How Gratitude Changes Brain Chemistry and Heals the Brain

Ancient wisdom says: “Give thanks in all circumstances.” What the ancients knew in their guts we are slowly discovering through neuroscience – the attitude of gratitude changes brain chemistry.

Practicing gratitude is one of the most powerful ways to counter chronic stress and addiction to negative thinking.

The most recent scientific findings confirm the ancient wisdom about thanksgiving – it is the best way to improve your mental and physical health.

How does it work?

When we are grateful, our body has a way of thanking us back.

Just like a negative train of thought – complaining, self-pity, anger, guilt, fear, envy, anxiety, sadness, depression, etc. – causes the body to release stress hormones into the bloodstream so also positive thoughts release hormones of love, happiness, and satisfaction (oxytocin, dopamine, and serotonin).

One recent study from the University of California San Diego’s School of Medicine found that people who practiced gratitude had better heart health, specifically less inflammation and healthier heart rhythms.

“They showed a better well-being, a less depressed mood, less fatigue, and they slept better,” said the study’s author Paul J. Mills.

What happens when you practice gratitude every day?

Gratitude is an elevated state of consciousness that allows the person to see and appreciate the gifts of life all around them.

It’s a state of mind that allows us to celebrate what we already have in the present moment.

As soon as our minds stop dwelling on the past or worrying about the future, we find ourselves in the Present.

And the present is always full of presents – if we are able to see them.

Most of the time, we can’t – our ability to see good things is blocked by the sticky narratives from the past:

“It’s all bad.” “What’s there to be happy about?” “She must have said it to hurt me.” “It’s never going to work.” “It’s never going to change.”

But we have not chosen those narratives – they came to us as an inheritance from our ancestors.

It came to us from Adam and Eve – if you go back to the beginning.

But now, there’s a new beginning.

The moment we awaken from the old narratives to The Good Story.

And The Good Story is the one of thanksgiving.

When we choose to tune in to this new story (put on a new lens) we switch from blindness to seeing.

The lens of gratitude is the new filter that allows good things to come in and sifts the bad ones out.

Practicing gratitude every day helps us to develop an inner filter that lets the positive in and keeps the negative out.

We are able to see presents in the Present.

We look around, and the desert we were wandering about for forty years is suddenly gone. We don’t see the desert anymore. We see the manna.

And we say in amazement, “What is it?” (In Hebrew, manna).

The moment we find something to be grateful for and feel the emotion of it, our minds switch to appreciation mode.

Our minds switch from experiencing lack to experiencing abundance.

We feel rich.

We stop seeking fulfillment in the future.

We start celebrating life.

There’s nowhere else to go.

It’s all here and now.

We have arrived.

We have achieved.

Surprisingly, when we are in this elevated state of appreciation, we start seeing more and more good things to appreciate.

We have acquired a new lens. The new narrative. Good tidings. The good news.

Jesus said:

“To him who has, more will be given.”

He who sees good things becomes a magnet attracting more and more good things.

The hardest part in this process is the first step – turning your mind away from the negative and focusing on the positive.

Negativity is addictive.

We love the drama of our lives because it feels so familiar. And the brain always chooses what is familiar over what is unknown. But the attitude of gratitude changes brain chemistry.

The longer we dwell on our negative thoughts and experiences, the more stress chemicals are produced in our bodies – and the harder it is to shift our focus to something else.

The reason the first step is so hard is that the brain is chemically conditioned to re-experience stress again and again.

Chronic stress changes the brain by changing the biology of the body.

Practicing gratitude changes the brain (and heals it!) – by changing what hormones we choose to activate with our thoughts.

What is the first step to overcoming negative feelings?

The first step in overcoming negative thoughts and feelings is to see them as they come. The sooner you spot them, the easier it is to shift your focus away from them.

  1. Observe your mind for 5 minutes, sitting in silence. Observe the thoughts popping up in your brain without pushing them away. Let them come.
  2. When you become aware of a thought (or feeling) don’t resist it – just gently turn your focus away to something very general and easy to focus on (rustling of the leaves on the park trail, chirping of a cricket, the smell of dinner, laughter of children, a bubbling brook, etc.).
  3. Do this focus shifting for 2-3 minutes, then shift your focus to some activity you like to engage in (that has the most potential to pull you out of your mind). It could be anything as long as you love doing it.
  4. If you find yourself thinking negative thoughts again, it’s perfectly okay – just start from the beginning. Finds reasons to celebrate life, knowing that gratitude changes brain chemistry like nothing else.

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