A deadly pandemic and a bitter presidential election have stirred up lots of negative emotions this year. People are feeling angry, sad, frustrated and fearful – sometimes all at once – and the needle on our nation’s stress-o-meter is stuck deep in the danger zone. But here’s the good news: You can literally rewire your brain to be more positive. And you can start doing it right now.
“Stress and negativity have definite, observable effects on both your body and your brain,” says Dalia Lorenzo, M.D., a neurologist with Miami Neuroscience Institute, part of Baptist Health South Florida. “They trigger the secretion of stress hormones like cortisol, which over time can increase your risk for diabetes and other serious health conditions.”
Dr. Lorenzo says that chronic stress also has the potential to permanently alter the circuits in your brain that govern stress response, leaving you less well-equipped to handle life’s daily stresses.
So how can we retrain our brains to be more positive? It all starts with gratitude, says Dr. Lorenzo. “Identifying things to be thankful for in your life – and putting this into practice every day – triggers a series of chemical and physical changes in the brain. Over time, you can actually train your brain to replace negative thought processes with positive ones.”
The human brain is a powerful thing, according to Dr. Lorenzo. “The extent to which we can use our thoughts and our willpower to counteract consequences isn’t fully understood, but studies have shown that people who meditate can produce definite physiological changes in their brain that help block responses to intense situations. Some people can even practice hypno-sedation and undergo surgery without anesthesia.”
Although there is not as much research on gratitude, studies show that people who keep a simple daily gratitude journal experience quantifiable physical and chemical changes in the circuitry of their brain.
“Their brain shows an increase in the secretion of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that you see with addictive behaviors,” Dr. Lorenzo says. “So practicing gratitude actually becomes self-reinforcing. You’re conditioning those neural pathways that will make that response much more readily available to you next time you’re faced with a stressful situation.”
Another interesting aspect of gratitude, Dr. Lorenzo says, is that it is contagious. “With gratitude, there is always someone who is the target – or recipient – of your grateful thoughts. That person is then motivated to “pay it forward” by demonstrating gratitude for someone else, and the ripples keep spreading further outward.”
Growing your gratitude
Gratitude practices are like any form of exercise, according to Dr. Lorenzo. “You have to exercise your gratitude muscle – regular practice is where you get the best long-term benefits.”
So how can you incorporate a sense of gratitude in your daily life? It’s easy, says Dr. Lorenzo. “Every morning when you wake up, or every night before you go to bed, write down three things that you’re grateful for today.”
Gratitude can even take the form of writing a thank-you note to someone who’s been helpful, paying someone a compliment, or forgiving someone who has wronged you in some way, she adds. “A non-goal-based expression of gratitude – one in which there is no expectation of anything in return – is what you’re striving for. Then, it’s just a matter of putting it into practice every day, which brings the greatest benefit.”
As the coronavirus continues to play havoc with our lives and routines, and we dust ourselves off after the elections, gratitude may be just what the doctor ordered.
“As a neurologist who treats stroke patients in life-or-death situations, I couldn’t handle the stress of my job without having a sense of gratitude,” Dr. Lorenzo says. “I meditate, I pray and I find something to be grateful for every single day.”
Dr. Lorenzo advises staying focused on what’s important in life. “Forgiveness, love and gratitude – these are positive feelings that help anchor you and make your day a lot easier.”