In Kelly McGonigal’s latest book,”The Upside of Stress,” she explores how things that create meaning and happiness in our lives also create stress. When we learn to change our relationship with stress, we build in possibilities for meaning and happiness. In the following video, McGonigal recommends practical ways to shift our perspective on stress:
Take some time to journal, visit with a friend, or ponder following prompts:
- Discover what matters to you in life. Write about the roles, relationships, activities, and goals that are most important to you, and how you would feel if they did not exist.
- Discover your values. Spend 10 minutes writing about each of your top three values. Values are the things that are important to you and give meaning to the way you live and work (examples: adventure, compassion, humor, courage, and loyalty). How do your values play into your life? How can your values create some new meaning around a problem you are currently facing?
- Understand the drawbacks of avoiding stress. In order to avoid stress, we may turn down meaningful opportunities or give up on something important to us.
With Thanksgiving around the corner, I thought it would be a nice time to focus on the healing benefits of a gratitude practice. I experienced an impact when my husband and I decided to start an active gratitude practice about five years ago. Over time we noticed subtle changes in our home, stress levels, and marriage. Recently, I spoke to a group about the benefits of gratitude in a marriage relationship. My teenage son happened to be in attendance. During the comments time he told the group about the positive difference he noticed in our family. He said he could tell a difference in the way my husband and I related to one another. It was incredible to hear our son share his own experience of our decision to practice gratitude as a couple.
Gratitude Nourishes the Brain
An active gratitude practice has the power to change the way we think and feel. According to neuropsychologist, Rick Hanson, where we choose to place our focus has the power to shape our brains.
“If you rest your mind on self-criticism, worries, grumbling about others, hurts, and stress, then your brain will be shaped into greater reactivity, vulnerability to anxiety and depressed mood, a narrow focus on threats and losses, and inclinations toward anger, sadness and guilt. On the other hand, if you rest your mind on good events and conditions (someone was nice to you, or there’s a roof over your head), pleasant feelings, the things you do get done, physical pleasures, and your good intentions and qualities, then over time your brain will take on a different shape, one with strength and resilience hardwired into it, as well as a realistically optimistic outlook, a positive mood, and a sense of worth.” (Hanson, 2013)
Gratitude Builds Resilience to Stress
Over the past few months I paired my gratitude practice with an app called the Heartmath Inner Balance Trainer. The Inner Balance Trainer has a heart rate monitor that works with a smart phone or tablet to guides your breath while it monitors your heart rate. As you breathe, you bring to mind gratitude and thoughts of compassion. The science of Heartmath has shown a powerful correlation to our heart rhythm pattern and our emotions:
“When we experience uplifting emotions such as gratitude, joy, compassion, and love; our heart rhythm pattern becomes highly ordered, looking like a smooth, harmonious wave. It’s no wonder that positive emotions feel so good – they actually help our body’s systems synchronize and work better.
During stress and negative emotions, when the heart rhythm pattern is erratic and disordered, the corresponding pattern of neural signals traveling from the heart to the brain inhibits higher cognitive functions. This limits our ability to think clearly, remember, learn, reason, and make effective decisions. The heart’s input to the brain during stressful or negative emotions also has a profound effect on the brain’s emotional processes – actually serving to reinforce the emotional experience of stress.” (www.heartmath.com/innerbalance/)
Gratitude Over the Holidays
The holidays add stress to our normal daily routines. In my last blog post, I discussed how “turning down the thermometer” on stress can create balance, especially since practicing gratitude has proven to reduce stress. The article “Seven Powerful Ways Gratitude Can Change Your Life” shows multiple ways this practice can enhance your health and your relationships.
I wish you and your families a grateful Thanksgiving. Thank you for your continued encouragement and support of Jennifer Christian Counseling. I am deeply thankful.
Hanson, Rick, Ph.D. (2013). Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence.
When triggered, we feel exposed and experience painful emotional and physical symptoms:
- Increased body temperature – a warm flush or even a “hot flash”
- Heaviness in the chest – perhaps to the point of feeling anxious and panicky
- Poor eye-contact and hesitant speech patterns
- Body minimizing posture – trying to hide shape of body or look invisible
- Low energy levels – work hard to excel and feel exhausted most of the time
Shame Resilience researcher, Brené Brown, has studied the impact of shame for more than a decade. In her TED Talks, “The Power of Vulnerability” and “Listening to Shame,” she shares how to create resilience that move us through the experience of shame toward deeper connection and “whole-hearted” living.
In the clip below from “Oprah’s Lifeclass,” Brown says people who have “high levels of shame resilience” — meaning they can acknowledge and move through shame — have a few things in common. We can follow their lead by taking these three steps:
- Talk to yourself like you talk to someone you love. “I would say to myself, ‘God, you’re so stupid, Brene,’” Brown says. “I would never talk to my kids that way.”
