Written By: Isabel Bleim, Registered Clinical Counsellor
Have you ever wondered if the claims about gratitude are exaggerated? Can gratitude really help your physical and emotional wellbeing? Well, it depends.
Do you implement gratitude daily? How do you interpret the small kindness others show you? If the answer is a resounding yes, then the claims are true. Studies have consistently found that counting your blessings, instead of your burdens, leads to physiological and psychological benefits.
When you focus on your burdens, or your sense of lack, you can feel shame about not doing more or having more. Likewise, when you focus on negative perceptions of yourself, whether they stem from others or yourself, you can feel blamed. Feelings of shame and blame can often lead you down the rabbit hole of resentment.
But it’s not your fault for slipping into this way of thinking. Evolutionary scientists posit that, for the purpose of survival, our brains are designed to be attuned to danger. However, this heightened sensitivity is somewhat of a paradox today as it can lead to the unintentional pursuit of unhappiness.
This happens when you follow the trail of anxiety/anger-inducing thoughts into an ever-deepening sludge of negativity. So, when you feel yourself sinking into this distressing internal mire, remind yourself that you can free yourself by bringing to mind something for which you are grateful.
Neuroscience teaches us that we can generate gratitude rather than waiting for it to happen to us. Generating gratitude is associated with higher levels of reasoning and effective emotional regulating.
In a 2015 study, participants listened to real-life stories of Holocaust survivors who received help from strangers who saved their lives. Brain scans showed that regions (anterior cingulate cortex and medial prefrontal complex) of participants’ brains associated with ethical reasoning and making sense of emotions light up (generate activity) while participants imagined these stories.
In another study, participants were exposed to mild painful stimuli. Researchers found that participants who were primed for gratitude reported less pain. A further study found that a gratitude meditation as short as five minutes had immediate effects: it lowered heart rate as well as calmed the autonomic nervous systems, thereby reducing the fight-flight-freeze response.
Think of gratitude as an inexhaustible resource that becomes more easily accessible with practice. Here are five suggestions that, when practiced regularly, can strengthen your connection with gratitude:
1. Be aware of the lens through which you see the world
If you scan your everyday experience with the lens of gratitude, you can find more things to savor and be grateful for. These don’t have to be profound. It could be as simple as a warm sunny day, the funny cat video your co-worker sent you, or the bus driver who saw you running and waited for you.
2. Keep a gratitude journal
Before you say, “no way, writing isn’t my thing!” just remember that you’re writing for yourself. It’s an unvarnished, unpolished record of things you savored that day. A large inventory of savored experiences can make your gratitude reservoir spill over into all areas of your life.
3. Write thank you notes or thank you emails and send them to your friends and family just because
These out-of-the-blue expressions of appreciation will generate feelings of gratitude in others, thereby creating a pay-it-forward flow, and even a boomerang effect.
4. Partake in a loving kindness meditation daily
This daily habit can be as short or as long as you want. Regardless of duration, this mindful practice can help you keep gratitude in mind, even when your mind is full.
5. When you catch yourself falling down the rabbit hole, pause, slow down and deepen your breathing, then intentionally think of something for which you are grateful
This may take some effort but it’s totally fine if you find your mind meandering. Just gently guide your mind back to the thing that represents gratitude as many times as necessary. Remember, it is the practice of gratitude that counts.
Immersing yourself in gratitude truly is a sure-fire way to contribute to your physical, mental, and emotional health. And dosing in high levels of gratitude has a spillover effect that contributes to the wellbeing of family, friends, acquaintances, and even random people you encounter in daily life. So remember, gratitude costs you nothing, and yet adds invaluable benefits to you and those around you!
Contact Brentwood Counselling Centre today to see how we can help you with the practice of gratitude.