Imagine, for a moment, something that you are worried about. Focus on the worrisome thing for just 30 seconds…what is it? What is worrying you? What is the worst case scenario? Then simply notice what happens to your body. The body begins to shift, often the head goes down, shoulders slump, stomach tightens, chest becomes concave, jaws clench and breathing gets shallow. These are the physical changes that we can see, however the unconscious body mechanics- your heart rate, blood sugar, cortisol levels, blood pressure, every cell in your body is responding too. The emotion of worry actually affects your biochemistry.
Similarly, when you take a moment to focus on something you are grateful for; it can be a person you love, a beautiful moment in your life…you’ll notice your jaw loosen, your shoulders release and relax, your breathing gets deeper, your chest expands and your heart rate actually slows.
What is going on and why is this emotion of gratitude one you should be visiting often?
When you focus on something you are grateful for, your brain releases two brain chemicals that are largely responsible for human emotion: dopamine and serotonin.
Human beings are dopamine chasers. Unconsciously, we seek this little hit of dopamine in healthy and sometimes unhealthy ways. An example of a healthy way to increase dopamine is by having a great workout. An unhealthy way could be an addiction- food, drugs, alcohol or even simply the scrolling of the phone. All will release a hit of dopamine.
Gratitude, the “practice” of gratitude, is one of the healthiest things you can do for your body and your entire being. It releases dopamine and serotonin in a healthy way, oxytocin floods the body, your blood sugar stabilizes, heart rate stabilizes, blood pressure improves and ultimately, for that moment, research shows that you are in a healthier state throughout your entire body. In fact, one study found a 23% reduction in cortisol among those who used techniques designed to eliminate negative thought loops and practiced more gratitude.
Not to mention, the emotions that lead to stress in the body- fear, anxiety, worry, and anger cannot mutually exist in the same moment as gratitude. So, for the moment that you are practicing gratitude, you are flooding your brain and body with feel good chemicals, the hormone oxytocin, creating positive cellular and body function changes and putting yourself in a receptive state that is focused on the abundance in your life.
As much as we are dopamine chasers, we are proof finders. If I ask you to look around the room and look for everything green, your brain will do just that. But if I then ask you about all the yellow things in the room, since you only focused on the green, you’ll be hard pressed to recall any yellow. This is our reticular activation system at work. Similarly to when you buy a new car and then all of a sudden see the same car everywhere. It’s not that more of these cars suddenly appeared, they have always been there, you just weren’t focused on them.
Gratitude works the same way. When you focus on things that you’re thankful for, you’ll notice more and more things to be thankful for. It’s not positive thinking, its neuroplasticity. These small practiced moments of sitting in gratitude are actually training your brain to look for the good. Just like you train your muscles during a workout with repetition, research shows that your neural pathways benefit from repetition training too.
This is especially important during tough times. It’s easier to find things to be grateful for during good times, but the biggest benefits come from practicing gratitude when life around you is anxious or worrisome. Fertility challenges and pregnancy are some of the most stressful times of life.
In fact, as many as 1 in 5 women experience mental health challenges during pregnancy. Depression being the most common.
So how do you “practice” gratitude? It takes work. Just like exercise, eating well, and having a connected relationship take intentionality and practice, so does gratitude. The health benefits come, not simply from saying the words “thank you” but from sitting in that feeling for a moment, really experiencing the emotion of gratitude so that gratitude can work its medicine in the body.
The WeNatal Journal’s “daily practice” helps you identify three things you’re grateful for to help jumpstart your gratitude practice. But you don’t need anything to start. Simply, close your eyes and think of one thing, person or moment where you felt loved and grateful. Focus on that thought for just 30 seconds picturing yourself there in that moment, what was going on around you, who else was there? Before you know it, your first gratitude “rep” is done and your brain and body will thank you for it.