The Benefits of Gratitude

Increasingly research into gratitude has highlighted the benefits of being grateful and expressing that feeling through thought, writing or action.

Neuroscientist, Glenn Fox, in his article, “What the brain reveals about gratitude“, argues that scientific studies have established that expressing gratitude can improve your health, your relationships and your overall happiness.  He also asserts that recent research demonstrates that gratitude alleviates depression.

In support of this view, Joel Wong and Joshua Brown established through their research that gratitude practice helps people who experience mental health issues as well as people who are mentally healthy.  They postulate that practising gratitude displaces “toxic emotions” such as anger and resentment through the cultivation of positive emotions such as appreciation.

Wong & Brown, drawing on their research, demonstrate that just the act of expressing gratitude has substantial personal benefits and that sharing the expression of gratitude is not essential to realise these benefits.  Their research entailed a control group of participants writing “gratitude letters”.  They established that the benefits of being grateful grow over time and that there are sustained, positive effects on the brain, including “greater neural sensitivity in the prefrontal cortex” which leads to improved mental health over time.

They comment insightfully:

Much of our time and energy is spent pursuing things that we currently don’t have.  Gratitude reverses our priorities to help us appreciate the people and things that we do have.

Robert Emmons in his ground-breaking article, “Why gratitude is good“, shares the results of research undertaken with his colleagues and lists the demonstrated physical, psychological and social benefits of gratitude.  He asserts that gratitude entails more than appreciating what is good in our life – it also involves acknowledging the people who have enabled that “goodness”.  This entails recognising that the source of what we experience as good is often someone outside of ourselves.

The researchers designing these research studies often had participants produce a gratitude journal – recording on a regular basis the things that they are grateful for.  We can generate the positive energy of gratitude by reflecting on what is good in our past life or in the present.

As we grow in mindfulness through gratitude meditation, we train our brain to recognise what is good in our life, to appreciate the contribution of others to our happiness and mental health and to express that gratitude often and spontaneously. Through this state of positivity, we are better able to handle the challenges and stresses in our life.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of johnhain on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

Coping with Trauma by Re-Connecting

In the previous discussion, I identified ways to access your inner resources to cope with trauma.  The problem with trauma, as Tara Brach points out, is that we become cut off from our brain and from our relationships.

This separation from ourselves and others impedes our ability to access our inner resources. There are a number of things that we can do to move past these blockages and find some peace.

Connecting with the present moment

One of the issues with trauma is that we can keep visiting the traumatic event(s) and the associated feelings, so we are re-living the past.  Resourcing begins with being in the present – being able to focus on the positives in our life including our achievements.  For example, we can connect with nature through open awareness – listening to the birds, smelling the flowers and trees, feeling the breeze on our face, observing the sky and clouds and touching the fibrous stems of a plant.

Connecting with our anxiety and aversion

When we find that every fibre of our body resists delving into the depths of our pain and grief, we can make the anxiety or aversion the focus of our meditation.  This involves being open to the anxiety involved and, instead of pushing it down deeper, we can establish a relationship with the feeling of aversion.  One way to do this is to explore the relationship that is demanded by the aversion – what is it asking of us?  Another way is to disarm it by picturing an image of the aversion- a cartoon character, an archetype (e.g. a witch) or a monster – and giving it a name such as “Mister Magoo”.  When the anxiety, fear or aversion rears its ugly head, we can then say – “So, Mister Magoo, I see you are back, what do you want this time?”

Connecting to daily practice

Sometimes, we find that we cannot maintain a daily practice of meditation – we may lack the discipline or motivation.  If we are driven by “shoulds”, we will be unable to sustain the habit of meditation.  However, if we revisit our intention – purpose for engaging in meditation – we can find the necessary discipline and motivation to restore our meditation practice.  Affirming to ourselves the benefits we seek, will help us to keep on track and overcome minor deviations from daily practice.  Sitting in the place we always sit for meditation can help, even if we can only do it briefly.  Journaling about the resistance we are feeling and recording how long we practised, can bring to light a pattern in our thinking and behaviour.  Also, by naming the resistance, we can tame it.

