We’re living in unprecedented, challenging times. If you’re feeling stressed and scared, you’re not alone. However, there is a way to navigate through all of this uncertainty: gratitude. Studies have shown that keeping in mind the things you’re grateful for on a regular basis helps you not only mentally, but also physically, which is something we all need these days.
Gratitude Improves Your Immune System
According to Lisa Aspinwall, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of Utah, there’s data to back this up. In one study, researchers compared the immune systems of healthy, first-year law students who were under stress and characterized themselves as optimistic to their more pessimistic classmates. The former maintained a higher number of blood cells, which protect the immune system. Specifically, white blood cells, which are key players in your immune system and move through blood and tissue looking for foreign invaders (microbes) such as bacteria, viruses, parasites, and fungi. When they find them, they launch an immediate attack. Tip: The moment you notice that you’re appreciative of something – the sun is shining, the sky is blue, you have clean water to drink – stop and savor. Bask in the experience.
Gratitude Affects Your Brain
When you’re feeling appreciative, your brain wires and fires new neural connections to the bliss center and enhances dopamine and serotonin, the neurotransmitters responsible for happiness. Gratitude also reduces fear and anxiety by regulating the stress hormones, and it fosters cognitive restructuring by evoking positive thinking. Tip: When you’re eating, give thanks for the bounty before you. Make mealtimes mindful.
Gratitude Reduces Pain
In the research report, Count Blessings Versus Burdens (2003), patients who kept a gratitude journal reported reduced pain symptoms and were more inclined to work out and cooperate with the treatment procedure. A deeper dive revealed that by regulating the level of dopamine, gratitude fills us with more vitality, which reduced the subjective feelings of pain. Tip: Try keeping a journal. If you think you have nothing to be grateful for, think about all the little things you have. You might find that you’re taking for granted certain abilities or privileges you have that others don’t.
Gratitude Affects Sleep
Studies have shown that receiving and displaying simple acts of kindness activates the hypothalamus, and thereby regulates all bodily mechanisms controlled by the hypothalamus, one of which is sleep. The hypothalamic regulation by gratitude helps us get deeper and healthier sleep, naturally. Tip: Hold the door for a stranger. Let someone have that parking space you both came upon. Share that compliment that’s on the tip of your tongue. To give is to receive. You might just rest easier.
Gratitude Gets Rid of Toxic Emotions
The limbic system is the part of the brain that’s responsible for all emotional experiences. It consists of the thalamus, hypothalamus, amygdala, hippocampus, and cingulate gyrus. Research has shown that the hippocampus and amygdala, the two main sites regulating emotions, memory, and bodily functioning, get activated with feelings of gratitude. Specifically, what we call emotions or feelings are neural activations in the neocortical regions of the brain (Moll et al. 2005). Further, a study conducted on people who were looking for mental health guidance revealed that those who wrote letters of gratitude, in addition to having regular counseling, felt better and recovered sooner. In the other group, people who journaled about their negative feelings felt anxious and depressed. Tip: In addition to journaling, maybe there’s a letter you need to write to someone expressing how you feel, releasing a past hurt. The simple act of writing can be powerful. You don’t even have to send it to feel better.
Right now, when we’re faced with so many unknowns, staying present and giving thanks can do a world of good. Give it a try and see.