Three Ways to Use Gratitude to Improve Your Mental Health
Our brains are quite remarkable. They are constantly evolving as we are learning and as we are unlearning. Neuronal connections become stronger as we learn a new skill and weaken as we decide to stop a behavior.
Consider those piano lessons you might have taken as a child. You may have been able to play an advanced song or two back when you were taking the lessons but, could you still play that song today? If not, we can assume that you quit practicing and your brain is now using that space to store other knowledge.
Changing our brain by strengthening or weakening neuronal connections requires us to change our focus and then to keep that focus shifted over time. The good news is that shift in focus can begin with simply focusing on a feeling you would like to feel more often. Scientists now know that feelings can have a positive or negative impact on our physical state of being.
Gratitude is a great feeling to practice this shift in focus. Feeling grateful is now known to have many positive effects. One study showed that focusing on gratitude in a written daily journal created “…greater increases in determination, attention, enthusiasm, and energy…” Another study showed that even weekly writing in a journal improved optimism, positively changed people’s exercise and reduced physical complaints.
#1 – Write in a journal at least once a week
Gratitude has also been shown to help decrease symptoms of depression. Depression is a symptom of Betrayal Trauma.
In one study, the researchers evaluated people who showed more gratitude in their lives. These people were found to have better sleep quality. Sleeping better is going to help improve the quality of our day in a variety of ways.
#2 – As you end your day, find three things that you are grateful for and notice how long you can hold onto that gratitude.
The National Institute of Health completed a study where they evaluated individual’s blood flow while they were feeling gratitude. The study found that the hypothalamus had more reactivity when the subjects were feeling grateful. The hypothalamus not only controls essential body functions, it also greatly impacts your metabolism and stress levels. Its job is to keep everything running smoothly!
In another study, researchers found that the chemical dopamine was increased. You may know that this is the “feel good” good chemical. It actually performs another task remarkably well. It causes us to want to do something that felt good again. So, if the focus is shifted to gratitude and we can hold on to it we will want to feel grateful again. This will strengthen our ability to move away from the emotions that have a negative effect on our body.
#3 – Take a daily picture of something you are grateful for and look at the picture throughout the day to help your brain move towards the feeling of gratitude.
I find that when I look back on my morning or my day I first move towards what went wrong, what I didn’t find the time to do, what irritated me and so on.
It often takes me a minute to remember the little things that created a feeling of gratitude – two green lights on my morning commute, a laugh with a colleague, an amazing sunset, or a previously unseen Diet Coke in the fridge. Taking a quick photo allows me to reexamine my day visually through the lens of gratitude. Researchers have found that visual cues not only allow us to remember information better but also to retrieve that memory more readily.
Let me end with what I am grateful for today. My first session was with a couple where both had a significant trauma history. They were hurting for reasons they knew and hurting for reasons yet to come to the surface. They were both willing to look inside and see what they could do to help heal what was hurting. They knew their relationship had broken parts and they also knew that neither was willing to disconnect and not work on healing the broken parts.
I was grateful to see their courage, their determination and their love for each other. I am grateful to be a witness to their stories. I am grateful to know that broken places in relationships heal.