Posted Thursday December 05, 2019 by Shannon Georgecink

By Allie Woodruff, LAPC

It seems like November and December are obvious months to practice gratitude, with Thanksgiving not far behind us and Christmas just around the corner. Yet many of us find ourselves jumping from one consumer holiday to another without taking the time to reflect on what we already have.  In fact, this tendency to skip over gratitude is displayed in our favorite stores, as Halloween decorations are taken down and replaced by twinkle lights and plastic snowmen.  We have a tendency to take Thanksgiving for granted, and we may also have a tendency to take gratitude for granted as well.  Gratitude is not only a great practice for November, but it’s a great practice year round.  It does so much for our bodies, minds, and souls.  It’s a positive felt sense of wonder and appreciation, an internal resource, and an emotional tie that binds us all together.  Let’s break down how positive emotion impacts our brain and how practicing gratitude, specifically, helps us improve our emotional well-being.

The difference between how negative emotions and positive emotions affect the brain: Lessons from a bear encounter

Barbara Fredrickson (2001), a researcher in the field of positive psychology, proposes that positive emotions have the power to simultaneously broaden our perspective and build internal resources we can tap into during times of distress.

Negative emotions do the opposite.

Let’s think about this for a moment and use a bear in the woods example to drive the point home.  Distressing emotions, like fear, create tunnel vision.  They limit our perspective.  For example, if we see a dangerous blob in the woods we think might be a bear, our brains and bodies respond to fear by saying, “HEY! run away from this bear, fight this bear (disclaimer: do not fight bears), or freeze and play dead!”  Our brain gives us limited information and our body’s stress response flies into action, so we can get to safety.  In fact, when we are experiencing distressing emotions, our brain is less likely to chime in with contradicting information.  Maybe it’s not a bear but a giant stump.  Wait this state doesn’t even have bears.  Priority one is safety, so the brain limits itself and becomes myopic.  When you’re distressed, you’re less likely to see possibility and more likely to limit your choices.  This is super useful during a bear encounter but very limiting in our everyday lives.

Positive emotions, like gratitude among others, do the exact opposite.  They broaden our perspective.  They neurologically allow us to see the big picture.  Our awareness is expanded and the world seems like a bigger, brighter place.  We may even feel a sense of belonging and purpose.  We can see the interconnectedness of things and how we play a role in spreading goodness (Fredrickson, 2001). The next time you feel happy; joyful; and/or grateful, take a moment and notice how broad your perspective becomes.  I bet you are seeing a lot of possibility in the world!  Experiencing and savoring positive emotion expands us and also becomes a wonderful memory we can access anytime we feel distressed.  It becomes an internal resource.

The impact of gratitude on the brain:

Gratitude is a positive emotion that not only broadens our perspective but also allows us to strengthen our social connections.  When we feel thankful for someone, we feel connected to him or her.  When we receive a gift or some kind words, we are more likely to give in return.  This is because practicing gratitude produces a neurotransmitter called dopamine.  Dopamine is the reward neurotransmitter, and our brains love dopamine!  We are neurologically rewarded for feeling gratitude and connecting with another person.  This means that gratitude is naturally reinforcing!  Gratitude begets gratitude, it strengthens our social bonds, and it can become an internal resource that we can tap into during times of stress.  Although Thanksgiving is a time of year we are reminded to be grateful, I encourage you to make gratitude a daily practice.  I even have some suggestions on how to get started!

Gratitude Practices:

Here are some ideas to help you practice gratitude in your daily life:

  • Write a gratitude letter to anyone you feel grateful for! This can be a former teacher you no longer speak to, a family member, a friend, or a pet.  The possibilities are endless.  Research suggests that you don’t even need to send the letter to get all the positive effects from expressing gratitude.
  • At the end of your day, either write down or reflect upon 5 good things that happened that day. They can range from the smallest act (maybe someone smiled at you right when you needed some kindness) to a big success and everything in between.  The key here is doing it on a daily basis.
  • Listen to some positive music and reflect about someone whom you are grateful for. Music is powerful and it can really evoke emotion.
  • When you say “Thank you” to someone be specific. Tell the person exactly what you are thankful for.  It’s much more personal and certainly more connecting to thank someone for a specific act versus mindlessly saying “thank you.”
  • Do things you enjoy. Joy is so important and often feeling joyful sparks other positive emotions like gratitude.

With all this said, the holidays can be very stressful for a variety of reasons.  Sometimes we need help dealing with life’s up and downs.  Therapy is not only a place to feel supported in our hard times, but it can also be a place where we feel supported in our good times.  Sometimes we need help to feel emotions like gratitude and see the possibility in our lives.  If you’re looking for support, consider reaching out and giving us a call: (404)-321-1794.