The Power of Gratitude

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Article by Laura Gutierrez, LPC

image of Laura Gutierrez, MA

Humans struggle with a bias known as Negativity Bias. The negativity bias highlights our human tendency to give more importance to negative experiences than to positive or neutral experiences. Some people have a stronger tendency to engage in this bias to the point that it can become crippling, but we all are susceptible to it. Luckily there are ways to fight this tendency and things we can do to train our brains to have a more balanced perspective on life and the setbacks we encounter.

PubMed describes neural plasticity as the capacity of the nervous system to modify itself, functionally and structurally, in response to experience. There is now ample evidence that the adult brain maintains the ability for reorganization or plasticity. This means there are things we can do to help re-wire our brain allowing us to handle stress, anxiety, and depression better and become more adaptive and resilient.

Recent evidence suggests that the effects of meditation practice on affective processing and resilience induce neuroplastic changes within the amygdala. The amygdala helps coordinate responses to things in your environment, especially those that trigger an emotional response. The amygdala is responsible for the perception of emotions such as anger, fear, and sadness. MRI scans demonstrate that meditating daily for just 8 weeks can be enough to alter your brain in beneficial ways, increasing your capacity to cope better with stressors and to emotionally regulate.

Practicing gratitude is a very simple way of strengthening the adaptive neural networks and pathways in your brain. Over time, if you practice gratitude daily, it will become natural for you to seek out the positive, so you don’t get stuck in the negative. Practicing gratitude is not about ignoring the negative, is healthy to acknowledge the negative but is not healthy to get stuck in it or over focus on it. When you practice gratitude even on your worse day it helps you see the whole picture, not just the bad and this gives you strength to tackle the challenges you are facing and helps you feel more grounded and calmer. It is also a great tool to combat another cognitive bias called “catastrophizing.”

Take five minutes during this Thanksgiving month to identify at least five things that we often overlook or take for granted that we are grateful for. Then pay attention to how this exercise makes your body feel, notice that. Feel free to connect with an image that represents each thing you feel grateful for and notice any sensations in your body.

  • House to clean = Safe place to live
  • Laundry = Clothes to wear
  • Dirty Dishes = Food to eat
  • Crumbs under the table = Family meals
  • Toilets to clean = Indoor Plumbing

Now take five minutes to identify five strengths of yours you feel grateful for:

  • I am grateful for my sense of humor
  • I am grateful for my ability to take chances and my adventurous spirit
  • I am grateful for my ability to bounce back from pain and setbacks
  • I am grateful for my ability to forgive and forget
  • I am grateful for my ability to think for myself and to question everything

“Happiness is not the absence of problems,
it is the ability to cope with them.”  
–  Steve Maraboli