Neuroplasticity, Gratitude, and Your Mental Health: Food for Thought
Thanksgiving can be considered a reminder to intentionally consider what we’re grateful for. But what would it be like if we treated this thanksgiving as a launch pad to really begin integrating more gratitude into our lives.
Sometimes the suggestion to integrate gratitude can seem trite or to simple to really be a remedy for our difficulties in life. So, why would we want to do that?
For the same reason that neuroscientists are finding that discipline can retrain our brains (e.g., neuroplasticity). So when we’re exercising or practicing meditation, the idea is not to do these with the goal of “being relaxed” in mind, but to do them to lay down new tracks in the brain so that our “auto-pilot” doesn’t automatically default to ineffective and destructive habitual strategies in the future.
Instead, when two roads diverge in a wood (in the brain), we will begin to recognize more often that there is a choice and we don’t need to be so self critical, or erupt in a rage, or binge eat, or isolate. This can only really happen as these tracks are laid down.
Robert Emmons and Michael McCollough (2003) conducted a study a while back called Counting Blessings versus Burdens. He split up a few groups of people and had one group count 5 blessings per day, one group count 5 burdens per day and one group just write about neutral events. As you may have guessed, the ones who counted blessings, experienced less stress and more feelings associated with well being.
Now counting our blessings is not meant to be a miracle cure, so we aren’t to expect miracles.
Instead, we can think of it as laying down new tracks in our brains each time we do it. The immediate result is not really the point; it’s more about retraining our brains.
So, this thanksgiving, feel free to be present with your gratitude, also be present with your discomfort (which also comes up for many during this time.). It doesn’t need to be either gratitude or discomfort; both may be present throughout the holiday. So we can approach them both with mindfulness.
However, invite yourself on this holiday to start an intentional program toward paying attention to what you are grateful for in life. You may make it a practice every night or every morning. It need only take a minute or so.
This will begin the rewiring. It’s as if seeds are being planted and every time you do this, they are being watered. It may take a while for the plants to grow, but they will.
Let me start…I’m truly grateful for all of you who have been following the Mindfulness and Psychotherapy blogs. I know I say this a lot, but your interactions truly inspire others and leave a trail of wisdom for us all to benefit from.
Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D.
Goldstein, E. (2009). Neuroplasticity, Gratitude, and Your Mental Health: Food for Thought. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 27, 2015, from http://blogs.psychcentral.com/mindfulness/2009/11/neuroplasticity-gratitude-and-your-mental-health-food-for-thought/