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The role of gratitude in mental health

From time to time, I’ll be turning over my blog to other therapists from the Your Therapy team, so they can share their own insights on mental-health issues. Today’s post, on the fascinating subject of gratitude, and our emerging understanding of its role in mental health, is by Kathy Netten

The power of gratitude

February can be a tough time of the year. It’s the coldest month, and also the time when 80% of New Year’s resolutions fail. This year, impacted by the global pandemic, I decided to set a single resolution for myself. I chose something specific and achievable that would make a real-world difference in my daily behavior: I decided to increase my practice of gratitude. The result has been an ongoing journey of exploration.
Research into the effects of gratitude has demonstrated that its practice has tremendous benefits. Gratitude can boost the immune system, improve sleep, increase joy and increase feelings of connection. Gratitude can also improve overall mental health: Individuals who intentionally focus on thanksgivings are happier and less depressed. According to Dr. Robert Emmons, a gratitude researcher and psychology professor at the University of California, Davis, there are two essential aspects of gratitude. The first is simply affirming the positive things we’ve experienced. The second aspect is acknowledging the people who create positives in our lives.
So how do we practice gratitude and get these benefits? Research has shown that one of the ways to improve the outcome of mental-health interventions is by writing a gratitude letter. We don’t know exactly how this works, but the benefits seem tied to the fact that people writing these letters use fewer expressions of negative emotion. In fact, the mere act of creating a gratitude letter has benefits even if the letter is never shared. Brain imaging has also demonstrated that people who write gratitude letters experience changes to their medial prefrontal cortex—an area of the brain associated with learning and decision-making.
There are also a number of habits that highly grateful people share. They typically:

  • Think about endings to appreciate what they have in the present.
  • Savour the little moments that happen every day
  • Value family, partners, friends and even pets, as gifts rather than entitlements
  • Are specific about what they are grateful for
  • Use gratitude as a way of perceiving the world, so even an obstacle can be transformed into opportunity.

As Dr. Emmons observes, gratitude means “reframing a loss into a potential gain, resisting negativity into positive channels.”

Here are a few ways to begin a practice of daily gratitude in your own life 

1) Write a daily letter or journal
2) Use your senses — sight, smell, taste, hearing and touch—to fully experience the present
3) Use grateful gestures such as smiling and saying “thank you”
4) Adopt language that celebrates gifts, givers, blessings, fortune and abundance
It’s now mid-February, and I’m still going strong with my single resolution. Why not try a gratitude practice for yourself?
Your Therapy’s Kathy Netten is a Registered Social Worker, Psychotherapist and Individual, Couple & Family Therapist. Find out more about her practice at: https://yourtherapy.ca/kathy-netten/.
Thanks for reading and, as always, please feel free to reach out with questions about this or other mental health issues.

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