How Gratitude Changes the Brain – And How to Make it Work For You

How Gratitude Changes the Brain (And how to make it work for you.)

Last year I wrote an article called ‘How To Teach Your Kids About The Brain’ that I hoped a few of my friends might see… to date, it’s actually been read over 100,000 times. 

I continue to get emails about it from people all over the world, commenting on my ideas and sharing theirs. Many adults tell me that they didn’t realise their brains worked in the ways I described – and that having this new understanding has really helped them. One of the ideas that has resonated with people is that naming emotions and brain functions can help us understand the brain better. Let’s focus on what I called “Frightened Fred” (which you might call Frieda, Froggy, or any other creative name you can think of). 

Frightened Fred’s got the volume control.

The part of our brain designed to keep us safe is Frightened Fred (along with his friends Big Boss Bootsy and Alerting Allie) who can trigger our ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ response. This part of the brain has been brilliantly effective in the survival of humankind, but it can also get in the way of our daily living sometimes. We have become GREAT at listening to Frightened Fred and spotting the potential pitfalls at every turn: “Did that person in the supermarket just give me a dodgy look?” “Is that chap standing a bit too close to my kids?” 

We are primed to take care of our own survival and that of our offspring. Some days, Fred turns up the volume and we focus all our attention on these risks, potential dangers, failures and worst-case scenarios. 

Sometimes I listen to Fred. Sometimes I don’t. 

Recently, I was invited to speak at a big conference next year. I came off the phone feeling dizzy with excitement. I sat down with a huge grin on my face and allowed the feelings of self- congratulatory praise to come flooding in. Except they didn’t. Fred started making an appearance. “What if I make a terrible mistake?” “What if I face-plant on stage?” “What if I quote someone’s research and that person is actually there, and they tell me I’ve got it all wrong?”

“What if…?” “What if…?” 

Let me slow this down. Fred sees the potential threat of a big crowd looking at me. Fred decides to warn me: “Don’t do it, it will end in tears!” 

Sometimes I listen to Fred (remember he IS trying to keep me safe) and sometimes he is silenced by Problem Solving Pete and Calming Carl. They say things like: “But what’s the best that could happen?” and “If the worst case scenario does happen, you’ll still be okay – except perhaps for face-planting, you may need medical assistance for that one.”

How do we learn to turn down the hum of unhelpful negativity from Frightened Fred? Here’s one way: Gratitude

In Woods, Froh and Geraghty’s review of the gratitude research they explain gratitude as “noticing and appreciating the positive in the world”. This could include: the appreciation of other people’s help; feelings of awe when we see something amazing; focusing on the positive in the ‘here and now’ moments; or an appreciation rising from the understanding that life is short. 

Grateful Gerty

Let me introduce you to Grateful Gerty, our brain’s gratitude representative. The research tells us that building up Grateful Gerty’s strength is associated with a whole host of benefits. Gerty can make Frightened Fred simmer down and reduce anxiety. Expressing gratitude provides a path to more positive emotions. People who express more gratitude have also been found to have better physical and psychological health.

Robert Emmons is one of the world leading gratitude researchers. Here’s what he says about the benefits:

“We’ve studied more than one thousand people, from ages eight to 80, and found that people who practice gratitude consistently report a host of benefits:

Physical

  • Stronger immune systems Less bothered by aches and pains
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Exercise more and take better care of their health
  • Sleep longer and feel more refreshed upon waking

Psychological

  • Higher levels of positive emotions
  • More alert, alive, and awake
  • More joy and pleasure
  • More optimism and happiness

Social

  • More helpful, generous, and compassionate
  • More forgiving
  • Feel less lonely and isolated
  • More outgoing” 

So how does it work?

When we search for things to be grateful for, neuroscientist Alex Korb explains that this activates the part of our brain that releases dopamine (the feel-good hormone) and it can also boost serotonin production (low levels of this neurotransmitter are associated with depression). Or, to put it another way: on Halloween, Gerty’s the one handing out the treats. 

Gratitude can change our thinking habits. Regularly spotting the good things in our life can also make it more likely that (even when we’re not looking for them) we see more positives. 

And gratitude works on a social level too. It can help us feel more connected to others, which in turn can improve our well-being. 

How do you strengthen Gerty?

Grab a journal and, before you go to sleep each night, write 3 things that went well that day and why you think they went well. Keep doing it for a week. That’s it. 

When I first read the research on gratitude, I felt like there must have been some pages missing. “So, they wrote about things they were grateful for, and then they…”? But no. It really is as simple as that. 

As Froh and Bono point out, we can be great at analysing why we’re anxious or sad. But when we’re happy, we don’t often stop to ponder why. Mainly because when we are experiencing positive emotions, it’s a signal that all is well in the world; we can relax and enjoy ourselves. 

Keeping a gratitude journal allows us to focus on the positive things. It teaches us how to strengthen Gerty’s ability to spot them in the first place – and how to savour them. Some people worry that they won’t be able to find anything to be grateful for. While it’s true that some days the searching may be harder than on others, Korb reminds us that “it’s not finding gratitude that matters most; it’s remembering to look in the first place.”

‘There will always be more important things than gratitude.’

Pets will need taking to the vets, reports will need to be finished, kids will need feeding, cups will need cleaning… gratitude can quickly fall down the ‘to do’ list. But that’s the challenge with taking a proactive approach to well-being. It’s hard to prioritise because you can’t easily see the things you’re preventing. 

