Cultivating gratitude and a readiness to show appreciation is an important skillset for weathering stressful periods. Whatever the ultimate outcome of the stressor, the task of persevering through these hard times is always to recommit yourself to your own internal healing. Without that, there can be no real lasting peace.
Expressing gratitude is one way of committing to this internal healing, turning away from the brain’s natural bias for prioritizing negative emotional information and instead looking for the rose among the thorns.
Why you should practice gratitude, especially if you don't want to...
Unfortunately, we’re likely to hear about the need to be grateful from others because they’re either annoyed by our feelings or don’t know what else to do.
The advice itself is sound, but the way it’s communicated – “Just be grateful for what you have” – diminishes the significance of the difficult feelings and is used to brush them aside. This then has the opposite effect of increasing emotional distress.
Cultivating gratitude in your life does not minimize the difficulties that are there.
Let’s instead look at practicing gratitude because you have difficult feelings that need acknowledgement and healing, instead of practicing despite them.
This is a gift to yourself in the following ways, not a thoughtless platitude thrown in your face.
Gratitude soothes the heart
Stress increases your heart rate and blood pressure to prepare you for action.
Ongoing distress, however, keeps the heart in a constant state of tension. This is why you may notice difficulty sleeping, chest tightness, headaches and upset stomach.
Gratitude activates the “tend and befriend” response to stress instead of “fight or flight.”
The tend and befriend response reduces distress by signaling nurturing activities designed to protect the self and others instead of reducing distress by fighting or fleeing (Taylor et al., 2000)
When we practice an attitude of thankfulness and appreciation, we are directly nurturing three relationships:
- Our relationship with ourselves
- Our relationship with others
- Our relationship with the community or world
Building these emotional connections releases oxytocin and other natural painkillers, which lower heart rate and decrease the strength of its contractions (Shao, 2014; Holden & Jeong, 2005).
This means that gratitude not only reduces feelings of disconnection and isolation, but also protects the heart from the effects of prolonged anxiety, depression, and trauma.
Gratitude soothes the brain
Stress increases the production of the “stress hormone” cortisol by the kidneys.
Cortisol helps kick the body into action, but over-exposure to it through chronic stress can be toxic. It can lead to a persistent vulnerability to mental health problems that can persist after the an initial stressor has ended (Chetty et al., 2014).
Gratitude reduces stress hormones in the brain.
When we think about someone or something we really appreciate, and experience the positive feelings that goes with those thoughts, the brain receives signals to stop the production of cortisol and increase more “feel good” chemicals like dopamine and serotonin.
This soothes the brain’s overactive scanning for threats and signs that things are not well, and also protects against the cognitive decline associated with chronic high levels of cortisol.
Practicing gratitude can mean the difference between carrying the full weight of your current struggles on your back and setting that boulder down and rolling it where you’d like to go. It doesn’t make the problems disappear, but helps them feel more manageable.
Here are some ways of integrating gratitude into your life:
1. Gratitude Journal
Commit to a consistent daily practice where you have uninterrupted time to reflect on good things that have happened to you. Be as detailed as you can in recording what you remember about the particular subject. Some general prompts include writing about…
- A favorite happy memory
- Unique personality traits in yourself
- A cherished friend
- An enjoyable place you’ve been
- Personal skills, abilities, or talents
- Sounds / sights / scents / tastes / sensations you appreciate
- Someone who has possibly affected your life
- Personal accomplishments you’re proud of
- A mentor, teacher, or coach
- A beloved pet
- A family member
- Holidays, anniversaries, or traditions
It’s normal for this to feel forced and awkward because you’re working against a neurological bias for prioritizing negative emotional information.
Make the journaling a positive experience in itself that you look forward to rather than a chore. Consider some of the following for making it an enjoyable experience:
- Make the space in which you write an enjoyable place to be
- Make a cup of tea/coffee/hot chocolate
- Listen to pleasant music or sounds
- Use a special pen with a colored ink you enjoy (if you’re typing, consider a nice font)
- Use a high-quality paper or special journal
- Decorate your journal with drawings or photos
- Create a special place for your journal where it will be in your awareness
2. Expressing Appreciation and Thankfulness
Make a list of the people who are important in your life, even if they’re someone with whom you’re currently having some difficulties.
Identify qualities and attributes about them that you appreciate and have positively affected your life.
Click here for a list of adjectives that can describe the important people in your life.
Then write a short note about instances in which that person exemplified each of the qualities you identified.
Once your gratitude list is completed, start writing small thank you notes to each of the people for the qualities you’ve identified and the instances in which you noticed them. You may also choose to tell them to the person directly.
The notes or verbal communication can be as short as you want, but make sure they are focused on sending a message of gratitude and that your message reaches them.
Keeping it going
Both of these exercises approach gratitude differently. The journal is more for your personal, individual benefit in how you are mentally connecting to people, places, and situations you are grateful for. Expressing appreciations is more deliberately interpersonal, directly putting you in the position of relying upon and enhancing social and emotional connections.
Commit to a practice for at least two weeks and then evaluate its impact on your life. If it’s brought any positivity, sense of connection, decreased feelings of isolation, appreciation, or improvements in important relationships, delight in this feeling and consider recommitting to a longer practice.
Disclaimer: I am a licensed therapist, but I might not be your therapist and this article does not create a therapist-client relationship. This article contains mental health material for informational use only and should not be seen as therapeutic advice. You should consult with a therapist or other appropriate professional before you rely on this information. I reserve the right to change the information contained within this blog at any time and am not liable for any damages that may result from its use.
Chetty S, Friedman AR, Taravosh-Lahn K, et al. Stress and glucocorticoids promote oligodendrogenesis in the adult hippocampus. Mol Psychiatry. 2014;19(12):1275‐1283. doi:10.1038/mp.2013.190
Holden, J. E., Jeong, Y., Forrest, J.M. (2005) The endogenous opioid system and clinical pain management. AACN Clin Issues, 16(3), 291-301. doi: 10.1097/00044067-200507000-00003
Shao H, Zhou MS (2014) Cardiovascular Action of Oxytocin. J Autacoids 3:e124. doi: 10.4172/2161-0479.1000e124
Taylor, S. E., Klein, L. C., Lewis, B. P., Gruenewald, T. L., Gurung, R. A. R., & Updegraff, J. A. (2000). Biobehavioral responses to stress in females: Tend-and-befriend, not fight-or-flight. Psychological Review, 107(3), 411–429. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-295X.107.3.411