Positive Effects of Gratitude on the Brain and Body

Positive Effects of Gratitude on the Brain and Body

In Personal development by Chris A. Parker

The power of the brain has been apparent since time immemorial. Our brain is arguably the most significant difference between man and everything that surrounds him. In part, this is why there are countless campaigns advising people to be positive.

Is the brain that powerful? Can what you think and feed your brain affect your life and of those around you? The simple answer is yes; if you want to see the effect your brain has, just look at the life of a soldier. Even after most have left active service, they still suffer from post-traumatic syndrome disorder. The brain replays past scenarios that the affected can feel the fear, rage, and all other emotions as though the events were happening afresh.

If the brain is this powerful, is there a way you can train it? Can you teach your brain to look at certain events in a different way?

When you look at issues such as stress, anxiety, and depression, you’ll note they revolve around the brain and your overall mindset. Additionally, it has been proven that prolonged anxiety and stress can have adverse effects on the brain to the point of major psychiatric disorders. (Further reading: 6 Helpful Tips on How to Relax Your Mind and Body from Anxiety)

As it turns out, you can train your brain to change its perspective and have a more positive outlook on most life situations. How can you achieve this? How can you turn your brain from negative thoughts that lead to stress and depression?

The answer is quite simple; one of the most effective ways of shifting your brain’s focus is through gratitude. Yes, if you show appreciation, your mind begins to appreciate the small things in life. What exactly are the effects of gratitude to the brain? More importantly, what are some of the ways gratitude benefits your everyday living?

What exactly is gratitude?

If you look it up, there are multiple definitions of gratitude. Everyone has their interpretation of what it is or how it has affected them.

One of the definitions that stand out is that of the University of California’s professor, Robert Emmons. While considered one of the world’s authoritative figures in matters dealing with gratitude benefits to the brain, his definition is quite simplistic and easy to understand.

According to professor Emmons, two significant components help you show gratitude. These essential components are affirming the good things we receive and acknowledging the role others play in filling our lives with goodness.

Having looked at what gratitude is, let’s segue to effects and benefits of showing more gratitude to the brain and by extension in your life.

Here are some of the top effects of gratitude on the brain.

Related reading: 4 Tips to Help You Cultivate Gratitude in Life – Opens in new tab

Practicing gratitude relieves toxic emotions and feelings
Photo by Matheus Ferrero on Unsplash.

1. Practicing gratitude relieves toxic emotions and feelings

You’ll agree that your feelings significantly impact your mood and how you view the world. If you wake up moody, it’s almost certain you’ll have a bad day. However, it is possible to get rid of these negative thoughts and feelings and, despite waking up moody, end up having a great day.

In one study, participants seeking mental health guidance were divided into two. The first batch was told to write letters of gratitude – besides the ongoing counseling sessions. The second batch was asked to note their negative thoughts and experiences. The results showed the group that wrote letters of gratitude recovered sooner and overall left the experience feeling better.

The other group, on the other hand, showed the very opposite of this. Consistent with their journaling negative thoughts and feelings, the group reported increased feelings of depression and anxiety.

The explanation to this can get quite technical, but here’s a somewhat simplified version. There’s a part of the brain that’s responsible for all of your emotional experiences. This part of the brain is referred to as the limbic system

The limbic system consists of the hippocampus, thalamus, hypothalamus, amygdala, and cingulate gyrus. Studies have proved that the amygdala and the hippocampus –the main sites which regulate your memory, emotion, and bodily functions, are activated through feelings of gratitude.

2. Gratitude reduces pain

The brain has everything to do with how your body reacts to pain. For instance, let’s assume you put your hand on a hot surface. When there’s some tissue damage on the skin, the nociceptors (also known as pain receptors) record the pain.

The pain signal then moves up the peripheral nerve to reach the spinal cord. The spine then releases neurotransmitters that travel to reach the message to the brain. The brain then signals your hand to move. (Further reading: 8 Health Benefits of Meditation – What the Newest Research Shows)

While explaining this may take a while, the speed at which it happens is tremendously impressive. That is why you’ll never put your hand on a hot surface, then start debating whether you should remove it or not, the whole system happens within split seconds.

