Being Grateful: Great for Our Mental Health
Updated: Oct 27, 2020
A few years ago, I was hit by the door of a truck while bicycling, and thrown from my bike onto the street, resulting in broken bones and other serious injuries. In hospital, I was told that I would need to keep my weight off one leg for several months and could walk only with the aid of a walker. This was a sudden and dramatic change that put me at home not working, and dependent on others to prepare meals, help me navigate stairs, dress and even bathe. Struggling with this loss of independence, a friend suggested I start writing a gratitude journal.
I wrote in the journal at the end of each day, focusing on what I could be grateful for and on the people who had supported me. Cultivating gratitude helped me to see the richness of what I had. It reminded me of the goodness in the world. It helped me accept that I could not do it all myself and that I needed the support of others. And it helped me appreciate what they did for me.
Gratitude is about being thankful for what we have. Our brain has a “negativity bias” which means our natural tendency is to focus on problems. When we take the time to think about and write down what we are grateful for, and we do this regularly-even for a short time-it can impact our physical and mental well being. In fact, people who practice gratitude regularly have better immune systems, lower blood pressure, and higher levels of positive emotions, to name a few benefits.
How Gratitude Works
Feeling gratitude activates areas of the brain associated with emotional processing, connecting with others, and taking their perspective. Robert Emmons, a Psychology professor at the University of California who has done extensive research on gratitude, talks about how gratitude works.
It allows us to actively celebrate what we have here and now. We notice the good things more and so get more pleasure out of life.
It helps block negative emotions, particularly envy, resentment, and regret. We can’t feel grateful and envious at the same time.
It allows us to be more resilient to stress because being grateful helps us keep perspective during challenging times.
It strengthens our sense of being connected to others. We see that we are not alone, we are supported by others. When we see that other people value us, this helps us feel good about ourselves.
Try writing for 15 minutes in a gratitude journal, two or three times a week. Do this for at least three weeks and see what changes you experience as a result. For tips on writing a gratitude journal, and for a quiz to see how grateful you are, go here https://ggia.berkeley.edu/practice/gratitude_journal
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