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How This Mental Exercise Can Reduce Physical Pain, Improve Sleep, & More!

No one can escape the curveballs that life throws at us. The old adage "when it rains, it pours" can also be true. 

Combine that with our fast-paced lifestyles and on-the-go schedules, it can be all too easy to get caught up in feeling sad, down and out, and.... ungrateful.

We're all dealt different cards in life. No one is immune to hardships and difficult situations,  but what if I told you that gratitude is the key to better mental health, and even physical health?

Gratitude is so much more than saying the occasional “thanks” to a friend for spotting you at dinner or “thank you” to a stranger who holds the elevator door open for you. It is the mental exercise of choosing to be thankful, no matter what is happening externally.  

The benefits of being grateful to extend further than we may think- into all aspects of life. Not only does it improve mental health, but it has been shown to have many significant physical health benefits as well. Maybe some of those mental and physical ailments plaguing you could be improved with a different mindset… here’s how!


How Does Gratitude Affect Our Mental Health?

It’s not surprising that when you’re feeling in the dumps that a well-meaning individual may suggest counting your blessings (and it’s not always what we want to hear). However, when done with sincerity, it can boost our mental state in many ways- here are just a few!

  • Lowers Symptoms of Depression & Stress: In two longitudinal studies, findings suggest that “higher levels of gratitude reduce depression… even in the face of disease” (Woods, 2008). During the start and end of the study participants’ first semester of college, researchers examined relationships between gratitude, stress, and depression.

    Both studies supported a direct model where gratitude led to lower levels of stress and depression and improves emotional resiliency (Woods, 2008).

  • Better Eating Habits: Gratitude even affects our waistlines! In one study of many individuals, adolescents and young adults were randomly assigned to different groups, where group A wrote weekly gratitude letters and group B (the control) listed their daily activities each week.

    Those that wrote weekly gratitude letters ended up eating healthier over time compared to the control group (Fritz, 2018).

    Yes, being grateful may help you lose weight and eat better!  

  • Reduces Materialism and Increases Generosity: In a study among 900 adolescents conducted through a nationally representative survey showed that adolescents with a grateful disposition were less materialistic (Chaplin, 2018).

    In another study, adolescents that kept a gratitude journal (or a similar activity) had reduced materialism and increased generosity. They found that those who kept gratitude journals donated 60% more to charities compared to the control group (Chaplin, 2018).

  • Improves Relationships: It makes sense that when we express gratitude, it makes the recipient feel good.

    However, the act of expressing gratitude to others not only benefits the recipient but also the giver.

    In one study, those that were more appreciative of their significant other were more likely to still be in the relationships nine months after an initial evaluation (Gordon, 2013). 


How Does Gratitude Affect Our Physical Health?

More surprisingly is how the mental exercise of gratitude can improve our physical health. Our minds are powerful and according to Dr. P. Murali Doraiswamy, head of the biologic psychology at Duke University Medical Center, gratitude has “a health maintenance indication for every major organ system” (Conley, 2011).

Here are a few of the ways that gratitude influences our physical health:

  • Lowers Inflammation: In 2015, a study was published suggesting that heart failure patients that expressed more gratitude had lower levels of inflammatory biomarkers in their blood (Mills, 2015.

  • Reduces Pain: While it may be hard to believe that an “attitude of gratitude” could alleviate pain, a study was performed where ill patients were required to write in gratitude journals. Sixteen percent of the subject reported fewer symptoms, and ten percent reported a decrease in pain (Emmons, 2013).

  • Improves Sleep: With the weight of the world on our shoulders, it may be hard to have deep, quality sleep. However, numerous studies show the same trend: being grateful “increases the quality of our sleep, decreases the time it takes to fall asleep, and lengthens the duration of our sleep!” (Lakhiani, 2917) 

  • Maybe counting blessing instead of sheep really works- right, Bing Crosby?

  • Improves Immune Function: Sick of that winter cough and cold? According to research, when practiced daily, gratitude will strengthen your immune system as it lowers your stress and helps you sleep better (Segerstrom, 1998).

  • Lowers Blood Sugar: In the American Journal of Health Behavior, a study is highlighted where participants with Type 2 diabetes who spent time mindful of the positives in their life, saw improvement in blood sugar levels (Loucks, 2016). 

  • Improves Health: When a person is grateful they typically take better care of themselves and have to go to the doctor less (Morin, 2014).

How Can Gratitude Do All of This?

At this point, you’re probably wondering how gratitude does it? How can something so simple make such a drastic change in our mental and physical health?

You see, when we are grateful, our brain is altered in many positive ways. For example, our brain triggers the release of mood-regulating neurotransmitters (dopamine, norepinephrine, oxytocin, serotonin) and inhibits cortisol- the stress hormone.

In addition, grateful thoughts activate your hypothalamus, which regulates stress, as well as the ventral tegmental area, which produces pleasure. Research shows that these neurological effects open the doors to benefits for the mind as well as the body.


Gratitude- A Mental Exercise

For those of us that don’t always see the world with rose-colored glasses, it may be difficult to suddenly go around with a grateful heart. That’s why having the attitude of gratitude may be a difficult mental exercise until it becomes a habit.

Here are a few mental exercises to get your grateful mind activated: 

  1. Gratitude Journal/Jar: Get out a notebook (or quart jar and strips of paper). At some point during the day, write a few things that you’re grateful for!

    Chances are you’ll start looking for the positives in your life so that you’ll have something to write that night! Every so often, look through your book (or dump out your jar) and read past   

  2. “Thank You” Cards: One study found that writing three thank you notes for three weeks “improved life satisfaction, increased happy feelings, and reduced symptoms of depression” ( Gunderman, 2018)  

  3. Meditation and/or Prayer: Each day Buddhist monks engage in “gratitude meditation” where they consider their blessing. Find a quiet spot each day to meditate or pray. Close your eyes, allow your mind and body to relax, control your breathing, and think about your blessings.

    Try meditating or praying for 10-15 minutes each day. After a few weeks, you may notice a “fuller sense of inner-stability” and gratitude. (Carrington, 2018).

  4. Gratitude Moment: Set an alarm to go off at the same time each day to remind you to take a few minutes to think of several things that you are grateful for!

Find the strategy that works best for you or come up with your own way to increase moments of gratitude.

Final Thoughts

Unfortunately, there is negativity, criticism, and entitlement surrounding us. It can be pretty easy to feel sorry for ourselves and forget all the good there is around us and within. However, as you choose to exercise gratitude, your life may change even if your circumstances do not.

What are your experiences writing in a gratitude journal, writing thank you notes or expressing gratitude? Are there other ways you show gratefulness? Comment below!

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