Gratitude - A Skeptic's Guide

As I woke up this morning and stuck my arm out to switch the alarm off, the first thing I thought was that I was thankful to have a functioning arm attached to a working body that allows me to also live independently… I have no idea where that thought came from, other than the fact that since I have been practising daily gratitude, my thoughts are all generally much more positive.

Whereas once I might have thought, ‘look at my terrible nails’ as I first noticed them in my morning haze, now I am much more appreciative of where and how I am actually quite fortunate and the things that don’t really matter (terrible nails) take on a bit more perspective.

Before I go on, I want to clarify, I am not a new age, hippy, self-help guru or veteran… not by a long shot. In fact, in the past when people suggested I might like to practice daily gratitude, at a time when it felt like my life was crumbling around me, I smiled and appeared to agree but internally my thoughts were less appreciative of their suggestion and my mind was closed to the notion.

Over the past year though, I have been learning a lot about the brain and how it works through studying neuroscience and having learnt the research and science behind gratitude practice, including the benefits from it to mental and physical health, I decided to put my cynical thoughts aside and to give it a try.

Since then, I can honestly say, my mindset feels more positive…

Even when I am having a bad day or when life is weighing me down, my mind now will automatically notice something good in amongst the bad or I will catch a negative thought and counter balance it with something positive.

All of us struggle with negative mindsets at various points in life, particularly when we are dealing with mental health conditions, compulsive or obsessive behaviours or feeling less than adequate in ourselves.

My intention through this post is to persuade even the most cynical or skeptical amongst you to just give gratitude a try!

Using gratitude is a simple but incredibly powerful way to help create a more positive mindset and only involves taking a small amount of time each day to notice and label the things in life you are grateful for…. And I don’t expect you to just take my word for it (because I wouldn’t have!) but instead I will explain some research findings and a bit of the chemical neurobiology that happens inside the brain and body when we are grateful:

  • Gratitude practice shifts a negative mindset and emotions. It makes people happier. Forcing yourself to think of things you are grateful for removes your attention from negative aspects of life that you might otherwise be ruminating or obsessing over and it places your focus externally. Ruminating and obsessing over the good things in life instead creates a naturally more positive outlook!

  • Gratitude is a natural anti-depressant. When you practice gratitude (or receive it), your brain releases more of the chemicals: dopamine, serotonin and some of the naturally produced opioids which all instantly make you ‘feel good’. Serotonin makes you feel more relaxed and increases an inner sense of contentment while dopamine makes you feel that life is just more possible.

  • Stress and anxiety levels reduce when you practice gratitude because the act of being thankful causes your cortisol (the stress hormone) levels to reduce.

  • Being grateful improves relationships. As stress and anxiety levels improve and you express gratitude to or for others around you, it can have positive affects on your relationships, creating improvements in trust and loyalty.

  • Regular gratitude practice builds new brain pathways. Regular gratitude practice builds neural pathways in your brain that make you naturally calmer, more positive and motivated.

  • Gratitude can reduce the experience of physical pain. This is thought to be due to the release of dopamine which can positively impact on pain responses and how energised you feel.

  • Grateful people sleep better. A grateful brain, while being less stressed and anxious, will also activate the hypothalamus which is the brain region that regulates your sleep. Gratitude can make you sleep deeper and longer (and sleep in itself is crucial for brain and physical health!).

  • Research studies show that gratitude can improve your blood pressure, heart health and natural immunity.

  • Grateful people are found to be more optimistic, less materialistic, have better self-esteem and more compassion …. And if a person like that sounds a bit nauseating – perhaps that's because these are things you do really want for yourself?

For me, having learnt about gratitude and taken it up as a daily practice over the past six months, I can honestly say that I am a convert and so please don’t knock it until you have tried it!

The way you choose to practice gratitude is down to you and there are several methods to choose between.

Some people use a gratitude journal (and this is my preference), others write letters, have gratitude jars or do it as part of a wider mindfulness or meditation practice.

You might decide to just internally reflect each night before you go to sleep on what you have been grateful for that day, ensuring that you drift off in a positive state of mind.

Another way is to set an alarm on your phone to ‘take 5 for thankfulness’ and at a set time each day reflect for 5 minutes on what little things there are to feel good about, even when life is feeling otherwise less than perfect.

How you do it is up to you…

Gratitude practices can be written, spoken, sung or silent internal reflection. When you are starting out though, written methods or setting an alarm can be more valuable ways to ensure that the practice becomes a habit or else it can be all too easy to forget to be grateful after a busy and exhausting day.

As you start to regularly practice gratitude, you will find that your mind will begin to naturally pick up on things to be grateful for randomly throughout the day and that is when you know your mindset is really improving.

In drawing to a close, all I will say is that whether you do decide to practice gratitude is up to you (of course it is) but for such a simple habit that takes mere minutes each day, has no side effects but does have numerous impressive research backed benefits… can you afford not to give being grateful a go?

As a coach and mentor, I work with people who are overcoming eating disorders, disordered eating or low body confidence, enabling them to find freedom in body and mind to live a more full and happy life. If you are interested in knowing more about my service or booking some time with me, then please have a read of my website here and contact me if you want to know more.

To you, I am grateful for being here and reading my words.

Helly xx

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