COLUMN: What do I have to be grateful for?

Wellness Matters by Joelle McKiernan

By Joelle McKiernan

An attitude of gratitude can make all the difference in how we cope with this high-paced, incredibly stressful world we live in. Feeling grateful is not about ignoring the struggles but reminding yourself of the good things in your life. It allows us to create more of a balanced look at the world.

Just as it is not helpful to focus on all our problems, it is also not helpful to have rose-coloured glass and ignore difficult situations. It is balance that helps us stay realistic and healthy. The practice of gratitude can help create that balance.

The benefits of feeling grateful are being studied with interesting results related to physical health, and an increase in overall feelings of well-being.

In a 2015 study, University of California researchers recruited 186 heart failure patients who weren’t yet experiencing symptoms, such as shortness of breath or fatigue. After having the patients complete a set of psychological questionnaires, they found that gratitude was associated with less inflammation, which is a factor that can speed up the progression of heart failure. To take it a step further, the researchers encouraged the participants to writing down what they were grateful for daily. After eight weeks of journaling, the researchers found inflammation continued to decrease and the participants had healthier heart rhythms. They also noticed participants were sleeping better and had reported improvements in overall well-being.

I know at times it can be hard to look for the positive aspects of life. The negativity surrounding us can be overwhelming; from social media to the news. It can be useful to realize that struggle is a normal part of life. The question is, what do we do about it? Do we sit powerless, absorbing other interruptions of the stress or do we focus on the things we can control in our own lives and communities?

It is true that unless you grew up in a family that practiced gratitude in a deliberate way, gratitude is a skill that needs to be developed. To develop this skill you will need to make a commitment to integrating gratitude into our lives in a conscious and thoughtful way. So how do we develop an attitude of gratitude? Hard question, easy answer – look around you and start small.

For example, did you know that by just using the muscles in your face to smile you can change your brain chemistry? A smile creates a powerful chemical reaction in the brain that can make you feel happier. Science has shown that smiling more can lift your mood, lower stress, boost your immune system and possibly even prolong your life. So, smile more and fake if you must, you can trick your body, but don’t tell yourself.

Another thing you can do is keep a daily gratitude journal. I did this in my 20s when I was struggling with negativity. Every night before I went to sleep, I would record three things I was grateful for in my day. It was hard when I started. I struggled to find things I was grateful for. I would write I was grateful for breathing, having a place to live and a job. And as I continued, I found I was looking for positive things through out my day. I was recognizing the beauty in nature, the kindness of others, how much I loved and appreciated people close to me. It changed my focus in the day and thus my mood. I felt better about myself and those around me. I started posting quotes and images that reminded me to be grateful. It worked. I was surprised how great I felt by just changing my focus. It improved my self-esteem and made me more aware of the good other people did for me.

I found now, I can fall back into the negative cycle especially if I listen to a lot of news, or if I am around negative people or when I don’t listen to myself and take care of my mental, emotional and physical needs. When we feel better, we can reach out in positive ways to help each other and create a more positive community.

I challenge you to practice gratitude in your daily interaction. Whether it is writing what you are grateful for in a journal or acknowledging a co-worker of their hard work or telling a loved one that you love them, know that it’s good for your mental and physical health in more ways than one.

So now I ask you to answer the question and post your answers below. I will share the results in the next article.

Joelle McKiernan is a professional counsellor and therapist in the Terrace and Kitimat area.

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