Research Shows Gratitude Practices Lower Inflammation
Researchers have uncovered the potential of a daily gratitude practice to heal the body and mind.
While research in the field of positive psychology has shown the clear benefits of positive attributes such as compassion and empathy, new studies suggest that gratitude may have the biggest effect of all.
Dr. Paul Mills has been studying the effects of gratitude as a professor at the University of California San Diego and as Director of Research at the Chopra Foundation.
“The way I define gratitude is, it’s a way of seeing the world with a sense of heartfulness; a sense of embracing-ness; a sense of appreciation for all that is being experienced. Typically people differentiate gratitude from thankfulness — it’s a response in exchange for something. Gratitude really, at its foundation, it’s more of a dispositional set where we walk around with gratitude for everything that’s going, just really the gift of life.”
Over the last several years, scientific studies into the psychological and physiological benefits of gratitude have grown exponentially.
“I think one of the main reasons that research on gratitude has taken off more than other areas that we typically could call positive psychology, is because the findings, the significance, in all the studies is so high and impactful. So many of the studies that have been looking at gratitude find more and more significant effects related to health and wellbeing.”
Some of the more recent studies on gratitude have focused on the physiological benefits to the heart.
“I’ve done a lot of research, with cardiac patients for example, and it was quite significant what we’ve been able to show that those patients who have more of a state of dispositional gratitude and sometimes it’s called ‘carrying around an attitude of gratitude,’ where we feel grateful for pretty much anything and everything going on — despite what it might be to other people’s eyes — that has a profound effect on these patients, they sleep better (and) they have more energy. And we found that those patients who had been doing gratitude journaling had a significant reduction in inflammatory markers in the blood. It was approximately a 23 percent reduction in five different biomarkers of reduction over a two-month period. This is a striking and amazing finding. You would never anticipate anything like that even with medication.”
Other recent studies have shown the important role gratitude plays in mental health.
“When we were studying people who have what’s called ‘Persistent Mental Disorder’ and specifically it was through their recovery process of getting better when they have a kind of acute breakdown. This included people who have depression, major anxiety, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia, and what we found is that gratitude as well as compassion, as well as a sense of connectedness in the world, very much supported their recovery through this process of getting over their disease and getting back to a stable state.”
Just how does gratitude exert this powerful effect?
“It provides for us a sense of connection with not only ourselves but the world around us. And when we have more of a sense of connection, we feel more at home, we feel less stressed, we feel less depressed. There have been several EEG studies looking at the frequencies of the brainwaves, and there have been some fMRI studies looking at the structure of the brain — just the functional activity of the brain — and it’s very interesting, these studies have been showing, again and again, there are differences. So, gratitude does change the behavior and activity of parts of our brain, and structurally there’s evidence for that too.”
Mills suggests gratitude journaling as a great way to build a regular practice.
“The easiest route would be (to) buy yourself a journal and begin to spend some time every day just writing down things you’re grateful for. Overtime maybe you don’t get to your journal, but maybe just stop and reflect, and have that in your mind, ‘[W]hat am I grateful for?’ That will begin to change your life, I’m convinced of it. The evidence has again and again been shown, and in my own life it’s been very transformative.”
Dr. Bradley Nelson On How to Break Down Our Heart Walls
After the year of a global pandemic, more people are experiencing levels of depression and anxiety than ever before.
A recent episode of “Open Minds” with Regina Meredith, explores our subconscious response to the past year’s tribulations in a conversation with Dr. Bradley Nelson, author of “The Emotion Code,” and the forthcoming book “The Body Code.” The two discuss Nelson’s work breaking down our “heart walls,” helping us to live with more joy, connection, and vibrational health, while also allowing us to thrive in difficult times.
Overwriting Negative Tendencies in Our Subconscious
The past year’s collective experience opened new insights into our innate need for connection and belonging. “We’re designed to be together,” Dr. Nelson explains. “We’re not designed to be apart.”
Nelson explains that the unfamiliar landscape we’ve been living in has resulted in our bodies shutting down, especially if there is already a tendency to bury intense and overwhelming emotions. He believes more people are now forming what he refers to as “heart walls,” a protective energy field around the heart, the organ Nelson defines as being “the seat of the soul, the source of love and creativity…the seed of the subconscious.”
Composed of mostly nervous tissue, scientists and holistic practitioners alike have viewed the heart as being another brain. Nelson shares that the majority of the messages between the heart and the brain are sent from the heart. With the amount of continuous stress, worry, or grief over lost loved ones, the heart’s response is one of feeling broken or being in extreme danger. In response, the heart erects a “wall” around it to protect our essential self — the heart wall.
Nelson explains that while this stress response is appropriate during times of crisis when the heart moves into a bunker, the heart wall pattern can live on after things have returned to “normal.” These protective layers, after a crisis has passed, can make it difficult for us to live in health or to give and receive love and affection—a basic function that is key to living our full potential.
Nelson’s work to help people break down the heart wall has had significant and positive impacts on suicidally depressed people. He believes that breaking the heart wall down is the most important work that any of us can do and is accessible by simply tuning into our subconscious self and ability to love.