Podcast Episode 37 – The Science of Gratitude

Jul 1, 2023 | Podcast

I’m Diana Swillinger, and you’re listening to the Renew Your Mind podcast. Episode Number 37 The Science of Gratitude. 

DIANA: Hey. Hey. How are you doing today? As always, I’m doing really well, even though I had significant anxiety recently. I even got coached by my amazing friend Natalie, natalie Clay. If you’re curious, she’s a good friend and she’s my and Dan’s other and current marriage coach. She’s amazing. Anyway, I had over a week of full blown anxiety and I still had joy and peace the whole time. Isn’t that crazy? So, yeah. By the way, you guys, life coaches, we still have emotions. All of them, all the good ones, all the bad ones, they don’t just go away when you become a life coach. So even though I had anxiety, I had peace about it, and I believed that everything was okay and nothing had gone wrong. I could have peace about anxiety. And actually, Natalie helped me a little bit with that, like reminding me it’s okay to have anxiety. Don’t judge yourself for it. And my anxiety made sense because there was a lot of major things going on around me, emotional events, and some happened to me all in a short period of time. And my brain was on emotional overload. 


I had so many deep emotions, I just couldn’t process them fast enough. And so my brain was just staying lit up, as neuroscientists would say, and anxiety is a symptom of that. So, um, that’s okay. That’s what our brains do sometimes. Not a big deal. So with Natalie, I worked on my thoughts so I would be nice to me and love myself through it. And lo and behold, my anxiety was significantly better a couple days later because I took off that extra layer that was adding judgment and lighting up my brain even more. I calmed that down and, uh, in turn, my anxiety calmed down in the days after. So that was amazing. And this is actually related to what I’m going to be talking about today with the science of gratitude. We all hear about gratitude practices these days over the last several years. We know we should be grateful, and we’re told it makes our experience of life better. Right? And you may have experienced that, but let’s take a look at why I think this is fascinating. 


Just like the brain gets overheated, so to speak, and lit up, causing anxiety, gratitude also has an influence in the brain. And I wanted to look at it this week. It’s Thanksgiving, right? Gratitude is on our brain this week. So let’s take a look at it. I m don’t know what your family is doing this Thanksgiving, but mine is looking different. My sister is not flying in from Canada, my other sister and nephew and niece are not flying in from New York, and my parents are not having anyone over. So things are different this year with the pandemic, and it could be easy to forget, to be grateful. So let’s make sure not to do that. And here’s why. People who intentionally feel gratitude noticing and then also thinking about the things that they’re thankful and grateful for, they create more positive emotions in their life. They’re going to feel more peace, they will be more content, they worry less, they have more hope, and they’re better able to feel things like compassion and kindness and express those to the people around them. There are lots of studies that show it helps us physically too. People with more gratitude in their life, we heal better, we sleep better, we have more energy, we fight off illness better. So there’s physical benefits too. So here’s what I know and have found about gratitude. As I’ve researched it, psychologists and neuroscientists have done lots of studies on it, and they say that regularly practicing gratitude has the same kind of effects or similar effects on the brain as mood improving medications. 


They say it alters the neurotransmission in your brain and in effect, you’re producing more feelings of happiness and contentment. Like they can see this happening in the brain. When we express gratitude or receive appreciation from someone else, our brain will release dopamine and serotonin. These are feel good hormones in the brain. This is the job of these two neurotransmitters and hormones is to make us feel good. This is what they mimic in medications that they give us to deal with mood. And more of these hormones has also shown to help reduce physical pain. So the amazing thing is, if we start to practice gratitude every day, we can create neural pathways, kind of like clearing a path through a field and help our brain be conditioned like go on this path. The more you practice it, the more you’re clearing that path and showing your brain to go down the route of feeling grateful and notice what’s positive. And then we get more hits of dopamine and more serotonin on a regular basis. Another study on gratitude found that those who practiced gratitude had lowered levels of cortisol, which is a stress hormone, and with lower levels of cortisol, they would have better cardiac function and they’d be more resilient to emotional challenges. 


Basically, they could handle stress better than a lot of other people. So less feel bad hormones and more feel good hormones. That’s what gratitude does. It’s a natural way to boost your mood and your outlook on life. In fact, if you’re geeking out about the brain like I am right now, I recommend reading the book Change Your Brain, Change Your Life by Dr. Daniel Amen. It explains so many things about the brain and how it works and the link of thoughts to emotions. And he talks about the chemicals in the brain and the hormones and how it’s all related. It’s fascinating. So Dr. Aman did a study with another psychologist named Noel Nelson, and the study was on appreciation and gratitude. So in this study, they scanned Noel’s brain a couple of times. The first scan, Noel had been thinking about things she was grateful for and thankful for, and she let her mind stay in that place. And during that scan, her brain looked healthy. What they saw was a well functioning brain. On the scan, everything was lit up the right amount, in the right place, balanced, healthy. Then a few days later, they scanned Noel’s brain. 


After she was focusing on her fears. This scan was completely different than her gratitude scan. This scan was showing decreased activity in, let’s say, what was it called, the cerebellum and temporal lobes. And these lobes are kind of important. They’re responsible for receiving, interpreting, stimulus and input, and they’re responsible for our body movement and coordination. So when she was thinking of gratitude, her brain looked healthy and functioned well. But when she was dwelling on fears, when she was worrying and having anxiety, her brain had decreased function in very important areas. Okay, more geeking out on the brain. Studies have shown that the hippocampus and amygdala, which are the two main sites that regulate emotion and memory in your brain, they get activated when someone is having feelings of gratitude. So gratitude is improving your memory and helping you better regulate your emotions. Think of regulating emotions as just not being all over the place. Like they’re manageable, they’re in control and they’re not going crazy. 


