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How gratitude can help ease anxiety about the unknown

By The Health News Team | January 9, 2024
How gratitude can help ease anxiety about the unknown

As we welcome a new year, taking care of ourselves is often a theme that weaves itself into our intentions. Perhaps this includes maintaining a healthy diet, engaging in physical activity, staying connected to others and practicing gratitude.

While we know how a healthy diet and exercise affects our overall well-being — and that it can feel good to connect with our loved ones — how gratitude actually works may not be as obvious. We might even wonder why we’re encouraged to practice it during times of celebration and transition.

What does ‘practicing gratitude’ mean and how does it really work?

According to Lindsay Damoose, a licensed marriage and family therapist at Sharp HealthCare, practicing gratitude is a way to take stock of the things — both big and small — that you appreciate and add positivity to your life.

“Gratitude keeps us grounded and is a way of practicing mindfulness,” Damoose says. “Gratitude allows us to be present and helps us refocus on what really matters in life.”

From the joyful sounds of the birds outside your bedroom window to the coffee your machine makes, or the positive health prognosis a loved one received, focusing on the good things that you have — rather than what you don’t — can improve your life in a variety of ways.

“It’s so easy to be bogged down by all of the busyness, stress and competing expectations we manage nowadays,” says Damoose. “But focusing on what we do appreciate allows us to shift our attention away from what we can’t control. It’s like a filter that emphasizes the positivity in life.”

In fact, numerous studies have found that practicing gratitude not only improves your mood, but it also has a positive effect on both your physical and mental health.

Whether you keep a gratitude journal — where you jot down a few things you appreciate each day — or you make an effort to reach out to someone in your life to thank them for their love and support, or simply add thoughts of gratitude to your daily meditation, here’s what gratitude can do for you:

  • Gratitude floods the brain with positive chemicals. The release of dopamine, a reward chemical, can improve your sleep, sexual pleasure, mood regulation and metabolism.

  • Gratitude decreases symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression. Replacing negative thoughts with positive ones boosts your mood, calms anxieties and leads to greater overall optimism.

  • Gratitude calms the heart. Reducing the physiological symptoms of anxiety and panic helps your body function better, improving cognition and emotional stability.

  • Gratitude helps patients with heart conditions. Post-cardiac event patients who practice gratitude experience improved moods, sleep, energy levels and cardiac performance.

  • Gratitude strengthens the body’s ability to heal. Your immune response increases, blood pressure and inflammation decrease, and you become less bothered by aches, pains and symptoms of illness.

  • Gratitude increases your ability to connect and share compassion with others. When you feel good about yourself and focus more on the positive things in your life, rather than the negative, you can more openly share feelings of positivity and strength with others.

  • Gratitude makes you an overall better person. People who practice gratitude tend to be less materialistic, arrogant, entitled and resentful. They are also often more caring, charitable, empathetic, hopeful and positive.

Gratitude’s lasting effect

As an additional benefit, Damoose says the more we do something, such as practicing gratitude, the more we are conditioning our brain to expect and respond to those behaviors. Practicing daily gratitude teaches us to hone in on what’s helpful to us while tuning out what’s toxic.

“The more you do this, the better you’ll feel, and you’ll eventually start looking for the good in things without even having to try,” Damoose says. “This is a practice that teaches us resilience and will certainly help us get through whatever crises — big or small — may come our way.”

Learn more about mental health services at Sharp; get the latest health and wellness news, trends and patient stories from Sharp Health News; and subscribe to our weekly newsletter by clicking the "Sign up" link below.

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