Spirituality

How Gratitude Can Affect Your Physical and Psychological Well-Being

Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash

“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life… makes sense of our past, brings peace for today and creates a vision for tomorrow.” – Melodie Beattie

 

Saying thank-you and showing your appreciation does more good than you may think. This benefit accrues both to the giver and recipient. Indeed, these types of expressions and acts are powerful forms of gratitude. Yet, while it may seem normal to be verbally appreciative at certain times and with specific people, there’s much more that you can get out of gratitude at other times. Here’s a look at how gratitude can affect your physical and psychological well-being.

Gratitude Promotes Positive Mind-Sets and Reduces Stress

A 2017 study published in Scientific Reports looked at the effects of gratitude meditation and resentment and mental well-being. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and heart rate at three intervals – before, during, and after interventions – researchers suggest that gratitude interventions modulate heart rhythms in a manner that enhances mental health. Gratitude intervention, said researchers, improves both emotional regulation and self-motivation by modulating resting state functional connectivity (rsFC) in brain regions involving emotion and motivation. Furthermore, researchers pointed to the potential use of gratitude interventions in treating those with mood disorders or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Gratitude Related to Better Sleep, Mood, Less Fatigue and Inflammation

Mills et al. (2015), in a study of patients with asymptomatic heart failure, found that an “attitude of gratitude” was related to better moods and sleep, less fatigue, reduced inflammation, and better cardiac-specific self-efficacy. Authors said this is important because depressed mood and poor sleep are both associated with a worse prognosis in heart failure patients, as well as in other cardiac condition populations. Thus, researchers said, the simple, low-cost efforts to help heart failure patients increase gratitude may have clinical value and be a potential target in treatment to improve patients’ well-being.

Gratitude Predicts Lower Depression Rates In Patients with Chronic Illness

Sirois and Wood (2017) examined longitudinal associations of gratitude to depression in two chronic illness samples, one with inflammatory bowel disease, and the other with arthritis. The study included two timepoints: completion of online survey at start of study (T1), and completion of a follow-up study at 6 months (T2). There were assessments of gratitude, depression, perceived stress, social support, illness cognitions, and disease-related variables at both time points. Study results showed that T1 gratitude was a “unique” and “significant” predictor of T2 depression in both sample groups. Authors noted that gratitude has relevance and potential benefits as an intervention for adjusting to chronic illness.

Various Elements of Well-Being Associated with Gratitude

A white paper on the science of gratitude prepared for the John Templeton Foundation by the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley highlights a number of studies showing possible connections between gratitude and various elements of well-being in those with self-reported higher dispositional gratitude. These include life satisfaction, happiness, positive affect, optimism, and subjective well-being. Authors also mention studies of university students self-reporting higher-order gratitude also reporting increased life satisfaction and positive affect. Examples of higher-order gratitude include thanking God, appreciating life’s hardships, cherishing the present, thanking others, and cherishing blessings.

How Gratitude Helps Improve Mental Health

Joel Wong and Joshua Brown, writing in the Greater Good Magazine, outlined research showing how gratitude helps improve mental health. The article’s authors also provided insights from their research on what may be the origins of the psychological benefits of gratitude:

  • Gratitude shifts attention away from toxic emotions like envy and resentment.
  • The benefits of gratitude occur even without sharing written gratitude letters with intended recipients.
  • Gratitude’s benefits take some time to occur as they don’t always happen immediately following the gratitude activity.
  • Effects on the brain from gratitude activity appear to be lasting, and may train the brain to become more sensitive to gratitude experiences later, thus helping to improve mental health.

Gratitude Fosters Well-Being at End of Life

Everyone dies, although not all of them die a quick and painless death. For many people suffering terminal illness, specifically cancer, the end may be a long time coming. During that slow, inexorable approach to dying, the patient generally interfaces with a number of caregivers: family, friends, hospice and other medical and mental health professionals. Not much has been studied about what is termed positive emotional communication in caring for those at the end of their lives. However, a 2018 study published in Patient Education and Counseling found that positive emotions serve as a protective function and are “associated with enhanced coping, meaning-making, and building resilience to stressful events,” which researchers determined was especially relevant to cancer patients and their hospice caregivers. The shared positive emotions, which included expressions of gratitude, created “mutual enjoyment and social bonds.”

