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  • Writer's pictureDave Balzer

Gratitude 2.0 - How to enhance your neurochemistry by practicing a new approach to gratitude


The Holiday Season is here. Thanksgiving is far in the rearview mirror and the New Year is rapidly approaching. For many, this is the busiest time of year with holiday shopping, year-end work deadlines, holiday parties, the added stress for parents trying to make it a special time of year for their kids, and for those non-parents the added cultural pressure to have a "joyous" holiday season.


As a healthcare clinician I have noticed over the years this time of year sees a spike in chronic disease exacerbations, illnesses of despair, and stress-related illness. There are many reasons for this uptick, and some of those may be outside of our control, but those within our control are not prioritizing the five pillars of health -- Movement, Nutrition, Sleep, Mindfulness, and Community. The goal of this article is not to harp on the need to workout every day during the holidays or make sure your nutrition and sleep are 100% dialed in. Not at all. If anything, that could lead to more stress and dysregulation. The purpose of this discussion is to shed light on some low hanging fruit techniques in the mindfulness and community categories.


This low hanging fruit is practicing gratitude and kindness. Yes, I know that statement is pretty cliche this time of year. I'm sure you all heard "count your blessings" said dozens of times over the Thanksgiving weekend and of course there is the common theme in Christmas movies of "there is always something to be thankful for". Writing down things you are grateful for is a great start, but there are more robust, scientifically proven ways to practice gratitude.

Lake Louise - Banff National Park, Canada - August 2021

My attempt at showing gratitude to Mother Nature


Being thankful and showing gratitude can have a profound positive effect on our body and brain chemistry. Having a gratitude practice is associated with reducing fear and anxiety, instilling a sense of calm and focus, reducing inflammation, and improving brain circuits to allow for more joy socially. So, what should this gratitude practice look like?


  • The most potent forms of gratitude involves GETTING THANKS

  • Writing down things you are grateful for is great, but to truly alter your brain chemistry you must receive gratitude

  • Giving and receiving gratitude must be genuine to gain the benefits - the brain does not respond to "fake it until you make it" in regards to gratitude

  • It starts with a story - true gratitude is about connecting and experiencing empathy for someone who received help... whether it's help you gave or help you heard/saw given to someone you are socially connected


At this point you may be wondering... are you saying I need to mindlessly run around town requesting gratitude from people? Not quite - that would be strange and ineffective as it would not be genuine. I'll revisit this dilemma later, but first here is a step by step guide to practicing gratitude from the comfort of your own couch:


  • Think of a story where you received genuine gratitude for an specific action

  • Start by mindfully visualizing the situation and action that lead to the expression of gratitude

  • Take note of your feelings and emotions after receiving this honest gratitude

  • Write down a few notes about the story - what the help was, why it was needed, how it made those involved feel

  • Take 2-3 minutes to truly visualize, experience, and connect with this story

  • Let this story become embedded in your implicit memory

  • Repeat this practice 2-3x per week

For some people this form of reliving experiences where you received gratitude feels awkward, uncomfortable, or a little egotistical. If so, what's great about this form of gratitude practice is the story does not have to directly involve you. It can be something you experienced observing friends or complete strangers. In example, I heard an amazing wedding speech earlier this year that involved heartfelt storytelling of kindness and gratitude. I was not a part of this story directly, just an active listener, yet taking a moment to re-experience and reflect on the gratitude being shown, even weeks later, can be incredibly powerful. If it's difficult to think of a real life experience, don't worry, the experience can be something fictional, even from movies. This is what makes dramatic movies so gripping! They know how to attention grab your brain chemistry - for better or worse. Think of the first time you watched Forrest Gump, Good Will Hunting, or Blindside. It's the storytelling of the genuine kindness and gratitude shown between characters that makes the experience feel so viscerally satisfying.


So, if you feel the act of writing down 3 things you are grateful is getting a bit tedious try out this protocol of re-experiencing and journaling on genuine gratitude received. Plus, what's great about this form of gratitude practice is the results are instantaneous. Research shows there is an increase in our comfort neurotransmitters (serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin) within 60-90 seconds of performing this somatic gratitude practice. Therefore, one session of somatic gratitude can quickly alter our bodily state, and since our brain chemistry is extremely plastic a continued practice can lead to altering our physiological traits more permanently.


This is why gratitude practices are considered "pro-social behavior", meaning a way of improving our ability to effectively interact with others and ourselves. Our brain and body states teeter back and forth between defensive behavior and prosocial behavior as a way to keep us safe (aka periods of joy and happiness, but also fear, anxiety, and concern). Both bodily states serve a purpose, but in today's culture it can be difficult to pull the scale back toward a prosocial state. That's where this form of gratitude practice can be so empowering!


So as I mentioned at the outset, the holiday season is a busy time of year and often these added stressors take a toll on people's health. Gratitude is great way to counteract the chaos that comes with the holiday season. But, remember... the most potent form of gratitude is receiving thanks, therefore we must practice kindness to reap the reward, while also making sure to give genuine gratitude when it's due. Pay it forward, right! Isn't it fascinating and beautiful how human nature evolved to require the social connection of kind actions and genuine gratitude to transform our behavior and brain chemistry. More proof that a little kindness can go a long way! To me, this is the spirit of the holiday season and the foundation of healthy life and community.


 

If you are interested in more information on the science of gratitude check out this excellent podcast by the Huberman Lab Podcast.

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