In 2003, a report dubbed counting blessings versus burdens was conducted to show the correlation between pain and acts of gratitude. In the study, it was observed that 16% of the patients who would journal about acts of gratitude or displayed gratitude reported fewer pain symptoms. Additionally, this group also reported better adherence and cooperation in the treatment procedure.

After the study, a deep dive was done to investigate the findings further. The results showed that through controlling the brain’s dopamine levels, gratitude fills you with more strength and energy. Consequently, this reduces the feeling of pain and improves your general health and wellbeing.

Meditation can be used to ease physical pain
Photo by Jesper Aggergaard on Unsplash

3. Gratitude can improve your sleep quality

Sleep is an integral part of your daily routine, which is why you naturally spend more than a third of your day sleeping. Getting enough quality sleep is as vital to your daily routine as is water or food. When you go for long without resting, your brain suffers as it is hard to form or even maintain pathways that assist with making new memories. Without sleep, you’ll also find it harder to concentrate or even respond to answers or hold down a natural conversation.

The aforementioned hypothalamus comes into play again during sleep. The hypothalamus is linked with controlling all body functions, including sleep. As it turns out when you show gratitude and kindness, it triggers the hypothalamus, and this, in turn, leads to better sleep.

Now better sleep is more complex than many would think. Primarily, sleep is measured by how long you’re able to sleep, and how many times you wake up from sleeping. If you keep waking up after a couple of hours of your sleep, this implies you’re not getting deep sleep. The ideal sleeping time varies from person to another, but the average is from seven to eight hours.

The fewer disruptions you experience while sleeping, the deeper –quality, sleep you’re able to get. Being kinder and showing gratitude can help the hypothalamus and ultimately afford you longer, better sleep.

Related reading: 4 Tips to Help You Cultivate Gratitude in LifeOpens in new tab

Positive Effects of Gratitude on the Brain and Body
Photo by Alex Harvey on Unsplash.

4. Gratitude helps in stress reduction and regulation

As you already know, the brain has a lot to do with stress. Fundamentally, the production of hormones starts in the brain. Hormones act as messages between the brain and the body and within the brain itself. One of the hormones produced in the brain can lead to stress. This hormone is called cortisol, also popularly referred to as the stress hormone.

To understand this better, you must first know the body rarely does itself harm. The brain, being one of the most integral parts of the body, takes especially exceptional care to ensure nothing of harm affects it. Then, this would contradict why the body would produce a stress-inducing hormone.

Well, first, you need to understand the full picture of the cortisol hormone. You see, cortisol has immense positive effects on the body. The body uses the hormone to regulate blood sugar levels, blood pressure, and even strengthen the heart muscles. The hormone has also been linked with better memory, lower pain sensitivity, and better immunity. Cortisol is produced when you wake up, and the body uses it up in small doses.

However, when you are stressed, the body produces more than needed cortisol to help you combat the stress. Unfortunately, too much cortisol has adverse effects such as weight gain, increase in blood pressure, digestive problems, suppressed immunity, and heart-related illnesses.

In 1998, McCarty Rollin and his colleagues sought to understand how you can control the levels of cortisol in your body. This is especially hard since the more stressed you are, the more cortisol is produced, and the more you are in danger of experiencing these negative side effects. 

Fortunately, the study unveiled those participants who were grateful recorded lower cortisol levels. Additionally, these participants that showed gratitude had improved cardiac functioning and were more resistant to negative experiences and emotional setbacks.

Over the years, more studies have been carried out, all supporting the theory of gratitude, leading to a reduction in the stress hormone.

In most cases, when researchers are looking for a way to treat illnesses and conditions, they turn to drugs and other tangible resolves. However, as the above evidence shows, you can live a better life if you train yourself to be more grateful to both the big and the small things that make your life better. Doing so will safeguard your brain and body from an array of illnesses and conditions. Showing gratitude can literary save your life.

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