"Grateful people may recover faster from trauma."--Deborah Norville
In a recent post on mindfulness (8/19/15) I talked about how it's effective in managing anxiety. Simply put, it's being present in the moment, focusing on what's going on right now and breaking tasks down into small do-able pieces. And since anxiety is future based, practicing mindfulness keeps us in the present and the WhatIfMonster at bay and under control. It also reduces stress and makes us more efficient.
So now I'm going to add a really interesting wrinkle to mindfulness--gratitude--and explain how combining the two practices can help overcome trauma, depression, and anxiety as well as several other problems. And this is where it gets really interesting, we can reprogram the brain at a neuronal level, creating new brain cells that are positivity-oriented. Sound crazy, like sci-fi? Here's how it works.
Over the last few decades with the development of increasingly sophisticated technology, researchers have been able to study and gain exciting new knowledge of the brain's remarkable ability to adapt and change itself. It's called neuroplasticity. Norman Doidge, MD, in his book The Brain That Changes Itself, describes it as the brain's ability to restructure itself after training or practice; brain neural synapses and pathways are altered as an effect of environmental, behavioral and neural changes. It also allows neurons (nerve cells) in the brain to compensate for injury and disease and to adjust their activities in response to new situations or changes in their environment. His book is fascinating reading and very easy to understand (and of course it's on You-Know-Who's banned book list).
The brain learns from bad experiences better than good experiences. This is a survival mechanism that protects the organism. Stick a paper clip into an electrical outlet and you won't do it again. So the brain overfocuses on bad experiences and has a negativity bias. The brain or mind is shaped by what it repeatedly rests on. Remember what I said in one of my earliest posts, "What we focus on expands." And these harmful experiences are rapidly converted to neuropathways in the brain. Rick Hansen, PhD, who has done pioneering work in neuroplasticity puts it this way: "The brain has Velcro for bad experiences, Teflon for good."
Now at last is how gratitude comes into the picture: by being mindful of an experience, absorbing it in its totality, bodily and emotionally as well as mentally, and expressing gratitude at the same time. Notice the awareness of being all right right now, enrich and absorb it. Here's an example. I'm sitting by my pond listening to the falling water, watching a beautiful Arizona sunset (sunsets here are showstoppers, an incredible array of changing light and color--oh yeah, it's also December and the temperature is 76 degrees) while stroking my dogs. It's an almost meditative state as I absorb the beauty, calm, love and connection with my dogs.
And I'm so grateful to have this experience (and that I'm not in Buffalo, NY).
What's really interesting about this is that we can do the same thing while imagining a positive experience, whether it's a pleasant memory or pure fantasy, and feeling gratitude at the same time. The result is the same.
Remember in an earlier post I said that trauma creates new anxiety and depression-skewed brain cells and that these can be passed down through up to four generations. By practicing mindful gratitude, over time we actually produce more new positive brain cells that will dominate the negative ones and reduce or eliminate the anxiety or depression.
So here's a simple exercise: practice mindful gratitude six times a day for thirty seconds, only thirty seconds. You may be only able to do it for five at first and work up to thirty but that's OK. What we're doing is sensitizing the brain to positivity. So have a good experience, absorb and enrich it in all the senses. But don't take my word on this, try it yourself and see what happens. That's what I'm doing. See you next time.
Next Time: STARVING FEAR