By Taylor Davis

Everyone can agree that gratitude is a good thing. It keeps us humble and focused on what we have rather than what we lack. It can help prevent indulgence, entitlement and negligence.

Not only is gratitude a positive virtue that helps build these character traits, but it also can lead to many mental and physical health benefits. Particularly for individuals who deal with anxiety and depression, incorporating acts of gratitude into daily life can help alleviate some of the side effects of these illnesses.

How Does Gratitude Affect the Brain?

Thank You note and daisiesThe brain’s natural home base is negativity, meaning more memory is devoted to negative events than positive ones. While this structure was meant to protect us, we need to use neuroplasticity, or the malleability of neural circuits, to change this thinking.1,2

Practicing gratitude is one way to do this because it activates the hypothalamus, which is the part of the brain that regulates critical bodily functions like sleep, temperature, appetite, metabolism and growth. Gratitude makes it possible for our bodies to continue operating as they should. Additionally, it increases levels of dopamine in the brain, which can result in a natural high. Dopamine makes us want to reach these good feelings again, thereby motivating us to pursue more kindness and gratitude.3

A team of researchers at Indiana University completed a study with a group of 43 subjects who suffered from anxiety or depression. Half of the subjects were assigned a gratitude exercise and half were not. Three months later, brain scans indicated that those who completed the gratitude tasks showed more gratitude-related brain activity than the others. This suggests that the self-perpetuating nature of practicing gratitude allows for long-lasting positive mental health benefits.4

What Does this Mean for Physical and Mental Health?

By activating the hypothalamus, the practice of gratitude can lead to many positive mental and physical health benefits, including higher-quality sleep, decreased pain, reduced stress and increased energy.3

Physical Benefits

Because the hypothalamus controls sleep, when it’s activated, we can fall asleep more quickly and deeply, which can lead to greater mental clarity and a stronger immune system. In addition, a 2003 study found that 16 percent of physically ill subjects who kept gratitude journals experienced reduced symptoms and 10 percent of these subjects experienced decreased pain levels.3

Practicing gratitude can also lead to decreased stress, which can then result in better heart rates and lower blood pressure. For example, a 2007 study required patients with hypertension to count their blessings once a week and found that blood pressure could decrease by 10 percent.3

Mental Benefits

Ultimately, practicing gratitude can have a positive impact on those who suffer from anxiety and depression. Another study engaged anxious and depressed subjects in a gratitude letter writing experiment and saw changes in their medial prefrontal cortices, as well as stronger abilities to manage negative emotions and increased willingness to help and show kindness to others.3

By keeping negative emotions in check and focusing on positive relations with others, people struggling with these illnesses can reduce the overall impact of anxiety and depression on their lives.

Small Steps Toward Gratitude

There are several small ways you can incorporate gratitude into your daily life that can have long-lasting effects. The most common approach is keeping a gratitude journal to document the things in life you appreciate. You can start by filling out your journal once a week and build up to daily entries. And there’s no limit to what you can be grateful for. You might challenge yourself to come up with a new thing every day so you are more in-tune with positivity in your life. There are no real guidelines when it comes to journaling: write what you feel and let your words on paper be embedded in your brain.

Other ways you can make gratitude a priority include: sitting in a quiet place and focusing on a positive person or event, or taking time to write kind notes to important people in your life.1 Because these actions require focus and intentionality, they can develop into regular habits that seep into your way of thinking.

When it comes to anxiety and depression, there is no quick cure, and different methods work for different people. Intentionally practicing gratitude in just one tool you can use in your recovery efforts, but it is by no means foolproof. However, there’s no harm in trying, so look for things you can be grateful for today!


Sources:

1Practicing Gratitude Seriously Rewires Your Brain for the Better.” Big Think, Accessed February 2, 2018.

2 Bergland, Christopher. “How Do Neuroplasticity and Neurogenesis Rewire Your Brain?Psychology Today, February 6, 2017.

3The Health Benefits of Gratitude: 6 Scientifically Proven Ways Being Grateful Rewires Your Brain + Body for Health.” Conscious Lifestyle Magazine, Accessed February 2, 2018.

4 Stillman, Jessica. “Gratitude Physically Changes Your Brain, New Study Says.” Inc., January 15, 2016.