The Power of Gratitude: How does gratitude affect the brain?

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In a fast-paced world filled with stress, anxiety and discontent, the practice of gratitude offers a profound yet often overlooked path to mental well-being. Gratitude, when approached with sincerity and mindfulness, has the potential to rewire your brain, leading to lasting positive effects on your overall mental health. 

In this article, we will explore the concept of gratitude, look at the difference between thankfulness and gratitude, delve into its numerous benefits and understand the neurological underpinnings of how gratitude affects the brain. Additionally, we will discuss practical ways to incorporate gratitude into your daily life and explore how complementary practices like Sophrology can synergise with gratitude to enhance your mental well-being.

Gratitude vs. Thankfulness: Understanding the Difference

Gratitude is a multi-faceted emotion that goes beyond a simple acknowledgement of something positive. It is a deep and lasting feeling of appreciation and connection to people, aspects of your life and the world around you, even amidst challenges.  Oftentimes moments of genuine gratitude can catch you by surprise! True gratitude lingers within you, providing a lasting positive energy throughout the day and can have a profound impact on your daily life.

On the other hand, thankfulness is more specific and often involves expressing appreciation or saying “thank you” for something someone has done for you, such as holding a door open. It is automatic, in the moment, and often comes with an expectation of good manners. The emotion associated with thankfulness fades almost instantly after expressing it, like a transaction.

The Benefits of Gratitude for Mental Well-being

In essence, gratitude isn’t just a response to happiness; it’s a catalyst for happiness. Its influence on brain structure and function supports emotional regulation, sleep quality, stress resilience and mental well-being. Expressing gratitude reshapes our brain’s perception, promotes positive emotions and fosters a more content and fulfilled life. It serves as a powerful remedy to toxic negative emotions like envy, anger, resentment and regret, which all have the potential to affect our overall happiness. Negative emotions and gratitude simply cannot coexist as when you are genuinely grateful, any feelings of anger or resentment towards others become incompatible.

Let’s explore some of these advantages:

Emotional Regulation: Gratitude activates key emotional centres in the brain, such as the hippocampus and amygdala, which control emotions, memory and bodily functions. Studies have shown that individuals who express gratitude through practices like writing a gratitude journal experience better mental health outcomes and faster recovery compared to those who focus on negative experiences. Gratitude produces a feeling of long-lasting happiness and contentment (Zahn et al., 2007), the physiological basis of which lies at the neurotransmitter level, which we will look closer into further down. 

Improved Sleep: The relationship between gratitude and sleep is another intriguing aspect of its benefits. Studies show that acts of kindness and gratitude activate the hypothalamus, a brain region responsible for regulating various bodily functions, including sleep. Gratitude-induced hypothalamic activity promotes deeper and healthier sleep, resulting in refreshed mornings. Reduced stress and anxiety, both of which can disrupt sleep patterns, also contribute to this improvement in sleep, resulting in a more rested and rejuvenated mental state (Zahn et al., 2009).

Enhanced Resilience: Gratitude can also foster resilience, enabling individuals to better cope with life’s challenges and setbacks (Gloria & Steinhardt, 2016). When you are grateful for the resources and support you have, you develop a more positive outlook, which can help you bounce back from adversity and maintain mental well-being in the face of difficulties.

Reduce Stress: Practising gratitude helps reduce stress by decreasing cortisol levels, the stress hormone. Grateful individuals also exhibit better heart function and emotional resilience. By cultivating gratitude, you can build greater stress-coping skills and approach challenges with heightened awareness.

Anxiety and Depression Relief: Gratitude’s impact extends to managing anxiety and depression. It is associated with increased neural modulation in the prefrontal cortex, responsible for managing negative emotions. Keeping a gratitude journal or expressing gratitude verbally enhances empathy, self-esteem and positivity (Killen & Macaskill, 2015).

5 Ways to express gratitude

Now that we understand some of the advantages of gratitude for mental well-being, let’s explore practical ways to incorporate gratitude into our daily lives. Expressing genuine gratitude involves more than just saying “thank you.” Here are 5 ways to practice gratitude.

1. Be Specific: Think about what you are grateful for and why. What is it about the emotion this action conjures up? One of the most popular methods of expressing gratitude is keeping a gratitude journal. Each day, take a few minutes to write down three things you’re thankful for. These can be small moments of joy or significant achievements. Regular journaling trains your brain to seek out and focus on the positive aspects of your life.

