Adam Borland, PsyD, is a psychologist practicing at the Center for Adult Behavioral Health at Cleveland Clinic. In honor of the upcoming holiday season, Dr. Borland talked with us about the physical and mental effects of gratitude and provided some tips on how to incorporate gratitude into our lives throughout the year.
Read the Q&A with Dr. Borland below.
WAM: We’re about to celebrate Thanksgiving, a great annual reminder to be grateful for what we have. In addition to being an activity around festivity, family and friends, tell us why giving thanks can also be good for our mental health?
Dr. Borland: Given the stressful world we live in, we often overlook the opportunity to practice gratitude. Rather than recognizing the abundance of good things in life, we often choose to focus on what we don’t have (eg, negatively comparing ourselves to others regarding appearance, material possessions, financial success and opportunity…often exacerbated by social media). It is important to remind ourselves that we have a choice regarding whether to focus on the positive or negatives of life.
Mental health benefits of gratitude:
- Mindfulness (emotional presence) which can ease symptoms of stress, anxiety, panic, anger, and low mood.
- Feelings happiness, optimism, self-esteem, resilience, and sense of humor.
- Strengthening of existing relationships — communication, empathy, patience, appreciation (saying thank you), forgiveness, less anger
- Creation of new relationships/social opportunities — willingness to take a step outside one’s comfort zone (self-confidence).
- Career benefits — improved motivation, morale, communication/collaboration, and a healthier workplace environment.
- Kindness — putting good out into the world without expectation of something in return.
WAM: Studies have also shown that in addition to benefits to our mental health, there are physical benefits to practicing gratitude. What are they?
Dr. Borland: Research has found that regardless of age, the practice of gratitude can positively affect one’s physical health. Feeling thankful can lead to optimism and motivation to maintain a healthy diet, engage in consistent exercise, and attend regular check-ups with healthcare providers.
Additional physical benefits of gratitude include:
- Improved immune systems (help to fight off illness), decrease in blood pressure, and the potential reduction the inflammation and the risk of heart failure.
- Fewer aches and pains.
- Improved sleep-wake cycles (feeling more energetic; benefits of writing in a gratitude journal as part of one’s bedtime routine).
WAM: We’ve read that expressing gratitude can actually “re-wire the brain.” How does that happen, and in what way is that a good thing?
Dr. Borland: Neuroscientific research has found that practicing gratitude can restructure the brain to promote positive thinking. The more we prioritize gratitude as a daily habit, the stronger our brain’s neural pathways become. As a result, there’s a greater opportunity to focus on the positives of a situation, rather than the negatives.
Additional positive effects of gratitude on the brain:
- The expression of gratitude releases serotonin and dopamine in the brain, the two primary happiness/“feel good” neurotransmitters.
- Gratitude helps in the regulating stress hormones (eg, Cortisol), thus reducing feelings of anxiety, panic, and fear.
- Studies have found that gratitude activates the amygdala and hippocampus, the areas of the brain that regulate emotions and memory
WAM: Are there any tips on how to start up a gratitude practice?
Dr. Borland: While the practice of gratitude in response to momentous life occasions may seem familiar, we often overlook the opportunity to recognize and give thanks for the perceived trivial aspects of daily living.
Tools for creative a gratitude practice:
- Keep a gratitude journal — write down things for which you are thankful (both big and small); potentially share your writings with a friend/loved one.
- Meditate — allow for emotional presence by focusing on deep breathing (we often take breathing for granted; focus on each inhale and exhale of breath).
- Reach out to a friend/loved one — to relive a funny memory, to say thank you, or simply to say hi. With difficult relationships, begin the process of allowing for healing and forgiveness.
- Spiritual/religious practices or customs.
- Exercise, engage in creative/musical outlets, spend time outdoors/in nature.