An Attitude of Gratitude Decreases Pain

As the Thanksgiving holiday begins, and as the name implies, we remember when the American colonists gave thanks for their survival and a harvest. November is a good time to review the mental health benefits of gratitude. Cultivating this state of mind relieves pain. Expressing thanks may be one of the simplest ways to feel better. Click To TweetIt refocuses people from their own pain.

Gratitude is from the Latin word gratia, which means grace, graciousness, or gratefulness. Gratitude encompasses all of these meanings. A thankful appreciation for what we receive, whether tangible or intangible. With gratitude, people acknowledge the goodness in their lives. In the process, people usually recognize that the source of that goodness lies at least partially outside themselves. As a result, an attitude of gratitude helps people connect to something larger than themselves as individuals; to other people, nature, or a higher power.

Gratitude can be more than a fleeting thought where one moment it is there, and in the next, it is gone. Becoming a more grateful person is a valuable process that can be learned. Click To Tweet In positive psychology research, gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.

Recently gratitude has become an area of study. According to Loretta Breuning, Ph.D., California State University, there is a strong correlation between unhappiness and unhealthy habits, conversely, positive rituals enhance happiness. The neural correlates of gratitude study, for the NIH, revealed that ratings of gratitude correlated with brain activity in the anterior cingulate cortex and medial prefrontal cortex. These results provide a window into the brain circuitry for moral cognition and positive emotion that accompanies the experience of benefiting from the goodwill of others.

“Setting aside time on a daily basis to recall moments of gratitude associated with ordinary events, your personal attributes, or valued people in your life gives you the potential to interweave a sustainable life theme of gratefulness,” stated Emmons, editor-in-chief, The Journal of Positive Psychology and author of Gratitude Works!: A 21-Day Program for Creating Emotional Prosperity and Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier.

There is a science of gratitude today and the research shows:

Gratitude is related to 23% lower levels of stress hormones (cortisol)”. This is how being appreciative can actually lead to a longer life. With fewer cases of stress, anxiety and depression. The brain releases “feel good” hormones rather than anxiety and stress-producing hormones.

Practicing gratitude even led to a 7% reduction in biomarkers of inflammation in patients with congestive heart failure.

Grateful people have 16% lower diastolic blood pressure and 10% lower systolic blood pressure compared to those less grateful.

Dietary fat intake is reduced by as much as 25% when people are keeping a gratitude journal.

Two gratitude activities are counting blessings and gratitude letter writing reduced the risk of depression in at-risk patients by 41% over a six month period.

A daily gratitude practice can decelerate the effects of neurodegeneration that occurs with increasing age.

Older adults administered the neuropeptide oxytocin showed a 12% increase in gratitude compared to those given a placebo.

Writing a letter of gratitude reduced feelings of hopelessness in 88% of suicidal inpatients and increased levels of optimism in 94% of them.

Gratitude is related to a 10% improvement in sleep quality in patients with chronic pain, 76% of whom had insomnia, and 19% lower depression levels.

A chronic pain sufferer experimented with gratitude after trying other practices and it worked well. Writing “negativity took over my life and I stopped seeing friends and socializing. Then I stopped leaving the house and even showering. A previously positive person had become quite a mess full of misery and despair. Pain took over my life and I lost all other identities I once had. I was the pain and the pain was me.” In digging deeper she realized there are many things she was grateful for because she lives with chronic pain. “I am grateful that I now realize what is really important in life and I don’t sweat the small stuff. I am grateful for all the friends I’ve made in my Chronic Pain Anonymous group and in my Facebook support group “Attitude of Gratitude with Chronic Pain.” When, like the sufferer above, one truly starts to think about everything in life to be grateful for, lots of additional items belong on that list.

Thinking about blessings is an excellent way to boost happiness and lessen pain.

How to start a Gratitude Journal to take advantage of the science.

Any paper notebook or even a tablet can be a gratitude journal. However, a physically appealing journal is more calming. Enjoying the color and binding or wrapper will make writing more fun. When an object feels good in the hand then the pain will decrease. A beautiful book will help make the process of writing down grateful thoughts easier than using a standard tablet or notebook. Each night before going to bed, first think about then write down everything to be grateful for that day. This nighttime practice has been proven to allow sleep to come faster and improve sleep quality. Don’t just think about huge, monumental, life-changing moments of gratefulness. A good meal, book, or movie, and other simple, daily occurrences like a smile from a stranger are all worthy of gratitude. Start with 5 different things to be grateful for and over time increase that number. If reading or watching tv before bed is a habit, that is fine. Journaling thoughts of gratitude as the very last thing before sleep works best for pain reduction.