Connecting with our body

Sometimes we cannot feel an emotion in our body – we can become numb to our feelings.  We may feel, as a result, that we lack something that others possess when they can describe the impact of a feeling in their body in terms of colour, shape, intensity or location.  Again, practice helps.  When we feel a strong emotion such as kindness or disgust during our daily activity, we can try to notice our bodily reaction, exploring what is happening in our body no matter how minor or weak the impact.  Regular practice of this noticing will heighten our awareness and open us up to sensing our body’s reaction to particular emotions.  At first, it may be just a general sensation, but over time the features of the sensation will come into clearer focus.

Connecting to the community of suffering and love

The reality is that at any one time, most people are experiencing some form of suffering, whether physical, mental or a combination – suffering is a part of the human condition.  If we can move beyond our own suffering and its intensity we can connect to others who are experiencing similar suffering or something different and more intense – compassion for others can take us outside of ourselves.  There is also the wider “field of love” that we can tap into – be it from our friends, family or the community generally.  There is a sea of kindness everywhere, if we only look for it.

Connecting to a source of wisdom

We can imagine a wise person besides us as we try to make decisions that affect our life and wellbeing.  This can be a religious figure or someone who has taught or mentored us in life.  We can envisage talking to them about our issue and the decision we need to make.  This is a way to tap into universal wisdom.  We might raise our aversion, anxiety or resistance as a topic of conversation and the focus of a decision.

Through these means of connection, we can realise that we are not alone, that we do not need to be “cut off”.  We can feel the strength of everything and everyone around us and rest in that awareness.  As we grow in mindfulness through connection practices, we can break free of the sense of separateness, numbness and overwhelm and feel energised to deal with our deeper feelings generated by the experience of trauma.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of markusspiske on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.

 

Mindfulness and Neuroplasticity

Norman Doidge, in his book The Brain That Changes Itself, explained that early brain researchers discovered what became known as “neuroplasticity”:

They showed that the brain changed its very structure with each activity it performed, perfecting its circuits so it was better suited to the task at hand.  If certain “parts” failed, then other parts sometimes take over. (p.xv)

For example, people who meditate or teach meditation have been shown to have a thicker insula – a part of the brain that is activated by paying close attention to something (p.290).

Dr. Bruno Cayoun observed that neuroscience has demonstrated that brain plasticity explains how mindfulness training increases our perceptual ability leading to a greater sense of self control and self-awareness.  Perceptual ability, according to the Oxford Dictionary, is “the ability to be able to deal with and give meaning to sensory stimuli”.

Research conducted jointly by the Fudan University in China and the University of South Florida showed that Tai Chi- often described as “meditation-in-motion” – actually increased the size of the brain of seniors who practised Tai Chi for 40 weeks and did so at least three times per week.  Tai Chi has many other benefits and these are discussed elsewhere in this blog.

Norman Doidge discusses the work of Michael Merzenich, Emeritus Professor in neurophysiology, who started a company called Posit Science to extend neuroplasticity of the brains of people as they age, as well as extend their lifespan (p.85).  Professor Merzenich maintains that, if we are in the older age group, we may not have been developing our brain plasticity since middle age because we are often working off already mastered knowledge and skills.

So, learning new skills such as mindfulness meditation and Tai Chi, with the attention and concentration required, will help to alleviate this problem of mental decline.

As we grow in mindfulness through meditation and approaches such as Tai Chi, we increase the size of our brain, enhance brain plasticity and enjoy the consequential benefits such as self-awareness and self-control.

By Ron Passfield – Copyright (Creative Commons license, Attribution–Non Commercial–No Derivatives)

Image source: courtesy of ArtsyBee on Pixabay

Disclosure: If you purchase a product through this site, I may earn a commission which will help to pay for the site, the associated Meetup group and the resources to support the blog.