Use a Gratitude Practice to Rewire Your Brain
The topic of gratitude as it relates to positive psychology is endlessly fascinating. Even before the effects of optimistic thinking on human neurology became the focus of modern psychology studies, self improvement experts preached that emphasizing the positive results in positive action which attracts even more positivity into your life.
What’s interesting about keeping a gratitude practice is that actual, chemical reactions occur in our brains when we focus our thoughts on being grateful for the gifts life bestows. This knowledge is supported by scientific findings.
Extensive studies were conducted during the Positive Neuroscience Project of 2013 that was pioneered by University of Pennsylvania’s Psychology Department Director, Dr. Martin E.P. Seligman. The studies found that daily activities such as writing in a gratitude journal and verbally expressing our appreciation for other people resulted in the release of feel-good brain chemicals such as oxytocin, serotonin and dopamine.
In contrast, stress as a response to a negative situation or pervasive, negative thoughts causes the body to produce the hormone cortisol which then causes our nervous system to go into fight or fight survival overdrive.
When we’re stressed and our adrenal glands are secreting cortisol, this causes our heart rate to speed up. Our breaths become rapid and shallow. The body is physically preparing itself to fend off attackers or flee. Function shifts away from “rest and repair,” higher-thinking mode, to “save your own life,” lower-level thinking mode. Studies have been conducted that show high cortisol levels over a prolonged period of time reduce cognitive function. Complex reasoning and higher thought processes take a back seat to a more primitive mental state.
With too much cortisol flooding our system, reproductive hormone production dips. You have probably heard that excessive stress disrupts the female monthly cycle – this is an example of cortisol overproduction wreaking havoc on our body functions over time.
Psychology experts and coaches now employ a technique called gratitude interventions to be used as a mental health support practice. The client or patient in search of a healthier mental outlook is asked to record daily observations of things to be grateful for.
Myriad studies support that notion that gratitude in practice has an overall positive effect on mental health – reducing feelings of anxiety, improving sleep, and reducing depressive or anxious thoughts that keep us trapped in negative cycles and unable to move forward in our lives.
With a gratitude practice helping to create a transformation from the inside out, we are able to re-train our minds through a daily rumination on things to be thankful for. Reshaping our thoughts in this manner can help us accomplish the following:
- Begin to see things in a more positive light
- Ease anxious feelings
- Put a stop to repetitive, self-defeating thoughts
- Shift our mindset from pessimistic to optimistic
- Stop obsessive compulsive thinking if its becoming a problem
- Develop empathy
- Change our point of view
- Improve focus
- Put positive thoughts into action
- Attracting positive people into our lives who can help us break out of a negative cycle
Going Deep with Your Gratitude Practice Means Embracing Both the Bad and the Good.
Are you thinking of getting into the gratitude mindset as a means of improving your outlook, relieving stress and attracting more positivity into your life and relationships? One confusing aspect of practicing gratitude is that it bears the question, how does one handle the not-so-great moments? Does it mean we turn a blind eye to the tough reality of a not-so-perfect life?
For some people, especially those who have faced difficult challenges in recent times, the idea of showing gratitude on a daily basis might seem like a forced activity.
Suppose someone is being treated poorly at home, and you’re feeling helpless to do anything about it. Or maybe addiction plagues a close friend or family member, or someone close to you is gravely ill. You could be financially in a tough situation. Where does gratitude fit into this grim picture?
Here’s one thing to realize about gratitude if you’re enduring hardships at the moment. Being grateful does not mean sweeping problems under the rug. It doesn’t mean justifying bad behavior if someone is hurting you or a family member.
Gratitude is not about spending recklessly or being hedonistic because hey, I’m just over here living my best life and feeling grateful.
Rather, when your life is impacted with problems that must be sorted out, having a gratitude mindset can help you bring some hope into an otherwise bleak circumstance.
On some days, you may not feel like gazing out your window to celebrate bird songs after your drunk partner has kept you awake ranting and raving through most of the night. You may not feel like journaling about the love you feel for your teen-aged kids after they have shown disrespect.
But one thing that you can do in your gratitude journaling practice, is write about things that are troubling you, and try to find the nugget of wisdom to be thankful for.
A wife who feels angry that her partner doesn’t pitch in can find the gratitude moment by realizing that she is becoming stronger and better organized in her life for the lack of support.
Someone who feels overworked at his or her job might recognize that the skills they are being forced to develop will carry them on to the next promising opportunity.
A gratitude gesture can be something as simple as feeling like you’ve had a really bad day, but actively choosing not to spread that negativity on to the next person. And instead, paying a kindness forward that helps out someone else. And then discovering that your load feels a little less heavy because of it.
If you do something like that every day, imagine how it might change the person you are in five years? What about ten? And then just think about what new things you might have to be grateful for as a result of the positivity that you set in motion for yourself and others whom your presence has touched in small but meaningful ways.