zahn, et al., (2009) stated: “A brain filled with gratitude and kindness is more likely to sleep better and wake up feeling refreshed and energetic every morning.” Improving the sleep-wake cycle and enhanced mood helps people with insomnia, substance abuse, and eating disorders.
Gratitude practices are especially effective for treating phobias like death anxiety, PTSD, social phobia, and nihilism. The brain doesn’t know the difference between reality and thought. For example, jumping out of an airplane is the greatest thrill to some, but to others the idea of even getting into an airplane triggers a physiological fear reaction. The person hasn’t even left the runway, yet their heart beats faster, lungs breathe more heavily, and blood rushes from the digestive tract to the extremities in order to fight or take flight. From a neurobiological standpoint, gratitude regulates the sympathetic nervous system that activates our fight-or-flight responses, countering our fear response and producing a calming effect; and at the psychological level, it conditions the brain to filter the negative ruminations and focus on positive thoughts.
Gratitude can alleviate depression both psychologically and neurochemically. “By displacing our attention from problems to solutions, gratitude practices secrete the serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin — neurotransmitters that make us feel good” (Burton, 2020). Daily journaling and gratitude jars can help individuals fighting with depression, anxiety, and burnout. The surge of these chemicals in the brain restrains apathy and revives the motivation that depression has otherwise drained.
Fear is our body’s inbuilt wake-up call that alerts us to danger. Our genetic code is programmed for survival; we focus more on the bad things than the good things because good things don’t hurt us. When fear sets in, our body releases hormones that create the fight-or-flight response. The brain doesn’t get much time to analyze the right or wrong when the adrenaline rush begins. Worry and ruminating are compulsions within us, serving to remind us to avoid harm at all costs. Scientists have suggested that by activating the reward center of the brain, gratitude alters the way we see the world and ourselves, exchanging needless worry and fear for serenity and relief.
In the words of Oprah Winfrey:
“Be thankful for what you have, you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never ever have enough.”
Besides keeping a gratitude journal, one helpful exercise I do myself and give to my clients is the Mind Focus Exercise. (Note: When you are writing this exercise, try to be as descriptive as possible. If you like to draw, then it’s helpful to sketch your answers as well.
Draw 4 columns on a piece of paper.
● In the first column describe: What is the circumstance or event that evokes the negative emotion you may be ruminating on?
● In the second column describe: How does that makes you feel? (i.e., angry, grieved, fearful, sad, etc.)
● In the third column describe: What do you want instead? Then describe, in detail: What does that looks like?
● In the fourth column describe: How does that new perspective make you feel?
Now that you have imagined what your new reality looks like — that is what you focus on. Practice focusing on what you do want, not what you don’t want, and watch your world change around you.
For a list of the top 5 favorite books on gratitude, click here: https://positivepsychology.com/gratitude-books-oliver-sachs/