Throughout the holiday season, gratitude often surfaces as a topic of conversation. But how can it help improve our lives? And if we don’t currently have a practice of gratitude, how do we start?
An overwhelming amount of people (42%, according to the American Psychology Association) say they aren’t doing enough to manage their stress. When we are stressed, we often feel there’s a lack of control in our lives, a lack of meaning in what we are doing and an unrealistic demand on our resources. We’ve all felt it.
How can gratitude help with these things? Gratitude shifts attention away from stressors and helps focus on the positive aspects of life. And much like other healthy habits, the more you practice, the more grateful you are and the more natural it becomes.
As humans, we actually have the ability to rewire our brain. This amazing skill is called neuroplasticity. This means we can change a bad habit or think of a situation in a whole new light.
Imagine you’re going about your day as usual and all of a sudden, while you’re driving to work, traffic comes to a complete standstill. Your thoughts immediately come to a fork in the road and, by habit, veer down the negative path, thinking “I’m going to be late! My gas tank is almost empty. I don’t have time for this!”
If your brain’s typical pathway is on the negative path, this will be your go-to reaction for all bumps in the road – both large and small.
Now imagine finding the good in this situation: you get to spend a little more time with your teenager who’s hit the “too cool” stage. Maybe if traffic wasn’t backed up, you would have ended up in a car accident at the next stoplight. Or maybe if you would have made it to work on time, someone would have opened the kitchen door at the exact time you were walking out with your coffee and it spilled all over you. These small steps of thinking about the situation in a new way are cultivating gratitude and actually working on your brain’s neuroplasticity.
Once you keep training your brain to take the positive path when it gets to a fork in the road, eventually that will be your new go-to. Finding the light moments in the dark will be your new way of thinking.
The great news is: you don’t need to wait for the dark moments to start cultivating gratitude in your life. One easy way to practice gratitude is to keep a notebook and pen by your bed. Each morning when you wake up, write three things you’re grateful for. This can be anything from your family to the automatic timer on your coffee pot. This helps shift your perspective of the day to a positive one and starts the day off on the right foot. At the end of the day, write down the best part of your day. This helps you look back on your day, even if it was a particularly off one, and find something good. Even something as simple as, “I got soaked on my walk across the parking lot at work, but my co-worker held the door open for me when I got to the building” is helpful to recall at the end of the day.
Not much of a pen and paper person? (Or even a morning person.) Email yourself at the end of the day the three things that went well for the day and one thing you’re looking forward to tomorrow. That way when you open your email in the morning, there’s something positive to start the day off right and remind you of the good in the present day.
Rewiring your brain and focusing on gratitude not only helps you handle stress better, but it also has a lot of other health benefits too. It can strengthen your immune system, lower blood pressure, relieve aches and pains, reduce anxiety and even help you sleep better!
So this year as the topic of gratitude comes up with old friends over coffee or your family around the dinner table, share the good moments of your day and maybe even encourage others to begin their own gratitude practice as well!
Shannon Gwash is the Director of Wellness Services for Jefferson Center and is also a Certified Mayo Clinic Wellness Coach. She earned her MS from the University of Denver in Strategic Health Communications/Behavior Change. She has nearly 10 years of experience in the communication world and nearly three in parenting … which clearly makes her an expert there. To stay sane, she runs around Sloan’s Lake, hikes with her daughter, enjoys outdoor concerts and reads nerdy books.