The Miraculous Effects of Gratitude on Mind and Body

written by: Kyneret Azizo

Thanksgiving is almost here, and with it, the reminder to cultivate gratitude as much as we can – every other day of the year.

Gratitude is a real buzzword and a trend in the topic of alternative healing and medicine these days. More people are practicing gratitude, especially now that medical science is providing us with valuable insight into its incredible health benefits. It is thought to be the most powerful emotion we can experience.

I can personally attest to the nearly spellbinding effect gratitude has had on my life. It’s so potent that sometimes it feels as though I’m practicing sorcery. For me, it’s been a winged saviour, plucking me out of hellish terrains and dropping me off in, well, heavenly ones.

Why is gratitude such a game changer and what’s the evidence supporting its efficacy as a healing tool? Read on to find out the miraculous effects of gratitude on mind and body.

But first, let’s answer a basic question that, surprisingly, many of us have.

What Does Gratitude Feel Like?

Deriving from the Latin word gratus, the word gratitude is defined as the quality of being thankful. It’s an emotion that expresses appreciation, and something we feel from a deep place within.

So how do you know what gratitude feels like, and if you are experiencing it?

Along with feelings of profound appreciation, the emotion of gratitude leaves behind a succession of pleasant physical effects, both short-term and long-term. I’ve heard people describe it as a warm, calm feeling that emanates from their heart and spreads throughout the entire body.

Medical studies have confirmed that an ongoing gratitude practice can have the long-lasting effect of eliminating stress, deepening and slowing down the breath, as well as relaxing muscular tension.

For me, gratitude has always begun as an uplifting, energetic current that courses through me. It washes away any symptoms of illness, fatigue, or mental drabness that I might be experiencing. I then land in a calm, centred state, where I can feel a more profound connection with my heart and inner wisdom.

And of course, I feel a profound sense of appreciation – for everything. So much that my eyes begin to water.

What I’ve basically found is this: gratitude just feels right in my body. It feels like the correct emotion to choose in any given situation. Because it shifts me into a state where I can embrace my reality with more love and acceptance. 

How Gratitude Affects the Brain

Given my own experiences with gratitude, I don’t need to be convinced any further on its positive effects. But it sure is exciting to see the scientific research that supports this claim. 

In the last 20 years, a number of experiments have been conducted to investigate the power of gratitude and the impression it leaves on us. It turns out this lovely emotion is catalyst to much personal transformation on many levels.

Briefly, here’s what we know about gratitude and its effects on the brain:

  • It has the capacity to change the molecular structure of the brain, literally rewiring it
  • It increases grey matter, which is associated with better cognitive functioning 
  • It affects the limbic nervous system in ways that regulate our emotions and help us steer clear of toxic ones
  • It boosts neurotransmitter serotonin and stimulates the brain stem to produce dopamine
  • It results in enhanced activity in two primary regions of the brain: the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) – the areas associated with empathy, decision making, impulse control, and will power.

It’s no wonder why gratitude is considered the most powerful emotion. And that’s just skimming the surface! There are so many other blessings that result from counting our blessings. 

How Gratitude Improves Your Health

There’s no shortage of positive effects gratitude has on the entire body, especially since the mind and body are connected. Here are some awesome benefits noted in studies observing the effect of gratitude on our health:

  • It makes us happy
  • It helps us release toxic emotions and manage stress
  • It lowers blood pressure and cortisol levels
  • It improves the quality of sleep
  • It motivates us to take better care of ourselves, such as exercise and eat healthier meals
  • It strengthens our immune system

Gratitude is a Natural Antidepressant and Pain Killer

When practiced daily, gratitude has the same effect as antidepressant medication. It is observed to boost serotonin and dopamine, the neurotransmitters responsible for happiness. This popular study by Emmons RA, McCullough ME. (2003) showed that participants felt happier and experienced less pain, having recorded their blessings in a gratitude journal. Recounting the things that we are appreciative of is what brings joy to our hearts and keeps us pain-free.

Gratitude Helps with Anxiety 

Anxiety is an unsettling mental condition to experience, and these days there are too many people suffering from it. However, just a few moments of self-reflection on something that you are thankful for is enough to slice through those toxic thoughts. This is because gratitude has a way of activating the limbic nervous system in a way that regulates emotions and puts a damper on the worrisome chatter of the mind. 

Gratitude Helps Manage Stress

A study by McCraty and colleagues (1998) revealed an impressive 23% reduction of cortisol, the stress hormone, in participants who were asked to cultivate feelings of appreciation.  80% of those participants showed an increased coherence in heart rate variability patterns, which suggests they experienced a reduction of stress. Gratitude is the ultimate stress-management tool! Combine it with a regular yoga practice for more stress-busting superpowers. 

Gratitude Improves Sleep

Having trouble getting those Zzzs? Count your blessings instead of sheep. Feeling the emotion of gratitude releases toxic emotions, soothes the nervous system, lowers cortisol, deepens the breath, and relaxes the muscles – just to name a few of the effects. And those are all things that help the body shift into sleep mode. Here’s a study published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research showing the correlation between gratitude and sleep. 

Gratitude Strengthens the Immune System

Energy healers know that pessimism and negative emotions weaken our immune system, while optimism and positive emotions strengthen it. Medical studies now confirm that our immune system flourishes, with higher numbers of blood cells, in response to positive emotions like optimism. And since grateful people are optimistic by nature, they directly experience this effect. 