Appreciation or gratitude was one of the category codes for positive emotional communication between the hospice nurses, caregivers, and their cancer patients. Included in the category are counting blessings, appreciation of life circumstances, gratitude toward others, and thinking of someone. An example exchange between patient and nurse might be: “I’m so grateful for everything you do for us.”

Researchers said that the results of their study show that a focus on positive emotional communication brings a strengths-based approach to communication with patients during end-of-life care. Other category codes for positive emotional communication include humor, praise or support, positive focus, savoring or experiencing joy, connection, and perfunctory (social etiquette, etc.). Authors said that such communication can “build a sense of strength, connection, and joy despite facing loss and life-limiting illness.”

Conscious Decision to Increase Gratitude Pays Off

Making the choice to increase gratitude isn’t difficult, yet the decision to do so can and will pay off in ways not immediately seen. Think of the immense power of positive thinking, maintaining a positive attitude, and seeing life in all its richness and variety of opportunities. There’s much to be grateful for each day, from waking up to going to sleep. Being mindful of blessings, thankful for all the gifts we’ve been given, and expressing our gratitude to others costs nothing, and is an ongoing benefit.

 

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This article was originally published on Psych Central.

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Kindness Counts: Here’s Why

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“My religion is very simple. My religion is kindness.” – Dalai Lama

 

In my opinion, there isn’t enough attention paid to the recommendation to be kind. While we may read or hear the advice to “Be kind to yourself,” or “Be kind to others,” how many times do we take the words to heart and act accordingly? Kindness, research shows, has many benefits to both body and mind. It also makes the giver and receiver of the kindness feel better in most reports. A deeper dive into how and why kindness counts reveals the following relevant (and hopeful) points.

All Kinds of Kindness Acts Boost Happiness

A 2018 study published in the Journal of Social Psychology looked at a week’s worth of kindness activities intervention and how they affected changes in subjective happiness. In the study, researchers did a systematic review and meta-analysis to determine if performance of different types of acts of kindness resulted in differential effects on happiness. They found that kindness boosts well-being and happiness. Yet, noted researchers, rarely had other researchers done a specific comparison of kindness acts to different recipients, such as strangers or friends. In this study, researchers used a single factorial design to compare kindness acts to the following: strong social ties, weak social ties, observing kindness acts, novel self-kindness acts, and a control of no acts. Results showed increased happiness over the 7-day study period, that the number of kind acts and happiness increases had a positive correlation, and the effect did not differ across all groups in the experiment. The key takeaway is that research strongly suggests acts of kindness increase happiness to strong and weak ties, to self, and to observing acts of kindness.

Kindness Helps in Cancer Care

Those undergoing cancer treatment, as well as their families, often experience intense turmoil. Not only is there uncertainty over treatment success, worry about levels of pain, functionality and quality of life, the setting and personnel involved in cancer care may seem impersonal, not conducive to well-being or even optimistic over outcomes. In a 2017 study published in the Journal of Oncology Practice, researchers from Texas A&M University, Institute for Healthcare Improvement, Henry Ford Health System, and Monash University proposed six types of kindness care for cancer patients. The six types included: deep listening; empathy for the cancer patient; generous acts of discretionary effort going well beyond what’s expected; timely care using tools and practices to reduce anxiety and stress; gentle honesty, and support for the cancer patient’s family caregivers. Researchers said these manifestations of kindness by clinicians are mutually reinforcing and can help temper cancer’s emotional toll on all concerned.

Altruistic and Strategic Kindness Both Provide Benefits

Researchers at the University of Sussex analyzed existing research on the brain scans of over 1,000 people who made kind decisions. Their findings, reported in NeuroImage, showed activity in the brain region for both those who acted with strategic kindness – kindness when there was something in it for them – as well as in those who performed kind acts altruistically, expecting nothing in return. Both gift types (altruistic and strategic) benefit others, and both, according to this research, are consistently rewarding to the giver. Furthermore, although they share many neural substrates, the decisions to give aren’t interchangeable in the brain. Altruistic kind acts, however, also sparked more activity in the subgenual anterior cingulate cortex, showing that there’s something unique about altruistic kindness. Researchers concluded that the fact “that any region is more involved in altruistic decisions suggests that there is something additive and special about giving when the only benefit is a warm glow.”

