Gratitude, the practice of being thankful, can cause remarkable changes to the mind and spirit. The concept of practicing gratitude can be tied to various forms of religion for as long as written history. Gratitude is more than saying and expressing thanks; it involves introspection and thankfulness for all the positives in one’s life. Gratitude is part of positive psychology and is used while practicing mindfulness.
The act of expressing gratitude releases positive chemicals in the brain, which have several beneficial side effects.
RELEASES TOXIC EMOTIONS
Holding on to anger, trauma, and other negative emotions can cause poor sleep, heart issues, and difficulty functioning in everyday life. Gratitude allows for the opportunity to let go of one’s negative mood and move forward healthily. This is not to say that gratitude prevents one from remembering trauma or feeling angry, but it works to counteract these thoughts and put a person back in a positive mental state.
The brain releases cortisol when it is stressed. High levels of cortisol can cause heart problems, liver issues, and high blood pressure to name a few. By engaging in gratitude, the body begins to produce less cortisol which in turn reduces stress. As a coping mechanism, gratitude also helps balance brain chemistry in the long run, giving a person a better chance at overcoming stressful setbacks.
ANXIETY AND DEPRESSION
Everyone experiences anxiety and depression at some point in their lives, but millions of people are diagnosed with both illnesses every year. With these illnesses come a litany of bad thoughts and roadblocks. Being thankful will not cure anxiety or depression, but the positive brain chemicals that come with gratitude can reduce the symptoms.
Gratitude causes releases of endorphins, which bind to opioid receptors in the brain. Opioid receptors cause lower pain levels, both physical and mental. Gratitude itself will not eliminate severe pain, but it does reduce the intensity.
IMPROVE INTERPERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS
Individuals who have mental illness may have a hard time establishing or maintaining relationships with family, friends, and coworkers. Practicing gratitude makes a person more enjoyable to be around. A grateful person may also have improved patience and be overall more reliable.
All these factors mean that being positive and thankful can lead to healthy friendships. Furthermore, depression and anxiety lower the libido, putting tension on any marriage or sexual relationship. Gratitude counteracts these effects as well.
Emotional resilience is the ability to overcome challenges in a timely and healthy manner. Life is and will always be full of challenges, and plans will not always go perfectly. Moreover, recovering from setbacks makes a person more likely to achieve their long-term goals. When people understand what they’re thankful for and what they want, they can motivate themselves to get past almost any curveball life throws their way.
Hope is one of the most important emotions a person can have. Hope and optimism can build emotional resilience and allow a person to visualize a way through their challenges. In comparison, when faced with setbacks, a person with a negative mood may give up and view the challenge as insurmountable. Optimism does not mean ignoring the bad in life. Instead, it is about seeing the good and believing within oneself that they can achieve their goals.
Gratitude also helps create positive actions that help a person get closer to their goals.
NEUROSCIENCE OF HOW GRATITUDE WORKS
All emotions are tied to a series of brain chemicals. Balancing out these neurochemicals is what makes a healthy person. For example, cortisol, a stress hormone, is there to alert a person about danger. However, too much cortisol leads to anxiety and depression. Here are the brain chemicals that are relevant to everyday mental states.
Dopamine is one of the brain chemicals responsible for happiness and long-term thinking. As a neurotransmitter, dopamine helps send signals and thoughts to other parts of the brain and body. Mental illness causes low dopamine levels, which in turn causes brain fog and inhibits learning. Individuals that practice gratitude have higher levels of dopamine, emotional resilience, and improved cognitive function.
Serotonin is a mood regulator. Much like dopamine, serotonin is responsible for happiness, calmness, and stability. It’s also responsible for memory and other higher brain functions. Mental illness can cause low levels of serotonin. Low serotonin levels are a precursor to several emotional and behavioral issues. Practicing gratitude helps the brain balance out serotonin levels and boosts several brain functions, including emotional resilience.
Oxytocin, the chemical responsible for love, arousal, trust, and admiration, is essential to building and maintaining healthy relationships. If you have ever loved or been in love, then you’ve felt the intense effects of oxytocin as it moves throughout the brain. Gratitude causes the body to produce healthy levels of this essential neurochemical.
Cortisol and stress go hand in hand. Healthy cortisol levels are essential to survival and decision-making, but excess cortisol leads to anxiety, depression, insomnia, paranoia, and other negative mental states. Gratitude reduces cortisol production, which allows a person to escape the prison of their mind.
Practicing gratitude takes more than just saying thanks now and again. Gratitude is as much a lifestyle and mentality as it is anything else. So here are the steps you can take to become a more grateful person.
It is easy to appreciate the big wins like promotions, marriage, and obtaining more money, but the small victories go unnoticed. Appreciate that you have four walls and a roof, as not everyone does. Appreciate your access to food and water and appreciate the loved ones in your life. We all have things that we take for granted, so it is beneficial to hone in on those to discover the positivity in your life.
Gratitude journals are great for writing down the little everyday things that provide happiness. Are you happy because you petted a cute animal? Write it down. Are you happy that your favorite tv show/movie is coming out with new content? Write it down. Gratitude journals will be entirely specific to the individual. Still, the practice of writing down the little victories makes it that much easier to acknowledge what you truly appreciate in life. Plus, reading old journal entries may give you the boost you need to start the day right.
VOLUNTEER IN COMMUNITY
Volunteering is a great way to get out of the house and engage with your surroundings. For many, volunteering is a definite mood booster and opportunity to make positive changes in the world. Talk with the local shelters, clean-up organizations, and more to get your foot in the door.
SPEND TIME WITH LOVED ONES
Spending time with your loved one is one of the best things one can do for psychological health. Be thankful that they are in your life and for the time you have with them. Never take for granted a person that loves and cares for you unconditionally. The emotional resilience that comes with being genuinely grateful will allow you to nurture interpersonal relationships better.
Meditation helps you learn to live with yourself. It allows you a chance to reflect internally on who you are and what you want from life. It also assists individuals working through trauma to become aware of their habitual thoughts and actions. You do not have to buy a yoga mat and light candles if you do not want to. Just take some quiet time alone to reflect.
Psychotherapy practices such as cognitive behavioral therapy can help rewire a person over time to become instinctually more thankful. Psychotherapy is a broad term encompassing talk therapy, CBT, exposure therapy, and trauma therapy. Each subset of psychotherapy is tailored to an individual and their experiences. There is no one size fits all approach, and it requires time and trust with the psychotherapist to become effective.
The information presented on this page is a general overview and is offered here as a resource. At Ampelis Health, each client meets with our medical team to determine treatment protocols based on individual circumstances.
If you would like to learn more about Ampelis Health or have additional questions, feel free to call.
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