2. Express Your Feelings: Use emotive language to communicate the impact what you are grateful for had on you. You can also incorporate gratitude into your mindfulness practice by taking a moment to reflect on the things you’re grateful for.

3. Avoid Rushing: Show that you value the person or specific aspect by dedicating time to acknowledge it. Taking the time to practice mindfulness and gratitude helps you become more aware of the present moment and encourages a deeper appreciation for life’s blessings.

4. Be Humble: Focus on the person or thing you’re grateful for rather than making it about yourself – this adds to the authenticity of your appreciation.

5. Be YOU: Speak from your heart and genuinely mean what you say. 

What Happens in the Brain When We Express Gratitude?

Gratitude produces a feeling of long-lasting happiness and contentment. This is because when we express gratitude and receive the same, our brain releases dopamine and serotonin, the two neurotransmitters responsible for regulating our mood and behaviour. 

A surge of dopamine gives you a natural high, creating good feelings that motivate you to repeat specific behaviours, including expressing gratitude even more. Serotonin can lead to improved emotional resilience, a more stable mood and reduced feelings of depression and anxiety.

Understanding how gratitude affects the brain is crucial because it helps explain why practising gratitude can become a habit. The brain craves the pleasurable feelings associated with gratitude, encouraging us to seek out and acknowledge positive experiences and connections.

1. Dopamine: Often referred to as the “feel-good” neurotransmitter, dopamine plays a significant role in the brain’s reward and pleasure pathways. When you experience something rewarding or pleasurable, dopamine is released, creating a sense of enjoyment and motivation. Low levels of dopamine are associated with feelings of apathy, low energy and lack of motivation—common symptoms of depression.

How Gratitude Influences Dopamine: Expressing gratitude triggers the brain’s reward system, leading to the release of dopamine. When you acknowledge and appreciate positive experiences, relationships or even small daily wins, your brain responds by releasing dopamine. This boost in dopamine can contribute to an improved mood, increased motivation and a greater sense of pleasure.

2. Serotonin: Another neurotransmitter that plays a crucial role in mood regulation, emotions and overall well-being is serotonin. Adequate levels of serotonin are associated with feelings of happiness, relaxation and emotional stability. Low serotonin levels are linked to mood disorders, including depression and anxiety.

How Gratitude Influences Serotonin: Gratitude can stimulate the release of serotonin in a similar way to how it influences dopamine. Engaging in gratitude practices helps your brain recognise positive experiences and activates pathways that result in increased serotonin production. This can lead to improved emotional resilience, a more stable mood and reduced feelings of depression and anxiety.

It’s important to note that while gratitude can contribute to the production of dopamine and serotonin, the effects might not be as immediate or as potent as those of medications prescribed for depression. Gratitude practices should be seen as a complementary strategy to overall mental health management. They can help create positive changes in brain chemistry over time, fostering a more positive outlook and enhancing overall well-being.

However, individuals with clinical depression might require a combination of strategies, including professional therapy and, in some cases, medication, to effectively manage their condition. Gratitude practices can be a valuable addition to these approaches, promoting a more positive mindset and potentially contributing to improvements in brain chemistry that support emotional well-being.

Sophrology and Gratitude

Sophrology and gratitude share common ground in promoting emotional balance and inner peace. The relaxation techniques in Sophrology can help you become more attuned to your emotions, making it easier to experience and express gratitude genuinely. Additionally, Sophrology can provide a soothing foundation upon which to build gratitude practices, making it easier to integrate gratitude into your daily life.

To integrate Sophrology and gratitude, consider starting your gratitude sessions with a brief Sophrology exercise. This can help you enter a relaxed and receptive state, making your gratitude practice more profound. Conversely, you can conclude your Sophrology sessions with a gratitude reflection, reinforcing positive emotions before returning to your daily activities.

Conclusion

In a world filled with challenges and distractions, cultivating gratitude is a powerful tool for enhancing mental well-being. The neuroscience behind gratitude reveals its profound impact on the brain’s reward system, stress response and emotional regulation. Scientific research consistently supports the benefits of gratitude, including improved mood, reduced anxiety, enhanced resilience and better sleep.

Practising gratitude is not only achievable but also highly accessible through techniques like journaling, mindfulness practices and simple acts of kindness. When combined with complementary practices like Sophrology, individuals can experience a synergistic boost in their mental well-being, creating a positive ripple effect in their lives and the lives of those around them. In the pursuit of mental health and happiness, gratitude stands as a testament to the profound potential of a simple, yet transformative, practice.

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