“It’s not happiness that brings us gratitude. It’s gratitude that brings us happiness.” Anonymous
Gratitude is an expression of appreciation for someone or something about ourselves, others, life. Practicing gratitude spared me from a life of darkness when I experienced a personal mental health crisis after the death of my daughter Jasmine. Jasmine was shot to death, in my home, in front of my then 8 year old son Jordan. Losing Jasmine, the nature of her death and the consequences to my son were devastating. The pain, sadness, rage, anxiety and hopelessness I experienced was so severe it led me to seriously consider and contemplate ending my life, for many months. However, I couldn’t even imagine the pain my death would cause my son and eventually the idea of of leaving him became a ‘no, never mind’. I would never do anything to harm him. I had to let it go and face the reality of living life. But how? How could I tolerate a life of misery and despair? That’s when I discovered the practice of gratitude. It wasn’t easy at first. It took me an enormous amount of effort to be grateful. I started with simple things, like being able to take a hot shower. Gradually, over time, my thoughts and feelings of gratitude led to a new perspective on life and a happier, healthier version of me. Gratitude helped me to appreciate that it’s not what happens to us, but rather, it’s how we interpret or think about what happens to us that influences the breadth, depth and persistence of our thoughts, feelings and behaviours.
Thoughts Affect the Structure and Function of Our Brain
What we think and how we think, affects our brain at a molecular level, changes the structure and function of our brain, and consequently affects our physical and mental health. In each and every moment our brain is reacting and changing in response to the thoughts we are having. Just thinking about something, anything, causes our brain to release chemicals, known as neurotransmitters that communicate within the brain and with the rest of the body. These brain chemicals control everything our body does. As a thought travels through the brain, neurochemicals act in specific ways based based on the information being received and processed. Every thought we have causes alterations to our brain, some of these are temporary, others can be long lasting. What we think, quite literally changes our brain.
Negative thoughts cause the same response we experience when facing actual danger. Our brains don’t distinguish between negative thoughts and real danger. When we experience stressful thoughts or events, a chain reaction is initiated by an area of the brain called the amygdala which sends a signal to another region, the hypothalamus. Both of these brain regions are involved with the experiencing of emotions. The hypothalamus acts as a command centre. It communicates with the rest of the body via the nervous system to ensure we have the energy to fight or flee. Our flight or fight response is a reaction that occurs in response to a perceived threat. A burst of energy is created to overcome the stressful situation. This response is designed to ensure our survival. Stress hormones such as adrenaline (epinephrine) and norepinephrine are released. These hormones cause increased heart rate, deeper intake of oxygen and heighten all of our senses. They help us move fast in an emergency by increasing alertness, focus, concentration, decision making and response time. The hormone cortisol is also released. Cortisol helps to restore the energy used during the fight or flight response. When the stressful event is over stress hormones usually return to normal with no lasting effects.
When we experience chronic or toxic stress there is a build-up of cortisol in the brain which can have long-term negative consequences. In this situation we make more cortisol than we are able to release. Increased levels cause increased inflammation and erode our brain’s ability to function properly. It takes a toll on adrenal glands causing fatigue, memory loss, brain fog, anxiety and worry. The levels of critical brain chemicals like serotonin and dopamine can be affected. This causes a disruption, potentially resulting in various symptoms associated with mental illness. Free radicals are produced and kill brain cells and brain size is reduced. The prefrontal cortex shrinks resulting in impaired cognitive functions. As a result problem solving, critical thinking, spontaneity, memory, language, initiation, judgement, impulse control, social and sexual behaviour can be impaired. The size of the amygdala increases and predisposes the brain to be in a constant state of fight or flight. It remains in a state of heightened alert, always on the lookout for danger. Deep restful sleep is prevented. A vicious cycle of fear and anxiety is created.
What Can Gratitude Do?
Gratitude is an expression of deep appreciation for someone or something. It is the quality of being thankful-the acknowledgement of goodness in one’s life. Expressing gratitude shifts our brains focus to what we have, as opposed to what we don’t have, to what is good, as opposed to what is bad. Gratitude causes a surge of rewarding or pleasure inducing brain chemicals, like dopamine and serotonin. These have an opiate like effect without the harmful impact. Dopamine improves motivation, energy, memory, cognitive functioning, attention, and creativity. Serotonin helps regulate mood, social behaviour, sleep, appetite, memory and sexual drives. Research studies suggest that gratitude reduces the stress hormone cortisol and thus mitigates the harmful effects of stress. The benefits of practising gratitude include improved resilience, increased relaxation, more happiness, improved sleep, increased energy, reduced pain, increased self-esteem, enhanced decision making, productivity, mood, optimism and overall health and well-being.
Once you start seeing things to be grateful for, your brain starts looking for more things to be grateful for. Your brain becomes abundance oriented. The full benefits of practicing gratitude take time. Gratitude involves practice like any skill. Studies have shown that practicing gratitude can have long lasting effects on the brain. Gratitude literally changes the brain’s molecular structure. Gratitude is a simple, effective practice for stimulating feelings of happiness.
Try these simple steps for becoming more grateful.
1. Notice your life from a perspective of gratitude and recognize the goodness you tend to take for granted.
2. Keep a daily gratitude journal. Note at least 3 things you are thankful for.
3. Each day tell someone, something you appreciate about them.
4. Each day think about something you have done well or something you like about yourself.
“Acknowledging the good that you already have in your life is the foundation for all abundance.” Eckhart Tolle