Gratitude and your brain
Can you believe it’s August already? Time flies….when there’s chaos all around you. With so many people spending much of this year in crisis mode, it may seem as if days all blur into each other and feel as if you lose track of time easily. Many may find that their lives are actually busier now than they were before the pandemic due to trying to find new work-life balance while working from home, navigating schooling for children, or taking on more tasks such as increased cleaning routines. This constant busy-ness may make you feel as if time is rushing by. Conversely, some do find that their perception of time feel slower, which is more common for people who live alone or who have been feeling bored or increasingly isolated. Regardless, it’s a known issue that quarantine can alter your perception of time. Kind of weird, right?
This phenomenon can cause quite a bit of stress, confusion as days blend together, and even brain fog or difficulty concentrating. So, how do help yourself to stay present? How do you orient yourself to each day and pay attention to what is going on in a purposeful way? Additionally, how do you ensure that you feel connected with others in meaningful ways? Especially if you are finding yourself busier at home, more stressed, and maybe more irritable with family and loved ones? How do you keep yourself from becoming resentful or frustrated during this time? All good questions! And, they all have one potential common solution.
The answer is: Gratitude. Now, I’m not going to tell you to try to be grateful that you aren’t in a worse situation or anything like that. That’s silly, and that falls in line with the toxic positivity discussion we had previously. I am however going to tell you how focusing on gratitude rewires your brain though, and explain why this is different than toxic positivity. Remember that toxic positivity essentially rejects anything negative or unpleasant and adopts a forced positive perspective, which is harmful. Gratitude is different. Gratitude says “yes, this is difficult. But one good thing still happened today.” Gratitude does not seek to ignore or hide or move the unpleasant situation, but rather to find something however small that still gives hope or comfort.
Here is a very simple exercise you can start today. I usually recommend that people do this at dinner time or just before bed, when they have had enough experiences of the day to reflect upon. If you live with family or roommates, make a commitment to do this together each evening for about 15 minutes and this will help to increase a sense of connection as well. First, identify something you were grateful for today. Now the key is – it doesn’t have to be anything huge! It can be that you had a great cup of coffee, or that it didn’t rain (or if you’re a pluviophile; that it *did* rain). It can be something funny you saw on tv or a great meme you saw on the internet. It can be an interaction at work or with friends or family. Anything you genuinely enjoyed or are thankful for, however big or small it may be, is perfect. From there, spend 5-10 mins in quiet reflection and just think about why you were grateful for this. Did it make you smile? Did you feel connected? Was it warm or pleasant or comforting? Think about how your day was enriched by this one moment….even if it was truly just a quiet few minutes with a good cup of coffee. Then, if you are with others be sure to share your thoughts with them and take some time to listen to their reflections as well.
That’s it! Simple right? Make a commitment for do to this everyday for two weeks, and see how you feel at the end of that time. The reason for this is that it takes about 10 days to begin to re-train our brains. And here’s the amazing part – spending just a few minutes in gratitude at the end of each day does in fact re-train our brains not only to notice aspects which make you feel happier more often, but to notice them first! And, those aspects will actually feel stronger than negative aspects as well. Focusing on gratitude is in essence a form of resiliency training, which can help you continue to cope as this pandemic progresses.
Gratitude has some surprising benefits. This practice can help you to feel more psychologically calm and more present in the moment, can help with improving physical responses to discomfort and even lowering blood pressure, and can improve social connection as well through strengthening empathy and communication skills. So incorporating this one small practice into your daily routine can really have lasting effects overall!
But why does this happen? Interestingly, practicing gratitude actually alters the neurochemicals produced in your brain. It generates the creation of dopamine and serotonin, which in turn causes feelings of happiness. It lowers stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, creating more feelings of calm. It also creates new pathways and connections in the brain which then function to create a tendency for our brain to relate to experiences in more positive ways. Additionally, practicing gratitude increases the propensity to engage more socially and feel more closely connected to those we engage with. But there’s even more to it than that – practicing gratitude can have profound effects on physical well-being precisely because of the areas of the brain which are activated. This includes improved sleep, healthier cardiac rhythms, and may reduce inflammation as well.
Isn’t your brain incredible? This process – the act of intentionally practicing something which then changes the way your brain functions – is an example of neuroplasticity, or brain’s ability to create and strengthen new connections. So while it may seem like a very simple activity so spend 10-15 minutes in gratitude each day, over time it can add up to really big benefits for you overall.
In addition to the activity provided above, you could also consider keeping a gratitude journal or writing each thing you are thankful for on a piece of paper and putting in a jar to save. This way, after this time period has passed, you will be able to look through it and review all of the memories of small parts of each day that you felt thankful for. It might be quite a keepsake one day!
Go ahead and start today – what are you grateful for?