Got problems with sleep, anger, anxiety? Gratitude may be the an - - Tyler, Longview, Jacksonville |ETX News

Got problems with sleep, anger, anxiety? Gratitude may be the antidote

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Having trouble sleeping? Stressed out all the time? Is your metabolism all over the place?

If you suffer from anxiety, sleep disorders or other health issues, scientists say you might need to ditch the medication and try gratitude instead.

Gratitude - that word which is synonymous with several holidays - seems to be in short supply in society at present. Amid a bitter political climate, tense international relations and the economic or health struggles many face, some people may find themselves asking, 'What there is to be grateful for, and why should I bother?'

Scientists say you should definitely muster up the effort. If we really are grateful for what we have, we are happier than folks who aren’t grateful, even during tough times.

How does gratitude help us become happier, more content, and less depressed? And how can we change our mindset, if we have a tendency toward more negative thinking? Will doing so make a difference?

Psychological studies say yes.

Researchers have found that people who are more grateful overall sleep better, have less anxiety, and are generally happier with their lives.

Chemical and physical benefits

A practical definition of gratitude shared by the National Institute of Health states that gratitude is “the appreciation of what is valuable and meaningful to oneself... a general state of thankfulness and/or appreciation.” They add that the majority of studies indicate that there is an association between gratitude and a sense of overall well being. 

NIH researchers also cited a 2009 study on the physical benefits of gratitude. Researchers studied blood flow in different brain regions while participants practiced feeling grateful.

They found that people who showed more gratitude had higher levels of activity in the hypothalamus, which controls an array of bodily functions such as sleeping, eating and drinking.

The hypothalamus also impacts your metabolism and stress levels. So the next time your stress level is all over the place, you can thank your hypothalamus for that.

Robert Emmons, considered a leading gratitude researcher, conducted multiple studies on the link between gratitude and well-being which have confirmed that gratitude increases happiness and reduces depression. He saw this at work even among children in his studies, saying, “Children who practice grateful thinking have more positive attitudes toward school and their families.”

The spiritual benefits of gratitude

If you are a spiritual person, most teachings also indicate that gratitude is something humans should practice.

“Gratitude is absolutely something the Bible instructs Christians to cultivate,” points out Pastor David Mahfood of Tyland Baptist Church in Tyler.  “Paul comes right out and says as much in 1 Thessalonians 5:18: ‘In everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.’”

Mahfood says that this spiritual teaching could fix many problems in our country overall, as well as on a personal level.

“I think gratitude is the antidote to a lot of what ails us, personally and nationally.  There’s a lot of anger in this country.  There’s a lot of division. There’s a decided lack of compassion that grows seemingly by the day,” says Pastor Mahfood, but he offers a solution: gratitude.

“It’s really hard to be angry if you’re truly thankful, and it’s virtually impossible to be jealous.”

So, if we want to be less depressed, less angry, get better sleep, and experience less anxiety, how do we become more grateful? Is it just a personality trait, or is it something that can be cultivated in each of us?

We spoke with Rebecca Lincoln, a Licensed Professional Counselor at Samaritan Counseling Center of East Texas, who offered some insight into how gratitude helps, in addition to other aspects of caring for patients, improve the well being of her clients.

“Developing practices that cultivate gratitude is a good addition to a comprehensive plan to address mental health,” Lincoln said. “It is also important to work with your healthcare provider to address any physiological causes of depression and anxiety. In addition,  it is important to find satisfying sources of social support.”

Be specific in your thanks

Lincoln also offered some practical tips for cultivating gratitude into one’s life, if it doesn’t seem to come easily.

“A gratitude journal is a good step. I often recommend stopping at the end of the day and writing down three things for which you could be grateful,” Lincoln suggests. “Contemplative practices can also help cultivate gratitude...practices including centering prayer and various forms of meditation.”

Many researchers concur with Lincoln’s assessment that a gratitude journal is a solid way to build gratitude into one’s thought processes.  The researchers at the website Happify got specific on how exactly this journaling should be done, in order to be most effective.

“Writing ‘I’m grateful for my family’ week after week doesn’t keep your brain on alert for fresh grateful moments. Get specific by writing, ‘Today my husband gave me a shoulder rub when he knew I was really stressed,’ or ‘My sister invited me over for dinner so I didn't have to cook after a long day,’” they advise on their site.

Those very specific thoughts written down seem to take the idea from a basic level to a very specific, emotional level that changes how we think and feel about life.

“And be sure to stretch yourself beyond the great stuff right in front of you. Opening your eyes to more of the world around you can deeply enhance your gratitude practice. Make a game out of noticing new things each day,” the folks at Happify also suggest.

Other ideas suggested, for those who aren’t the journaling type, were to have a “gratitude jar,” and when something good happens each day, jot it down on a scrap of paper, and drop it into the jar. Simply seeing the jar will serve the purpose of reminding you to look for things to be grateful for, as well as giving an emotional boost when you’re down, by opening the jar and reading through the things you’ve been thankful for.

Also, writing letters to people for whom you’re grateful but have never openly thanked can help you have a more grateful mindset.

So, though it may seem too simple to be true, science and spirituality agree on this one. Being grateful for what you have, even the small things, will open the door to more feelings of gratitude, and that will lead to a better life emotionally, mentally, and physically.

Lincoln adds, “Gratitude is definitely something that you need to be intentional about and practice.”

And Mahfood says, “Having an outlook of gratitude, in my mind, mitigates whatever grief or struggle in which we might find ourselves. It puts our hardships in proportion. It helps us realize that what we may think is the end of the world, most decidedly, is not.”

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