- Reach out to someone you trust.
- Tell your story. “Shame cannot survive being spoken,” Brown says.
A daily gratitude practice has a powerful impact on mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health. People who practice gratitude notice many benefits:
- Stronger immune systems and lower blood pressure
- Higher levels of positive emotions
- More joy, optimism, and happiness
- Act with more generosity and compassion
- Feel less lonely and isolated
- And, gratitude is an integral part of healthy relationships
Louie Schwartzberg’s TED talk, “Nature. Beauty. Gratitude,” combines stunning time-lapse photography with powerful words from Benedictine monk Brother David Steindl-Rast.
Powerful TED talk by Harvard Professor, Shawn Achor, about bringing happiness to this side of the “cognitive horizon.”
“How My Tribe Created my TEDx Talk” is one of my favorite TED talks for two main reasons:
- I have had the joy of sharing twenty-five years of dating/marriage with Jeff Christian.
- Jeff talks about his personal story authentically and transparently. He shares how he has learned how to take down the walls built up during painful childhood experiences and live each day with gratitude and resilience.
Wired for Danger
We have a natural tendency to focus on what goes wrong. Over thousands of years we have developed a built-in survival mechanism wired to detect danger. Our minds know that learning from negative experiences is a matter life or death. Our brains are like velcro for anything negative that crosses our path. This skill is important for our survival but also impacts our feelings. If focus only on negatives, we can become angry, anxious, or depressed.
On the other hand, positive or neutral experiences happen all the time each day, but have no bearing on whether we will live or die. Our brains are like teflon for the positive experiences. Something pleasant happens, it slides right off, and we continue through our day. What does this have to do with how we think, act, and feel?
Nourish the Brain
According to neuropsychologist, Rick Hanson, where we place our focus has the power to shape our brains.
If you rest your mind on self-criticism, worries, grumbling about others, hurts, and stress, then your brain will be shaped into greater reactivity, vulnerability to anxiety and depressed mood, a narrow focus on threats and losses, and inclinations toward anger, sadness and guilt. On the other hand, if you rest your mind on good events and conditions (someone was nice to you, or there’s a roof over your head), pleasant feelings, the things you do get done, physical pleasures, and your good intentions and qualities, then over time your brain will take on a different shape, one with strength and resilience hardwired into it, as well as a realistically optimistic outlook, a positive mood, and a sense of worth.
Hanson suggests that we have the power to build inner strength and resilience by focusing on positive experiences in such a way that our brains are reshaped to respond to life with more positive feelings, sense of calm, and confidence. He suggests that we literally “hold the good” for as long as 10-20 seconds each time we have a pleasant experience. In his new book, Hardwiring Happiness: The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence, Hanson has a number of simple practices that have powerful benefits. He developed the HEAL exercise to build the positive centers of the brain and also decrease the negative charge of painful experiences, both past and present:
- H: Have a positive experience: Notice a positive experience that’s already present in your awareness, such as a physical pleasure, a sense of determination, or feeling close to someone. Or create a positive experience for which you’re grateful, bring to mind a friend, or recognize a task you’ve completed. As much as you can, help ideas like these become emotionally rewarding experiences, otherwise it is merely positive thinking.
- E: Enrich it: Stay with the positive experience for five to ten seconds or longer. Open to the feelings in it and try to sense it in your body; let it fill your mind. Enjoy it. Gently encourage the experience to be more intense. Find something fresh and novel about it. Recognize how it’s personally relevant, how it could nourish or help you, or make a difference in your life. Get those neurons really firing together, so they’ll really wire together.
- A: Absorb it: Sense that the experience is sinking into you as you sink into it. Let it really land in your mind. Perhaps visualize it sifting down into you like golden dust, or feel it washing you like a soothing balm. Or place it like a jewel in the treasure chest of your heart. Know that the experience is becoming part of you, a resource inside that you can take with you wherever you go.
- L: Link positive and negative material (optional): While having a vivid and stable sense of a positive experience in the foreground of awareness, also be aware of something negative in the background. For example, when you feel included and liked these days, you could sense this experience making contact with feelings of loneliness from your past. If negative material hijacks your attention, drop it and focus only on the positive; when you feel recentered in the positive, you can let the negative also be present in awareness if you like. Whatever you want, let go of all negative material and rest only in the positive. Then, to continue uprooting the negative material, a few times over the next hour be aware of only neutral or positive material while also bringing to mind neutral things (e.g., people, situations, ideas) that have become associated with negative material.” (Hanson, 2013)
When we “hold the good,” we open our hearts to experience joy, and remind ourselves that each moment is our life.