We like to be able to manage our emotions. We like to be a little more level headed, don’t we? I could go on and on about these studies that I found, but the point is, gratitude releases feel good hormones and keeps our brain functioning in a healthy way. Gratitude is not some hippy dippy woo woo thing that we’re all just saying we need to be grateful. It’s a good idea. The brain studies are showing us it’s a critical practice. There are scientifically proven benefits to your brain and your emotional health. Gratitude matters. If you want to be mentally and emotionally healthy, you should be grateful. If you don’t want to be mentally and emotionally healthy, no problem. You don’t have to listen to any more of this podcast, because now I’m going to go into how to bring some gratitude practice into your life. One thing I really want you to hear is that gratitude is always available. 


You don’t need to have anything change in your life to start feeling gratitude now. You don’t need to change anyone else’s behavior for you to start feeling gratitude. Now, there is always something to be grateful for. Always. And gratitude doesn’t need to be for the big things either, or just the big things. For sure. You’re going to have gratitude for receiving a promotion at work, or getting married, or having a healthy baby, things like that. Those are the big things. But you can also be thankful for something as simple as mucklock slippers, which I’m wearing right now. You can also be thankful for something as normal as air to breathe. You can be thankful for something as weird as bandaids or toilet set flush, whatever. There’s so much to be grateful for. And there’s a couple of ways. Well, there’s many ways to help your brain grasp your gratitude efforts. But I’m going to focus on two right now. 


A way that helps you more solidify the practice in your brain. Like, hey, brain, pay attention. I’m doing something important. So I recommend that you make a practice of writing it down. Write your gratitude. I don’t care how or where. The simple practice of moving your hand in coordination with the gratitude thought you’re having helps to solidify it in your brain. You can journal it. You can have a journal where you write down five things you’re grateful for. And it might be hard the first several days if you’re not used to it. You might even notice that you’re repeating some things. If you go back and look at the past few days, doesn’t even matter. You can work on coming up with new things to be grateful for because it will expand your mind. It’ll train your brain to look for more and more things to be grateful for. But if you repeat something, who cares? Just write it down. If you look at my gratitude log, you’ll probably see me being grateful for things like my family, my muckluck slippers, and coffee repeatedly. I tend to write those down a lot. That’s okay. I write other things too. Also, ah, you can have a journal. But I don’t keep a true journal for my gratitude. I like to keep things simple and not create a lot of extra steps. So I love consolidating my efforts. And when I practice gratitude, I just use my daily planner. I’m already using my planner. I make a space in the notes section, and I write five things I’m grateful for. It doesn’t matter where you write it down. 


There’s just science behind the act of writing it down. It helps you clear that path in the field in your brain and show your brain neurotransmitters a new path they can go on the other way. I would say you can practice gratitude is to share it. It can also be written, but it can be verbal. Both of them make your brain take notice when you’re grateful for someone or something they did. You can think about it, but then you can write it down and, uh, give it to them in a note and share it with them, or you can verbalize it to them. Now, instead of just you benefiting from gratitude. Now you’re getting connection and you’re sharing the positive goodness of the gratitude with others in the form of appreciation. Because you like to be noticed for your efforts, right? You like to be appreciated. You like to know people are grateful for you. Well, guess what? Others feel good when they receive it from you, too. Now you’re getting gratitude benefits, and you’re meeting your own need for connection. It feels good to connect with other people and value them. 


So I highly recommend communicating appreciation for the people in your life. My husband and I, one time we did gratitude boxes. I don’t remember how long we did it for, but every day we wrote something we appreciated about the other person on a small piece of paper, and then we dropped it in the box and we just collected them. One day we sat down and opened it up and read them together. It was really fun. But you can just do it on your own, too. How fun would it be to have a box or a jar full of things you were grateful for? You could write it on postits and put it on a wall for all you Type A organized people. You could put gratitude on a spreadsheet. I don’t care. You could have a calendar. You know, those wall calendars. You could write one thing you’re grateful for every day in a square on a calendar. Doesn’t matter how you do it. Just have a, uh, gratitude practice. It’s the natural way to get feel good hormones going in your brain. This increases your sense of well being. It reduces stress, improves sleep, improves cognition, reduces your worry, increases your focus. It has all the physical benefits. It can relieve pain, help fight disease. It brings on more feelings of compassion and hope, appreciation, satisfaction, security, peace. So much more. I could just go on and on. And you know what? I want to let you know right now some of the things I’m grateful for, let’s just do it. 


You are amazing. You are here listening because you care about your life and the life of the people you love. And I appreciate that in you so much. I appreciate you. I’m grateful for this podcast. This podcast exists because of a nudge from God. And I’m just amazed and grateful every day that it’s being used to help people. I’m humbled and I’m grateful. I’m grateful for my cat. I’m grateful for my sisters who love me unconditionally. I’m grateful for my high school BFF who is still my best friend. Hi, Sarah. I’m grateful for my friends who give me encouragement and cheer me on and support me when I struggle. I’m thankful for each person in my family and especially my beautiful children and my husband, who, by the way, he’s going to be on the podcast next week. We just recorded it, so tune in for that. I’m filled with gratitude for so many things, and I hope that you are, too. That is my prayer for you this Thanksgiving. Make gratitude a daily part of your life. It’s so important for your well being, okay? Can you do that for me? And Happy Thanksgiving to you and your family. All right, y’all, that’s it for another episode of the Renew Your Mind podcast. I’ll catch you next week. Take care of you. 


As an advanced certified life coach, I help Christian women trying to live their best lives, but they still feel unsatisfied and stuck. I teach thought management skills that work so you can enjoy life again and Step into who God has created you to be. Don’t forget to head on over to Rym Podcast.com to get my free resources or a free coaching call.

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