The older I get, the more I have come to the realization that the holidays are not a time of joy for a lot of adults. If this is a commonality between many who I love, then I imagine that this is the truth beyond my immediate social network. The holidays can expose toxic family dynamics that we did not know to exist as children, further separate folks from families that they never felt part of to begin with, drain necessary bank accounts, and generally trigger feelings of anxiety, sadness, and loneliness. The *modern* Thanksgiving holiday is all about actively recounting what we have to be grateful for (Who knew that it isn’t about spending money!?). The research tells us that practicing gratitude, particularly when it is hardest to do so, comes with numerous mental wellness benefits. You see, there is a difference between being thankful and being grateful. When we are thankful, we are just consciously aware of another person’s actions. So if someone allows you to cut in front of them while you are reading this article in a coffee shop line, you are merely exercising polite behavior by thanking them. But being grateful and expressing gratitude involves reflection and is a purposeful practice. Below are just a few of the mental wellness benefits of practicing gratitude – hopefully, what you learn about these benefits can be carried to your upcoming holiday celebrations and beyond.
Gratitude emphasizes focus on the present rather than the future or past.
Over the last year or so, gratitude is something that I have become fascinated with both in my professional and personal life – maybe because I was so clearly lacking it and did not realize until I was forced to. Nonetheless, after going through what seemed like endless trials and tribulations at my last job, I finally came to the understanding that I was destroying my mental and physical health by not practicing gratitude in my present moments. I was so tightly wound about yesterday and tomorrow that I did not enjoy the moment that I was actively living in. My obsession with gratitude lead to me stumbling across Robert Emmons, one of the leading researchers on the topic. He has taught me that positive emotions generally have a short life span, and that the human mind is always craving something new. Practicing gratitude is a way to appreciate the value of something and therefore reap more benefits of it.
Gratitude sends positive signals to your body before you even receive something you are grateful for.
If you have not watched the documentary called HEAL on Netflix yet, I definitely suggest squeezing that into your self-care time and tuning in. As dramatic as it may sound, this documentary completely changed my life and was one of the catalysts to making gratitude part of my being. It was around the time when my mental and physical health were in crisis mode that I watched this documentary. There is a part where Dr. Joe Dispenza speaks about people normally giving thanks when they receive something. You know, “Wow, thank you for that loan that I’ve been needing to make my car payment” or “Thank you [God, the universe, etc.] for allowing me to wake up today without joint pain again”. In turn, our body believes that it is receiving something because of the emotional signature of gratitude. This then cues neurotransmitters like dopamine to be released throughout the body and we feel lighter, happier. Between the months of November of last year and March of this year, I had 3 of the exact same emergency surgeries – one of them sent me to the ER with a fever of over 103. I knew that the culprit was stress, fatigue, and anxiety. Something in my head clicked quicker than I could fathom and after that final surgery, I started to talk to myself using more grateful language. Dr. Dispenza asks viewers what would happen if we practiced gratitude before even receiving anything – if our bodies respond to the emotional signature of gratitude, how about we use this to our advantage? What I was doing was very similar to manifesting. Since March, I have not had another major health issue. Have I rid myself of stress and anxiety completely? Absolutely not, especially not someone like me who has an anxious baseline. Do I still become sad, frustrated, angry, upset, and overwhelmed? Of course, because I am human. The difference is that I have started training my body not to react so heavily to those negative cues by highlighting the positives.
Gratitude blocks negative emotions.
When you feel grateful, it is difficult to simultaneously feel emotions such as anger, envy, and regret. That is because gratitude literally blocks negative emotions. Studies show us that the amygdala and the hippocampus, the two main sites regulating emotions, memory, and bodily functioning in the brain, get activated with feelings of gratitude. This means wins like better cardiac functioning, more resilience to emotional setbacks and negative experiences, and significant reductions in anxiety and depression. Overall, ‘good’ hormones are triggered with gratitude and the result? An increase in happiness physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.
I did mention that gratitude involves reflection and is a purposeful practice, meaning that the act of gratitude takes time to learn and incorporate regularly. I would like to leave readers with 2 ways that I began to introduce gratitude into my life. One way was through making daily gratitude lists – some folks write down their lists, while I tend to meditate and make mental lists. These lists are usually made either when you wake up or before you go to sleep. I make mine in the morning because that is when my anxiety tends to kickstart. When I allow myself an extra few moments to make a mental checklist of what I am feeling grateful for, I find myself starting the day with less anxious energy and more calm, optimistic energy. A concept called radical acceptance in conjunction with gratitude has also contributed to the decrease of my overall anxiety. A boss woman named Marshan Linehan, the developer of dialectical behavior therapy, coined the term radical acceptance through her treatment model. Radical acceptance is the act of accepting that something has happened or what is currently happening. Fighting the reality only intensifies our emotional reactions and blocks us from attempting to change the situation. Radical acceptance is purely about reducing our personal pain, especially in situations where we are not ready or able to forgive. Even as a professional in the mental health field, I am still actively learning better and more effective ways to take care of my own mental health – and I must say, I am extremely grateful for that opportunity.