Being Kind to Your Partner Helps Improve/Stabilize Relationship

While many studies of relationships between partners look at how they deal with negative experiences rather than positive ones, researchers from the University of California found that feeling that your partner is there for you when things are going well and will actually be there when things go right is important to the health and stability of the relationship. They also found that capitalization, sharing news of positive events with close others, plays a likely central role in the formation and maintenance of a relationship. The researchers, whose work was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, said that sharing positive emotional exchanges may form the basis of a stable and satisfying relationship. In other words, be conscious of being kind and sharing good news, positive feelings, and hopes/dreams with your significant other. So, while this study focused on partnership relationships, the results seem somewhat appropriate to extrapolate to how kindness affects other close relationships as well.

WAYS KINDNESS IMPROVES WELL-BEING

Looking at things in a positive light and deciding to act in a likewise manner has many benefits to overall well-being, both for you and the recipient of your kindness. Among the many ways kindness helps in this regard are the following:

  • Kindness boosts happiness.
  • Being kind improves the body’s immune system.
  • Acting in a kind manner has been shown to lower the rate of depression.
  • Creativity gets a helpful assist when you are kind.
  • When you are kind, it may motivate you to work harder.
  • Kindness increases the brain’s natural supply of endorphins, creating the so-called “natural high.”
  • In addition, kindness produces a kind of emotional warmth, itself the by-product of the hormone oxytocin, which helps lower blood pressure and pulse rate.

Besides, wouldn’t you rather show kindness than the opposite? And, as research demonstrates, kindness is contagious. Kindness may be religion, as the Dalai Lama’s quote states, yet it’s part of the human condition, is it not? Mankind has evolved to be more than merely a survivor in the species, due perhaps to the extraordinary ability to show kindness and caring for other like beings, as well as animals, the environment, and the planet on which we exist.

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This article was originally published on Psych Central.

Related Posts:

10 Ways to Express Gratitude

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11 Ways to Cultivate Resilience

11 Ways to Cultivate Resilience

Photo by Simon Schmitt on Unsplash

“I am not what happened to me. I am what I choose to become.” – Carl Jung

 

Bouncing back is a concept well understood in the context of recovering from a sports injury. Following favorite players’ comeback stories fills fans with inspiration, encourages perseverance in pursuit of personal goals, and fosters a sense of self-confidence, like we can do it if they can. Cultivating resilience in the face of all life’s challenges is a proactive way of dealing with the unexpected, the upsets and disappointments, the pitfalls and successes in life, including how to cope with trauma, chronic pain, adversity and tragedy.

RESILIENCE: WHAT IT’S ALL ABOUT

An article in Forbes defines resilience as “the capacity for stress-related growth” and states that resilience has two parts related to the way you bounce back and grow:

  • From big work or life adversity and trauma
  • From dealing with daily hassles and stress

A study in Health Psychology showed that the frequency and intensity of repeated or chronic everyday life strains is strongly associated with overall health and illness, even more so than major life events.

A 2013 study found that exposure to chronic frequent negative emotion and the inability to process daily stress exacts a long-term toll on mental health.

Resilience, say researchers in an article published in Trauma, Violence & Abuse, can manifest either as “prosocial behaviors or pathological adaptation depending on the quality of the environment.” If individuals suffering from lasting effects of trauma and adversity have access to resources that help them cope, they will be more likely to develop prosocial behaviors that may facilitate healing.

Rolbieki et al. (2017) explored resilience among patients living with chronic pain and found that they showed resiliency in four ways: developing a sense of control (actively seeking information and conferring with their doctor to confirm his/her recommendations; actively engaging in both medical and complementary treatment; making social connections and exhibiting acceptance of pain and positive effect.

One surprising finding is that chronic stress accelerates aging at the cellular level – in the body’s telomeres. These are the repeating segments of non-coding DNA at the end of chromosomes. Scientists have discovered that telomeres can be lengthened or shortened – so the goal is to have more days of renewal of cells than destruction or wear and tear on them.

