By Carissa Weber MA, LPC, CSAC
If you follow me over at Facebook, you know I’ve been doing a lot of talking about gratitude. For those of you that haven’t been following, you might be wondering why I am doing a post all about gratitude. In all honesty, gratitude is a very important topic to cover when it comes to rewiring our brain, improving our mental health, and helping us feel connected to those people in our life.
According to the Mirriam-Webster dictionary, gratitude means “a feeling of appreciation or thanks.” (2021). This is as simple as it gets folks. Gratitude is all about that feeling of appreciation.
When we talk about gratitude with mental health, gratitude is really important. Why is that? Gratitude changes our brain in several different ways. Let’s start off with the prefrontal cortex. Gratitude actually starts here to make the biggest impact. It is here when we hear someone tell us “thank you” (or we even think how grateful we are for something), our prefrontal cortex lights up like a Christmas Tree. It starts to register that gratitude as a fact (wait, what?!). As the gratitude is being processed as a fact, it changes other parts of our brain.
The next impact gratitude makes in the brain is within our favorite part: that darn amygdala. As we express gratitude, something magical happens. That darn amygdala has an increase in activity, an increase in impulsivity, but a decrease in the triple F response. How does that work? Let me explain.
As that darn amygdala starts to identify the feelings it is experiencing (like gratitude), it is being flooded with dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin. These feel-good neurotransmitters help that darn amygdala pay attention more to the “positive” emotions (such as joy, content, and thankfulness), rather than the “negative” emotions (like sadness, loneliness, and despair).
Now that those feel-good neurotransmitters are hard at work making your darn amygdala focus on emotions supported by the facts of the prefrontal cortex, the hippocampus starts to change. The hippocampus begins the process of syncing up with the gratitude the prefrontal cortex has identified. This allows the hippocampus store this information and the memories that come from it. The hypothalamus can then help the hippocampus pull these positive memories back to the front of your brain, helping you feel good days, weeks, months, even years after that gratitude was first identified.
There is something else that is cool happening in our brain when experience gratitude: motivation. Come again? When we hear that external validation from someone, and our brain is flooded with the feel-good neurotransmitters, that darn amygdala starts to enjoy that feeling. Needless to say, that darn amygdala likes it so much that it will start to tell you to start doing things that increases your chances of feeling that gratitude again. By showing (and sharing) gratitude, you can improve your motivation to get things done!
The benefits are not just felt emotionally, but physically. If you recall our discussion on the insula, the insula helps the adrenal gland change our body’s responses. When we feel gratitude (or someone shares gratitude with us), we can notice a decrease in our heart rate. This is a well known sign of our body relaxing. It can also lower our blood pressure and improve our oxygen rates. This allows us to think clearer and process information faster.
Another side effect of gratitude is it’s ability to help us feel closer to the people around us. Have you ever received a gift from someone “just because?” Do you still remember it? I still remember the guy who bought me a coffee “just because.” Even though he was a complete stranger, and I never saw him again, my brain did this awesome thing where I suddenly remember I am not alone in this world. Just remember that good this allows our brain to release oxytocin and feel connected to something, anything.
Now, what happens when you show someone gratitude? Great question! By saying “thank you” or “I’m happy you’re here” helps their brain release that same oxytocin that our’s does when we say it. What excites me about this chunk of information is that when we show gratitude to someone we are not just improving our own mental health, but we are improving the mental health of another person!
Coping Skills Alert
I think it is important for us to talk about how we can incorporate gratitude into our daily lives. Now before you go and say “but Carissa, wouldn’t that be like toxic positivity?” listen to me. Gratitude and toxic positivity share a similar vein, but are two different things.
First, gratitude is based in objective facts that people can also prove. Toxic positivity? Now that is based in negative cognitive distortions that often discredit the facts. Second, gratitude is an action that we take, whereas toxic positivity keeps up feeling stuck and avoiding what we need to do. Third, gratitude initiates bonding and brain healing while toxic positivity increases mental health symptoms and promotes burnout.
Now, on to how to incorporate gratitude into your daily routine.
Gratitude should be practiced on a daily basis. I’m going to meet you before the question is even asked: there is always something to be grateful for! I tell my clients in session that identifying five things to be grateful for a day in the morning helps you:
- Set a realistic mindset for your whole day
- Reduces the physical symptoms of anxiety
- Decreases the negative thought patterns of depression
- Improves your ability to make decisions during your day
Before we start to think about what we are thankful for, we need a way to record these things. Whether it is in your daily planner, in a journal, on your phone, or your social media accounts, have a place that you can document what you are grateful for. Why? This helps you get into a healthy pattern as well as offers accountability to sticking with this new routine. Plus, if you are having one of those days where you are feeling hopeless and your darn amygdala has you stuck, you have a reference to jump start that hippocampus!
Now, we get to write down those gratitudes! Gratitude does not need to be big, huge actions offered by people. Gratitude can come from small actions throughout our day. They can also be things we do for ourselves (yup, I’m calling all of us out that discredit what we do for ourselves) and for others.
I want to thank you for joining me on this short (and sweet) journey about how gratitude can impact not just our mental health, but those around us. This simple skill is something that will help you feel better in the moment, and last for years to come.
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- Brown, J, and Wong, J (2017). How Gratitude Changes You and Your Brain. Retrieved from https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_gratitude_changes_you_and_your_brain
- Gratitude. (2021). In Merriam-Webster.com. Retrieved November 11, 2021, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/gratitude
- Khorraml, N (2020). Gratitude and its Impact on the Brain and Body: Neuroscience explains why gratitude can be so good for us. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/comfort-gratitude/202009/gratitude-and-its-impact-the-brain-and-body
- Kyeong, S., Kim, J., Kim, D. J., Kim, H. E., & Kim, J. J. (2017). Effects of gratitude meditation on neural network functional connectivity and brain-heart coupling. Scientific reports, 7(1), 5058. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-05520-
- Weber, C (2021). Why your Brain Needs a Routine. Retrieved from https://thatdarnamygdala.com/2021/05/01/why-your-brain-needs-a-routine/