I have blogged about the benefits of gratitude before, but since it is National Gratitude Month, I would like to take a deeper dive into the topic. I am sure you have heard that practicing gratitude has a myriad of positive effects. Research has revealed that gratitude benefits us in four spheres of wellbeing.
- Physically: Gratitude has been shown to strengthen our immune system and reduce symptoms of illness.
- Emotionally: Gratitude has been shown to reduce symptoms of depression and increases feelings of happiness.
- Cognitively: Gratitude can shift our mindsets from a negative and scarcity bias and help our brain to identify solutions more easily. This can aide in problem solving and other cognitive tasks.
- Relationally: Gratitude has been linked to stronger relationships.
In this blog I will explore why and how gratitude can benefit us emotionally and offer two gratitude techniques to reset and to strengthen emotional resilience.
Emotions as a protective response
In a state of emotional regulation, we experience the complexity of our emotions. We can discern the subtle nuances in a wide range of emotions that can feel both positive and negative. We can even experience two or more emotions at once yet differentiate between them.
But the survival brain likes to simplify the complex. When our brain detects that it needs a protective response, nuances and complexity get in the way. So, emotions are either numbed or they are clustered together.
When we are triggered into a fight response, emotions can cluster and surface as anger. Anger emotionally prepares us for a fight. It is a protective response that masks more vulnerable feelings, like indignation, frustration, fear, or shame. In survival mode, the ability to differentiate one emotion from the other is diminished. Often, it is difficult to distinguish the emotions of anger from the corresponding physical and cognitive responses. The source of our anger can also become generalized and difficult to identify. It can seem like everything makes us angry.
When we are triggered into a flight response, these clustered emotions surface as anxiety. Anxiety is another protective response that emotionally prepares us to flee. With anxiety, the nuances of our emotions get lost, making it sometimes difficult to pinpoint the source of our feeling. The anxiety becomes generalized. Like anger, it is difficult to distinguish the emotions of anxiety from the corresponding physical and cognitive responses.
Using Gratitude to Reset
Gratitude can be a reset strategy to calm our amygdala by shifting focus away from the threat and toward our internal or external resources. When we shift the focus away from the threat and engage the brain’s ability to identify the positive, we send a message of safety that calms the amygdala.
A simple way to do this is by using a gratitude technique that can be done anywhere at any time you feel a need for a little self-regulation. It is easy, just remember 3-2-1:
- 3- Using your external senses, identify three things you can see, hear, touch, smell or taste right now for which you are grateful. This is for grounding purposes so pick things that you can use one of your senses to appreciate. (It can be as simple as a beautiful color or the sound of silence.)
- 2-Looking inward identify two things about yourself for which you are grateful.
- 1-Think of your support network and visualize one person for whom you are grateful.
The benefit of using gratitude in this way, goes beyond just helping us to self-regulate in the moment. Because of neuroplasticity, the brain can rewire our patterned responses to negative stimuli. With practice, expressing gratitude can help us to identify the positive more readily and increase our ability to self-regulate.
Building Emotional Resilience through Gratitude
When we practice gratitude to reset, we are engaging our cognitive resources. It does not necessarily make us feel grateful, at least not right away. In fact, gratitude should not be used to avoid uncomfortable feelings. Emotional resilience involves the ability to sit with an uncomfortable feeling without being triggered into a fight, flight, or freeze response.
Emotions, even the ones we categorize as negative, serve a purpose, and should not be thought of as bad. It is possible to feel frustration, shame, envy, worry and fear and still be emotionally regulated. But when we are regulated, we still can identify the different nuances of our emotions as well as differentiate their origin. This allows us to choose a response that is helpful instead of harmful.
Though we can feel a wide range of emotions while regulated, some emotions can become gateway emotions. This is when the emotion itself becomes a trigger for a protective response.
Learning to be grateful for our emotions, especially our gateway emotions, can empower us to face, not turn away from, these vulnerable feelings.
Practicing emotional gratitude
In my workshops, I use a gratitude technique that allows people to develop emotional gratitude.
I begin by helping them identify their gateway emotions. We all have different gateway emotions because we all have had different experiences. We also all have a different emotional vocabulary, and there are hundreds of emotional words used to describe the various nuances of emotions.
Try identifying the following five feelings using emotion words:
- The emotion word for when I feel depleted. (Sad, mournful, dejected, sorrowful…)
- The emotion word for when I feel on edge. (Worry, confused, embarrassed, unsure…)
- The emotion word for when I feel ready to explode. (Frustrated, annoyed, resentful, pressured…)
- The emotion word for when I feel calm. (Peaceful, blessed, content, pleased…)
- The emotion word for when I feel connected. (Empowered, joyful, inspired, creative…)
Next, write down the reasons why you are thankful for each of these five emotions.
Usually, it is easy for people to identify why they are grateful for emotions that make them feel calm and connected. It is more of a stretch to find reasons to be grateful for gateway emotions. But all emotions serve a purpose. For example, I am grateful for sorrow because it reminds me of my connection to humanity. When I feel sorrowful, I am more attuned to the sorrow of others. I am grateful for worry because it reminds me that I have people and things in my life that I care about. When I feel worried, it is an opportunity to take a precaution or practice letting go of the need to control the outcome. I am grateful for frustration because it is a signal that I need to step back. When I feel frustrated, I am motivated to reassess my goal and get more creative about my strategy.
We all have different windows of emotional tolerance. Practicing emotional gratitude helps us stretch this emotional range and embrace its complexity. Overtime, we learn we can feel sorrowful and grateful at the same time. When we acknowledge the benefit of our emotions, we also begin to recognize their temporariness. Instead of avoiding uncomfortable feelings, gratitude allows us to sit with the emotion until it gradually melts into something new. Ultimately, this improves our ability to choose a response instead of reacting. This is emotional resilience.
To learn more about compassion fatigue and how to build resiliency in individuals and organizations, check out my book The Compassion Fatigued Organization: Restoring Compassion to Helping Professionals.