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The life-changing effects of gratitude

A regular gratitude practice can improve your immune system, reduce stress and anxiety, increase feel-good hormones, and even rewire your brain, making you a naturally more grateful person.

“There is nothing about cancer that is easy,” says Lauren Garvey, MS, CRC, NCC, a counselor and facilitator at Cancer Wellness at Piedmont. “Finding gratitude and being able to call upon those feel-good hormones to take care of yourself is so important. We need those hormones more than ever when we aren’t feeling well.”

The benefits of a gratitude practice

The more consistently you practice gratitude, the more rewards you will reap. Gratitude can help you:

  • Become a naturally grateful person. “If we know we will later record something that went well today, our selective attention will help us notice those good things in our life throughout the day,” Garvey explains.

  • Heal from cancer treatment. Gratitude has also been shown to have a positive effect on the immune system because it decreases the stress hormone cortisol.

  • Live in the present moment. Expressing gratitude helps you stay in the present moment. It manually adjusts your focus from being future-oriented to living in the now.

  • Rewire your brain. Scientists used to believe our brains had a set design, but new research is showing we can reshape our brain. “We’ve learned from the fields of neuroplasticity and positive psychology that practicing gratitude can rewire our brain structure and how feel-good chemicals are released in our brain,” she says. “This is really good news because if we are able to express gratitude consistently, it will be there for us and we can call on it when we need it most.”

  • Shift your perspective. “Start out as small as you can,” advises Garvey. “If you’re having a bad day and are in a situation that feels overwhelming, it’s not always easy to find those things to be grateful for. It doesn’t always have to be something profound. It can something simple, like, ‘I’m thankful my friend gave me a ride to chemotherapy or that I have food to eat today or that I have a roof over my head.’”

  • Sleep better. “Gratitude is an intentional way to end your day as opposed to checking Facebook or watching TV until you fall asleep,” says Garvey. “Sometimes we can tune out too much. A gratitude practice is something you can add to your routine to help you wind down. It’s nice to release those positive, feel-good hormones right before you go to sleep.”

Building gratitude into your daily routine

“In the morning, gratitude can be an effective intervention,” says Garvey. “Mornings are so important because they set the tone for the day. It’s easy to wake up and start the day without a mindful intention and get swept up in everything that happens.”

A morning gratitude practice is especially helpful if you experience anxiety.

“When we reflect on the blessings in our life, we are forced to view things through the lens of the past, which can be a very powerful way to counteract anxiety and our worries about what the future may hold,” says Garvey.

A gratitude exercise in the evenings is also beneficial.

“A gratitude practice in the evenings is a wonderful way to calm down and center ourselves so we can get good rest,” she says.

Gratitude exercises

In her classes, Garvey uses the following gratitude exercises based on Dr. Martin Seligman's work in positive psychology.

Exercise 1

  • Gratitude can make your life happier and more satisfying. When we feel gratitude, we benefit from the pleasant memory of a positive event in our life. Also, when we express our gratitude to others, we strengthen our relationship with them. But sometimes our thank-you is said so casually or quickly that it is nearly meaningless. In this exercise, you will have the opportunity to experience what it is like to express your gratitude in a thoughtful, purposeful manner. 

  • Close your eyes. Call up the face of someone still alive who years ago did something or said something that changed your life for the better. Someone who you never properly thanked; someone you could meet face-to-face next week. Got a face? 

  • Your task is to write a letter of gratitude to this individual and deliver it in person. The letter should be concrete and about three hundred words. Be specific about what she did for you and how it affected your life. Let her know what you are doing now and mention how you often remember what she did. Make it sing! Once you have written the testimonial, call the person and tell her you’d like to visit her, but be vague about the purpose of the meeting; this exercise is much more fun when it is a surprise. When you meet her, take your time reading your letter.

Exercise 2

  • Every night for the next week, set aside 10 minutes before you go to sleep. Write down three things that went well today and why they went well.

  • You may use a journal or your computer to write about the events, but it is important that you have a physical record of what you wrote. The three things need not be earthshaking in importance (“My husband picked up my favorite ice cream for dessert on the way home from work today.”), but they can be important (“My sister just gave birth to a healthy baby boy.”). 

  • Next to each positive event, answer the question, “Why did this happen?” For example, if you wrote that your husband picked up ice cream, write, “Because my husband is really thoughtful,” or “Because I remembered to call him from work and remind him to stop by the grocery store.”

  • Writing about why the positive events in your life happened may seem awkward at first, so stick with it for one week. It will get easier. The more you do this exercise, the more your brain will start picking up on positive events or interactions in your day.

“We all have good days and bad days, whether we have cancer or not,” says Garvey. “Having that capacity to be able to look for things you feel grateful for will make it easier to call up gratitude on harder days.”

Learn more about the health benefits of practicing gratitude.

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