Researchers suggest resilience should be regarded as an emotional muscle, one that can be strengthened and cultivated. Dr. Dennis Charney, co-author of “Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenge,” says people can weather and recover from trauma by developing and incorporating 10 resilience skills, including facing fear, optimism and social support. Dr. Charney, resilience researcher and dean of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, was shot as he exited a deli. Following the shooting, Dr. Charney faced a long and difficult recovery. The resilience researcher himself had to employ strategies of coping he’d studied and taught.

The American Psychological Association (APA) says that resilience isn’t a trait that people either have or don’t. Instead, resilience “involves behaviors, thoughts and actions that can be learned and developed in anyone.”

WAYS TO CULTIVATE RESILIENCE

Among the varied ways to develop and cultivate resilience, some are more self-evident than others, yet each is worth a try when attempting to weather life’s challenges.

Act.

Even small steps add to a sense of accomplishment, of being proactive instead of reactive. Start with something you feel confident you can do and ask for help if you need it. There’s a lot to be said about self-empowerment when you act in your own best interests. After all, no one else can act for you.

Add to coping resources.

Everyone can benefit from having a toolkit of effective coping resources. Combat stress, depression, anxiety and other emotional, psychological and physical issues and conditions through meditation, mindful yoga, exercise and whatever helps you relax, including reading, music, doing puzzles, painting, writing and more.

Learn flexibility.

Instead of regarding your situation as no-win, steer towards an attitude of flexibility. Learn the art of compromise, as in, “I may not be able to run a marathon, yet I can manage a walk in the neighborhood with friends.” In addition, when running into fatigue or pain that prevents you from continuing, congratulate yourself on your effort and the fact that you acted to improve your resilience. Over time, you’ll get stronger and be able to do more, thus adding to your resilience and helping to improve your overall physical and mental health.

Practice optimism.

Science says that some optimism is genetic, while some is learned. You can train yourself with practice in positive self-thinking to see opportunity instead of a dead-end, to view a glass as half full instead of half empty. There’s also truth in self-fulfilling attitudes. If you believe you’ll be successful in overcoming adversity, you’re more likely to succeed. The opposite is also true: If you think you’ll fail, you probably will.

Take advantage of support.

When you need help, it’s OK to ask for it. In fact, when you know you have support available and are willing to use it, you’re exercising prosocial behavior. Similarly, when you can do so, offer your support to others who may need it.

Avoid personalizing.

There’s no point in engaging in blame or endlessly thinking about your situation. Besides being counter-productive, it makes you feel worse. Make use of some of the healthy coping measures you’ve successfully used before and stop ruminating about what happened to you.

Regard the setback/disappointment as temporary.

Nothing lasts forever, not even life-altering events, trauma, adversity and pain. You can navigate through this turbulent and emotionally trying time by realizing that this is temporary, and things will get better with your active involvement in your healing process.

Write your new story.

Psychiatrists and psychologists call this “reframing” and it refers to changing your story to focus on the opportunities revealed. For example, say you’ve returned from active deployment in a war zone with extensive physical and psychological injuries. Instead of remaining steeped in the negative aspects of your experience, allow yourself to center on other senses, traits, skills and resources you have at your disposal – your empathy, understanding, ability to solve problems, a wide support network, loving family and close friends.

Cultivate gratitude.

When you are grateful and actively cultivate gratitude, you are taking advantage of a basic part of resilience and in contentment in life. The more you develop gratitude, the more resilient you’ll become.

Remind yourself of other victories.

This may be an intensely challenging time for you, a time when failures and negativity seem paramount and inevitable. Now is when you must remind yourself of your past successes, examples of seemingly impossible hurdles you’ve overcome, victories you’ve scored. This serves as self-reminder that you’ve come back from adversity before. You can do it again.

Enhance spirituality.

Religion and spirituality have been shown as predictors of resilience in various populations studied, including returning war veterans with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), trauma sufferers, children and adults who experience abuse or violence, patients enduring chronic pain. Prayer, self-reflection, communicating with a Higher Power serves as a healing balm to many who otherwise may resort to negative coping behaviors, such as drinking and drug use.

 

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This article was originally published on Psych Central.

Related posts:

10 Ways to Express Gratitude

Combat Stress With Mindful Walking

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