You may be preventing the onset of depression or anxiety. You may be moving yourself further up the well-being spectrum towards thriving. But scientifically, it would be very hard to prove that. 

Be a scientist of your own world.

Just like we know why it’s good to eat healthily and exercise, my mission is to help share the research on ways that we can all take better care of our well-being. I want people to have access to evidence-based ways to improve their mental health. 

Some of these ideas might work for you, some of them might not. So, what I’d encourage you to do is this: become a scientist in your own life, and if you decide to try keeping a gratitude journal, observe how it feels for you. 

And maybe, just maybe, Gerty will give out some treats. 


About the Author: Dr Hazel Harrison

hazel-1Dr Hazel Harrison works as a clinical psychologist in the United Kingdom. She founded ThinkAvellana to bring psychology out of the clinic and into everyday life. Her website is www.thinkavellana.com and you can also follow her on Twitter at @thinkavellana and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/thinkavellana

4 Comments

Melinda

Thank you a million of times I’m so happy to read each article and helping me to see the bright side of life. I have 3 little ones with anxiety the older one 5 diagnosed on autism spectrum and it is hard in middle of Europe far from helpfull family members to smile and keep everybody happy including my husband. He is helping when he is at home but on his education and terms that are the german ones very comanding and kids need to do as he wants without a word .

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Maud Hagelberg

Hi, I started writing a journal of gratitudes about six months ago with my children. I must say needed that for myself (I am coing through a rough time with feelings and emotions blasting from a dark past…). Not only is it helping me every evening especially when I had a depressing day and my children ask for it at night before going to bed. They go to sleep focusing on good things and sobdo I. I can highjky recommend doing such a journal as it pulls you toward the bright side of life.

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Then of course there was Christmas morning. Santa would leave a note on the table and bootprints on the front path, which smelled remarkably like talcum powder. So magical the way the snow was under the boot and never melted, even in an Australian summer! But that’s the magic of Christmas, right?!

We often put so much pressure on ourselves to make Christmas magical. Rituals can make this easier. They get the special memories, you get to make the ‘magic’ without having to come up with something new and different each year.

It’s very likely that there will already be Christmas rituals happening in your family, even if you don’t realise it. Ask them what they remember most, or what they loved most about last Christmas, aside from the presents.

They might surprise you with things you’d completely forgotten about, or which at the time didn’t seem to be a biggie. It can be the simplest things. Maybe they loved the way they were allowed to have ice-cream with pancakes at breakfast last Christmas. (Ice-cream at breakfast?! Told you Christmas was magical!!). 

If it’s what they remember, and if it lights them up, let it become a ‘thing’. Maybe they loved the magic ‘neverending carrot’ sprinkles you put on the scrawny carrot you found in the vege drawer (remembering reindeer groceries can be so hard sometimes!)

You’d be surprised what they find special. It doesn’t have to be big to feel magical.

What are your Christmas rituals? Let’s share ideas in the comments.♥️
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It can feel as though the only way to strengthen them against their anxiety is to make sure they have nothing to worry about, but when their worries are real this might not happen quickly. 

Instead, we need to focus on helping them know that even though those worries are there, they will be okay. ‘Not worrying’ isn’t the antidote to anxiety, trust is. This will start with trust in you and your belief that they will be okay, and trust in your reaction if things don’t go to plan. Eventually, as they grow this will expand into trust in themselves and their own capacity to find their way through challenges to a place of hope and strength. 
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Strong steady breathing will reverse the fight or flight physiology that causes nausea, butterflies, or sick or sore tummies during anxiety. BUT telling an anxious brain to take a strong steady breath will potentially make anxiety worse unless strong steady breathing feels familiar. Practising during calm times will make it familiar. 

During anxiety we’re dealing with their amygdala, and it wants short shallow breathing to conserve oxygen. It doesn’t want strong steady breathing and will work hard to resist this. 

An anxious brain is a busy brain and it will be less able to do anything unfamiliar. A few minutes of strong steady breathing each day will set up a strong neural pathway to make strong breathing more automatic and accessible during anxiety. 

In the meantime though, you can do it for them. This is the magic of co-regulation. When you do strong steady breathing during their anxiety, it will calm your nervous system which will eventually calm theirs. You will catch their anxiety, and this will feed into their anxiety. Your strong steady breathing is the circuit breaker. They will catch your anxiety, but they will also catch your calm. Don’t worry if this takes a few minutes (and maybe a few more after that). Anxious brains are strong, powerful, beautiful brains working hard to protect. Breathe and be with. This will open the way for that distressed young nervous system to find its way home. And you don’t need to do more than that.♥️
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Needs and behaviour can get tangled up and treated as one. When you can, separate the need from the behaviour. Give voice to the need - let it find a way to breathe - and redirect the behaviour. 

The need might always be clear, especially if it’s being smothered by angry shouting words. If we stifle the behaviour without acknowledging the need, the need stays hungry. Help usher it into the light by making it clear that you’re ready to receive it. Then wait. Wait for the big behaviour to ease, for bodies to calm, and angry voices to soften - but keep the way to you open. ‘You’re a great kid and I know you know that behaviour wasn’t okay. Talk to me about what’s happening for you.’

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