Using thankfulness to positively impact your brain, body chemistry, and community.
Whether gratitude is something that is already a part of your regular mindfulness practice or a feeling you long to access, there are ways you can stop to take stock and recognize the abundance in your life.
April is National Stress Awareness Month, and this particular April carries with it a whole new series of unencountered stressors that are asking all of us to adapt - to help one another. As the global economy and, really, life in general are somewhat put on pause, now is a prime time to lather, rinse, and repeat with your gratitude practice to help alleviate stress for yourself and those around you.
Why are we stressed?
Stress is, evolutionarily-speaking, the body’s natural response to a sign of danger. Stress was the catalyst for our ancestors surviving high-risk situations and is consequently why we’re here today.
Stress is something that is universal to humankind, regardless of genetics, lifestyle, or level of resilience. The common threads for what cause stress can be boiled down to what drives us NUTS:
Why do these factors result in stress? It’s because they disrupt our comfort, put us into unfamiliar situations, and ask us to adapt in our actions. While stress definitely has its place in our lives, the way that modern day society functions has resulted in many of us experiencing near-constant stress. This means a constant production of associated hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, which means our bodies are in a constant struggle to rebalance from the overproduction of these hormones. And this is not healthfully sustainable.
Where does gratitude come in? A regular gratitude practice - that is, noticing and letting yourself marinate on the things you’re thankful for - can actually help reduce your cortisol levels and INCREASE your happy-hormone, oxytocin.
When we humans are feeling happy, we can respond more positively and effectively to stressors around us and find our even keel, and help others around us do the same. When you’re focused on gratitude for what you have, you may find that you have more resources - emotionally and otherwise - available to support those around you.
Meet your brain, Debbie Downer
So, we know gratitude is great. But why is it so dang difficult sometimes?! It boils down to yet another evolutionary trait of the human brain: the negativity bias.
The negativity bias refers to the tendency of the human brain to give more weight to negative experiences than positive ones. Negative thoughts are immediately transferred to long-term memory, whereas it takes a conscious effort of maintaining a positive thought to really absorb and process it. It’s been shown that it tends to take about five positive interactions to make up for a single bad one.
Think about the last time you had to brave the grocery store. You may have been momentarily excited to locate a surprisingly-stocked toilet paper section, but that likely has been outweighed and forgotten in the context of the larger stress you endured to make that trip. It’s really easy to let ourselves stew in the negativity if we aren’t consciously aware of how we’re constructing those thoughts.
Thankfully, you have the power to change this. We all do.
Blaze your own positivity trail
You may have heard of automatic thoughts. This is a concept from the cognitive-behavioral therapy model that describes our immediate mental responses to prompting events. Think about if you see someone frowning in your general direction and your first assumption is that they are unhappy with you or that you’ve done something wrong, making them unhappy with you. This is a pretty good example of what the popular book The Four Agreements means when it says to “not take things personally.” But the thought that flashes in your mind momentarily already starts to trigger an emotional and physical reaction to the perceived threat of rejection.
Changing automatic thoughts can be compared with the decision to avoid taking a superhighway in favor of choosing to machete your way through an overgrown path to your destination. It’s far from a cakewalk. But the fact is that happiness isn’t something that happens to you; it’s an experience you have to actively cultivate by teaching your brain to marinate in the good.
Taking even 17 seconds to hold onto a positive thought can actually start to rewire your brain and — you guessed it — start to reduce your stress response. Yup, that’s all it takes. 17 seconds! This means you could theoretically program three positive thoughts into your long-term memory each minute.
Try it out yourself - you might be surprised at how long 17 seconds can actually feel. Stay with it. Like most practices, positively programming your brain gets easier with repetition.
The next time you FaceTime a family-member, why not try this exercise together? Shared gratitude, like shared vulnerability, can be a wonderful way to bond and build community.
Bluebird's tips for gratitude
"Neurons that fire together, wire together."
This phrase was first utilized by neuropsychologist Donald Hebb in 1949 to describe how the brain forms and reinforces pathways and networks through repetition. You may be familiar with how this plays out in the context of learning a new task or skill, but it also impacts how you view your world in daily life.
Here are a few of Bluebird’s favorite ways to practice gratitude:
Focus on your senses and surroundings.
Name just three things you can see, smell, touch, taste, hear or feel in your immediate area for which you are grateful. These can be anything: I’m grateful for a blue sky, the sound of music, my own two feet.
Practice gratitude for your body.
Every body is different and should be celebrated in all of its unique glory. Try not to be critical of your body. Be gentle and compassionate with yourself if you find your thoughts are becoming unkind. Talk to yourself the way you would talk to your best friend, your child, or another loved one. Take some time each day to appreciate what your body does for you; your heart pumps without any conscious effort from you, and that’s a reason to be grateful.
Thank your body through movement. You don’t have to run a marathon; simply taking a short walk around the block (with a face mask for now!) or a stretch at your desk will do the trick. The important thing is to find what feels good for you and incorporate it into your daily routine.
Practice gratitude for other living things.
You may be stuck at home alone, and this can make this tip a challenge. But living things are all around us. Try to take a social-distancing walk and smell the grass, or ask some of your green-thumb friends to do a plant-clipping drop-off.
If you’re lucky enough to be cohabitating with other living beings, take time to acknowledge what you appreciate about them. Tell your cat you appreciate her independence, or your roommate you’re thankful they like to clean. Heck, sing a love song to your plant babies! We won’t judge - and no one is watching.
Reflect on the positive takeaways.
If you find yourself looking at the last hour through a negative lens, describe the facts from an objective standpoint. Take careful note of the positives. Again, they can be small: I had a delicious cup of coffee, my back feels better than it typically does. Allow yourself to savor the experience of what it feels like to reflect on the good, and invite others to share their own reflections.
Practice compassion: for yourself, and those around you.
If there is one takeaway to prioritize including in your gratitude practice, compassion would be it. Taking care of yourself is one of the most generous things you can do. It helps you enact kindness to those around you through feeling it yourself, and thus supports a more positive trickle-down effect to the people you interact with. Each moment, take pride in the successes and be thankful for challenges and the lessons they can teach you. Be gentle with yourself and others. Remember that difficult is not synonymous with bad, and that the greatest opportunities for growth are often borne of discomfort.
At Bluebird Botanicals, gratitude is an integral part of our company culture. From highlighting the accomplishments of our team through employee spotlights to making CBD radically accessible to all through assistance programs and giving back to organizations like Conscious Alliance that support those most in need, Bluebird makes it a priority to acknowledge and say thank you to every member of our flock.
What are your favorite ways to practice gratitude to support your community?