How Gratitude Can Change Your Life

Given the epic changes gratitude creates on molecular levels, it’s no surprise that it has the power to change our whole life. If, at the very least, it makes us no more than just happy, this alone is enough to change life for the better. But let’s take a look at a few other ways gratitude can improve life.

Gratitude Makes Us Resilient to Life’s Ups and Downs

Cultivating gratitude boosts our resilience, both physiologically and psychologically. Our body learns how to bounce back easily after a stressful event. On a mental level, the positive mindset that gratitude builds helps prevent the downward spiral of worrisome thoughts. When we take the time to fully absorb ourselves in a quiet moment of appreciation, it feels like we have the power to bounce back from anything. We can take on any challenge that lies ahead of us. 

Gratitude Strengthens Relationships

What could be more fortifying to our relationships with others than expressing how much we appreciate them? Showing gratitude for your significant other is proven to strengthen the bonds between you. 

Gratitude Helps Us See the Good in Every Situation 

Wong and Brown’s (2017) study revealed that gratitude begets more gratitude – It gets easier to arrive at a grateful state of mind the more you practice it. That means that we’re rewiring our brain to see something positive in every situation, leading us to find even more joy.

Gratitude Keeps Us Healthy and Living Our Best Life

Researchers found a positive correlation between gratitude and the likelihood of sticking to self-care regimens, like exercise or eating healthy. That is great news, considering how difficult it is for most people to keep up their healthy habits. 

How to Practice Gratitude

You can practice gratitude in lots of ways throughout your day and keep it fresh every time.
Here are a few great ways to incorporate it into your day.

Morning Gratitude Reflection

As soon as you open your eyes in bed, close them again! Take about 10 seconds to say thank you for another day of life on this planet. To make it even more impacting, unite your palms together in front of your chest and expand your chest into your thumbs with each inhale. I love this exercise because it helps set a positive tone to my day. Remember that whenever we feel the emotion of gratitude, our brain releases a hit of dopamine, which feels really good and makes us want more of it. Naturally, we’ll strive to keep doing this dopamine-releasing action as we move on with our morning rituals. What a great start to the day! 

Verbally Express Gratitude Throughout Your Day

As children, we were lectured to always say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ as a polite gesture. But as the years passed, saying ‘thank you’ became an automated process – one we rarely think twice about. If we take time to be present and reflect on the feeling of appreciation as we utter the words, it serves its greater purpose. As a bonus, when you verbally give thanks to someone, you reward both yourself and that person at the same time. Being on the receiving end of gratitude has the same positive effect as showing it.

Write Thank-You Letters

Offer written words of gratitude to coworkers, partners, friends or relatives by writing them thank-you letters. It goes a step further than vocalizing your appreciation because it leaves them with something beautiful to hold on to.

Gratitude Meditation

You can find thousands of awesome gratitude meditation videos on YouTube. Some are guided meditation tracks while others are purely instrumental tracks. The latter usually include binaural beats or solfeggio tones in the background meant to invoke a mindset of gratitude. As an alternative to using guided meditation tracks or music, meditate silently on your heart chakra, exploring the emotion of gratitude as you reflect on your life’s blessings. 

Keep a Daily Gratitude Journal

Writing in a gratitude journal is proven to be an effective strategy for counting your blessings. Assign yourself a specific time to write your entries, so you can make it into a habit. When’s the best time? Just before bed. It will help induce those sleepy sensations. It’s also the perfect time to reflect on the events of your day. Enjoy a hot cup of chamomile tea as you write in your gratitude journal to boost the effects. Keep up this process for at least 30 days to notice the residual effects.

An added bonus of keeping a gratitude journal is you can read over your daily entries from time to time, returning again to a grateful mindstate, which makes it all the more encouraging to continue the process.

Here are some gratitude journal prompts to work with:

1. Gratitude is important to me because…
2. Who am I grateful for in my life?
3. Who inspires me?
4. Three possessions I own which I am thankful for…
5. What strengths am I grateful to have?

Gratitude and Yoga

Consistent gratitude journaling motivates us to take care of our health, such as engage in fitness or take up a mindfulness practice. That’s because cultivating gratitude activates the whole region of the brain associated with motivation, will power, and good decision making. Hopefully it will inspire you to stick with your regular yoga practice! 

I’m grateful for the chance to learn about the power of gratitude, through all the research that went into this article. And I’m grateful to have shared it with you. I’m positive it will change your life!

So, what are you grateful for?

Happy Thanksgiving!
Kyneret


Kyneret has been practicing and teaching yoga for over a decade. She began as a yoga teacher for Modo Yoga Maple in 2012, and has recently set off on a nomadic adventure to South East Asia. She remains active within our Modo community as a blog writer.

When not writing, she is fully immersed in the day-to-day adventures of travel life and actively seeks out as many foreign yoga experiences as possible to further her knowledge and skills! You can follow Kyneret’s travels on her instagram account @planes_trains_autoimmunity

References:

  1. Emmons RA, McCullough ME. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: an experimental investigation of gratitude and subject wellbeing in daily life. J. Personal. Soc. Psychol.
  2. https://positivepsychology.com/neuroscience-of-gratitude/
  3. https://ideapod.com/neuroscience-reveals-gratitude-literally-changes-brain-happier/
  4. https://healthypsych.com/how-gratitude-helps-us-build-better-relationships/