When unsure how to create a gratitude journal, although an even a paper and pencil would work try a search for “gratitude journal” or “thankfulness journal”. There are online gratitude journal templates that can be personalized for unique situations. Or “online gratitude journal” will reveal applications to create a gratitude journal from any Internet-connected device.

Consider the suggestions about adding gratitude below.

1 – Turn a negative into a positive. The next time something negative happens in life, look at that with a new set of eyes. Look for some positive aspect of this negative occurrence or event. Often challenges are wonderful opportunities for growth, and that is something to be thankful for.

2 – Each morning upon waking, make a vow or agreement or promise to practice gratitude that day.

3 – Look outside and see what others have done, rather than looking inwardly giving credit for the blessings in life. Grateful people recognize what others have done for them, rather than concentrating on their own actions.

4 – Send handwritten if possible thank you notes to the important people in life so they learn they are appreciated.

5 – Find a gratitude partner, to help stick to a daily gratitude practice and have that person routinely ask about daily expressed gratitude.

6 – Find inspirational quotes of gratitude and refer to them often.Try searching for “gratitude quotes” online or use a daily reminder for one quote each day.

7 – Use all 5 senses daily to identify more things be grateful for.Use all of your senses – you have the ability to feel, see, smell, taste and hear, and all of your senses can reveal something you have to be grateful for.

8 – Keep “Be Grateful” sticky notes at strategic places in home and work as reminders.

9 – Call or visit a different person each day, thanking them for something they have done for or simply for being in our lives.

10 – Meditation and prayer can improve outlook, relieve stress, and help find reasons to be grateful.

11 – With a gratitude journal record 5 to 10 reasons to be grateful each night before sleep.

12 – Whether the practice is writing in the gratitude journal at day or night, do it at the same time each day.

13 – Be grateful for the small things, being able to leave work early, enjoying a good meal, or watching a glorious sunset.

14 – Anytime you eat, take a moment to express appreciation for your meal.

References:

Emmons, R. A. Thanks! How the new science of gratitude can make you happier (Houghton Mifflin Company, 2007).

Emmons RA, et al. “Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Feb. 2003): Vol. 84, No. 2, pp. 377–89.

Fox, Glenn R. * Jonas Kaplan, Hanna Damasio, and Antonio Damasio – Neural correlates of gratitude https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4588123/.

Grant AM, et al. “A Little Thanks Goes a Long Way: Explaining Why Gratitude Expressions Motivate Prosocial Behavior,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (June 2010): Vol. 98, No. 6, pp. 946–55.

Gysels M, Shipman C, Higginson IJ. “I will do it if it will help others:” motivations among patients taking part in qualitative studies in palliative care. J Pain Symptom Manage. 2008;35:347–355.

Herrington, John D. Wendy Heller, Aprajita Mohanty, Anna S. Engels, Marie T. Banich, Andrew G. Webb, and Gregory A. Miller  Localization of Asymmetric Brain Function in Emotion and Depression https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3086589/

Lambert NM, et al. “Expressing Gratitude to a Partner Leads to More Relationship Maintenance Behavior,” Emotion (Feb. 2011): Vol. 11, No. 1, pp. 52–60.

Sansone RA, et al. “Gratitude and Well Being: The Benefits of Appreciation,” Psychiatry (Nov. 2010): Vol. 7, No. 11, pp. 18–22.

Seligman MEP, et al. “Empirical Validation of Interventions,” American Psychologist (July–Aug. 2005): Vol. 60, No. 1, pp. 410–21.

Tice DM, Baumeister RF, Shmueli D, Muraven M. – Restoring the self: Positive affect helps improve self-regulation following ego depletion. J. Exp. Soc. Psychol. 2007;43:379–384. doi: 10.1016/j.jesp.2006.05.007. [Cross Ref] [Ref list]

Wood AM, Joseph S, Linley PA. Coping style as a psychological resource of grateful people. J Soc Clin Psychol. 2007;26:1076–1093.

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