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Practicing Gratitude, Re-wiring Your Brain

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Laura Martinez, Director of PsychoNeuroPlasticity

Untitled-2 We have countless opportunities for experiencing gratitude every minute of the day. The smell of morning coffee, the smile from a stranger at the grocery store, the light wind that brushes our face as we walk, or the kind laughter of a co-worker. I am not speaking of the mechanical gratitude that comes from our robotic “thank yous’” in which we have been trained to say since childhood. Instead, I mean the deep rooted appreciation and thank you that comes from the heart. I speak of the gratitude that moves us emotionally. The type of gratitude that becomes a character trait in a person that practices it regularly.

Gratitude is an important pillar to a positive mindset and mental health. In fact, neuroscientists are actually able to measure gratitude in the brain.  In a study done by the National Institutes of Health, subjects that displayed more gratitude had higher levels of blood flow to the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus is the center where all of our essential hormones are made. These hormones are associated with sleep, activity level, metabolism, and mood. Higher activity in this area has been shown to boost happiness and lower stress levels. Sounds like a win-win right? The icing on the cake is that the more gratitude a person shows and feels internally, the more the nucleus accumbens releases dopamine. Dopamine is considered the “feel good” neurotransmitter that motivates the most powerful reward system in the brain. Scientist, Philip Waters, also found that depressed individuals showed 50 percent lower levels of gratitude when compared to the control group.

Want more happiness in your life? Here are simple ways to increase your internal gratitude meter:

  • Create a gratitude journal and add one entry on a daily basis on what you are grateful for. This allows for conscious contact with gratitude.
  • Every morning look into the mirror and find things about yourself that you are grateful for. Extra points here for working the self-compassionate neuropathways.
  • Take some time to be in nature. Examine your surroundings. Practice finding the little things in nature that add gratitude to your heart.
  • If you have a pet, spend time with your pet with no distractions (checking your phone is not allowed) and experience the gratitude you feel for this pet in your heart center.
  • Close your eyes and pay full mindfulness to one particular item/person/philosophy/memory you are grateful for in your life. Allow the emotion from this to rise within. Sit with this emotion and notice what happens in your body when the full feeling of gratitude is welcomed.
  • Pick a person each day and tell them why you are grateful for them in your life. Extra points if you can leave this message anonymously, altruism also increases happiness in the amygdala area of the brain.

 

Gratitude is definitely a powerful skill to take up- you may just end up re-wiring your brain to positive neuropathways along the way. Perhaps the factors in our lives that lead us to negativity and gloom may be seen in a different light after practicing gratitude for a just a few minutes a day. The influence of gratitude allows us to look at the positives in life first. You may catch yourself saying things such as “I may have just gotten a flat tire, but good thing I did not get hurt.” It is possible that you may also start to interpret obstacles that start off as “negatives” as great teachers in your life and even feel gratitude for these teachers in the end. Start and end your days with thoughts of gratitude and see your life transform around you.