It’s tough to afford professional psychological treatment. While many plans now cover therapy and medication, not everyone has coverage, and those who do must weigh copays against rising grocery prices. However, cultivating gratitude is one way to improve your mental and emotional health for free. By adopting an attitude of thankfulness, you can shift your focus from what’s going wrong in your life to what’s going right. Here’s a closer look at how incorporating gratitude exercises into your daily regime can improve mental and emotional health.
Gratitude Is Genuine
There’s power in positivity. However, some people take it too far, becoming tone-deaf to any emotion outside of happiness. One woman recalls an upbeat friend telling her to look on the bright side as she lost housing — at least she lived in a beautiful city. While true, that statement ignored her valid fears of sleeping on the sidewalk.
Positivity can quickly turn toxic when it invalidates your lived experience, essentially saying that you’re wrong or bad for having negative emotions. Yet sadness, disappointment, frustration and anger are all parts of the human experience for a reason. Emotions are vital messengers, signaling when something isn’t right and urging you to take action. The challenge is to mindfully explore what your feelings are telling you so that you can respond instead of react.
An excellent way to do this is to recognize all kinds of emotions. When you are able to recognize and identify how you’re feeling, you can implement mindfulness strategies like walking outside to go deep and listen to what your feelings are telling. Once you honor your emotional existence, you can use CBT techniques such as reframing negative thoughts as part of the contemplative process.
You can do more than mindfully explore your feelings — you can also alter them. That’s where gratitude comes in. When you deeply meditate on what you give thanks for in life, it springs from a well of sincerity within your soul. You aren’t putting a fresh coat of unicorn glitter paint on inherently negative experiences. Rather, you’re shifting your focus to what’s right. Recognizing the gifts you have, especially when life looks bleak, can transform your attitude and give you the energy to keep pushing forward.
Gratitude Helps Overcome Negativity Bias
Zen Buddhists talk of emotions as seeds. The ones that grow and develop are those you tend. It’s always the right time to nurture the seed of gratitude in your heart as it helps you overcome the negativity bias humans innately have.
From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense for humans to focus more on the negative in life than the positive. Early humans faced constant environmental hazards that modern people do not — you never knew which bush ahead concealed a hungry lion. Paying more attention to potentially harmful stimuli makes sense to help you stay alive.
Modern humans don’t need to seek lions behind every bush — but they often spot them, anyway. Past traumatic events that left you helpless capture memories stored in your nerve cells. These neurons start rapid-firing when they detect similar patterns, even if the current situation isn’t dangerous. As a result, you become anxious, defensive, guarded, jumpy and irritable. A hair could pull your trigger.
Meditating on what you have to feel thankful for shifts your focus away from the negative and towards the positive. There’s a saying in neurology that “neurons which fire together link together.” Whenever you have a positive thought, it sets off a series of chemical messengers that carve a pathway through your brain. You might feel like a bushwacker hacking through a thick jungle at first if you tend to look on life’s dark side, but over time, you can shift your entire attitude.
Doing so could ironically keep you safer. Personal safety expert Gavin de Becker explores how hypervigilance can backfire in his bestseller “The Gift of Fear.” Focusing on worries that aren’t real can distract you from real danger, whereas a more balanced mindset lets you see present circumstances more clearly.
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Gratitude Exercises Encourage Mindfulness
Mindfulness is one of the best psychological training tools out there, and many people who visit professional therapists spend their sessions practicing such techniques. However, jumping into meditation if you have a trauma history can make things worse if you lack guidance. Paying sustained attention to your thoughts can result in rumination, worsening your negative feelings.
However, gratitude meditation is a gentle, easy way to cultivate mindfulness without getting caught up in a negativity spiral. Once you become aware of how gratitude feels in your body, you can learn to sit with that emotion without acting, simply appreciating it. This skill later transfers, helping you learn to experience less pleasant feelings without letting them overwhelm you.
Gratitude Strengthens Your Relationships
The people you love and live with significantly impact your mental and emotional health. Gratitude exercises can improve your relationships, giving you a stronger support system when things go sideways.
Think about the last time you did something nice for someone, and they failed to notice. It probably hurt your feelings. Now, consider all the little things your partner or kids do to make you smile daily. When was the last time you told them how much you appreciate them? A genuine “thank you,” sprung from deep sincerity, says to the other person, “I see you and recognize the value you bring to my existence.” That’s a sure way to strengthen your bond.
Cultivating Gratitude for Better Mental and Emotional Health
If you want to prove your emotional and mental health, thinking positively may not be enough. However, cultivating gratitude for what you genuinely feel thankful for can shift your focus from what’s wrong to what’s right.
Using gratitude exercises improves mental and emotional health by developing mindfulness, improving relationships and creating a more positive mindset overall. Spend five minutes daily writing in your gratitude journal or reflecting on all you have to be thankful for while puttering in your garden, driving to work or slipping off to sleep, and always share your appreciation.
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