Giving thanks is a habitual custom around the time of Thanksgiving. Many of us blend or overshadow “giving thanks” with an opportunity for good food, a couple of days off work, and time well spent with family and friends. But “giving thanks” can be much more powerful than a once-a-year holiday comprised of over-eating, rest, and good company. If made into a daily routine, gratitude can change the functioning of our brain, leading to improved mood, decreased anxiety, and a rise in overall well-being, both mental and physical.
The Connection Between the Brain and Emotions
Gratitude doesn’t mean ignoring difficulties in life but is a practice of perspective and focus that will allow us to deal with hardship more effectively. Many studies have been conducted examining the connection between gratitude and its effects on mood, anxiety, and physiology. A gratitude study at UC Berkeley showed that participants who focused on their problems reported more anxiety and depression than those who practiced gratitude. Those who focused on gratitude reported significantly better mental health for 4 to 12 weeks after the study ended.
A ritualized gratitude practice leads to changes in the brain and an increased release of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin, which both help regulate our emotions. Dopamine is largely responsible for motivation, the ability to focus, and feeling “happy.” Serotonin is largely associated with improved mood and a general sense of well-being and has positive physiological effects. Gratitude can elevate your neurotransmitters and is one of the best protections against depression and anxiety.
Slow the Roll – Keeping the Old Brain in Check
The limbic system is an older, more primitive region of the brain wired to be alert to danger. It becomes activated to help keep us alive when we’re in a dangerous situation. Unfortunately, human beings can complicate the system and our brains think we’re in real danger even when we’re not. That’s when we become anxious, high strung, worried, and plain spun out. We’ve all been there!
Gratitude affects the limbic system in very precise ways, and studies indicate it causes a reduction in the release of cortisol, which is the hormone responsible for stress. When people sit in a state of worry or anxiety too much, the release of cortisol and other physiological effects can lead to a weakened immune system and, of course, decreased happiness and overall well-being. Gratitude activates the parasympathetic nervous system in the body which is associated with rest. A consistent gratitude practice leads to a reduction in stress hormones and an increase in the hormones related to a stronger immune system.
The limbic system is also the “emotional center” of the brain. A regular practice of gratitude stimulates areas of the prefrontal cortex which helps manage and regulate many negative emotions and increases our ability to focus, be creative, and engage in learning. There’s a reason why you “can’t focus” or “go blank” when you’re highly anxious. It’s mainly because your limbic system is activated and kicks into “fight, flight, or freeze” mode, while the prefrontal cortex responsible for higher thinking goes into “sleep mode.”
Exercise Your Brain Regularly
Neural plasticity is the brain’s ability to restructure and reorganize neural connections. It used to be thought that plasticity was only possible in children when the brain was developing but now it is known that plasticity is available to anyone at any age! Neural pathways that are “used” (for example, habitual worrying) will strengthen, while neural pathways that are not used will weaken. Practicing gratitude forms and strengthens neural pathways in the brain responsible for positive feelings and it weakens neural pathways responsible for worry, anxiety, and negativity.
The longer we have a consistent practice of gratitude, the stronger these neural pathways become, leading us to be resilient, courageous, hopeful, and motivated. Think of a gratitude practice like a workout for your brain in a mental gym. The more you work out, the more results you’ll start to experience over time. It’s amazing that our own thoughts and habits can build new neural pathways and we can initiate neural plasticity through our patterns of thinking.
Gratitude and Relationships
As stated earlier, a consistent gratitude practice affects not just the limbic system but the prefrontal cortex. If we take time to regularly and consistently appreciate the people in our life who are there for us, support us, and make a difference, we’re not just affecting other people by noticing them, but we’re also helping ourselves. Expressing gratitude to others stimulates the area of the prefrontal cortex responsible for empathy, morality, interpersonal relationships, and bonding with others. In other words, the more we appreciate others and the role they play in our lives the more we will want to connect, give, and engage with others. As a result, we’ll be less likely to isolate or feel alone.
We can also find opportunities to thank people who are strangers by appreciating the person who allows us to go ahead of them in line because we only have a loaf of bread or the person who stopped to hold the door open for us while entering a building. We will then be more inclined to give back to others whether we know them or not. A new way of “paying it forward!”
Ways to Practice Gratitude
Below are 20 ideas to help you practice gratitude and minimize negativity, which is gratitude’s competition.
- Keep a daily gratitude journal
- Start a gratitude meditation
- Make it a point to compliment and thank others
- Give thanks for what you have
- Start noticing your abilities, accomplishments and positive attributes
- Appreciate your body, your strength and your health
- Avoid gossip
- “Pay it forward” when able and practice random acts of kindness
- Limit negative media and news
- Compare yourself to who you were previously and not to others
- Make a gratitude collage
- Listen to motivational podcasts
- Read books on gratitude or books that inspire
- Appreciate the nature and beauty around you
- Maintain and strengthen healthy relationships
- Find someone in need and offer support even if small
- Make a gratitude jar or box
- Paint and leave gratitude rocks
- Recognize each day as a gift of opportunity
- Visualize what you want to manifest
Hopefully after reading this, you’ll be inspired and even a bit fascinated by how gratitude can have such a significant impact on mood, health, motivation, and relationships. I hope this Thanksgiving Day will be a bit different and the beginning of your own gratitude practice!