How You Can Benefit from Flexing Your Gratitude Muscle

As a caregiver, shifting your attention to things you’re thankful for can overcome negative thinking

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- Posted on Jul 11, 2019

A middle aged woman on the beach positively thinking.

Darlene Montonaro is a writer, trainer, and arts administrator. She currently works as a facilitator for Benjamin Rose Institute on Aging’s Aging Mastery Program.

Caregiving brings out a mix of emotions. It can flood you with feelings of happiness and triumph, but its stresses, both physical and emotional, can easily lead to negative thinking that may be tough to shake. If you are a caregiver to an older adult, you are particularly vulnerable to worry and frustration, and that can lead to a negative mindset.

Rumination – the habit of focusing repetitively and over a prolonged period on distressing thoughts – is a natural response to troubling circumstances. It arises from a primitive part of your brain wired to pay extra attention to harmful, difficult situations. Even when you are relaxed and happy, your brain may be scanning for danger to help you survive.

The flip side of this survival mechanism is that placing excessive attention on negative thoughts actually ramps up your stress response and can flood the brain with stress hormones that increase the risk for depression, anxiety, insomnia, high blood pressure and other health and emotional problems (Ilardi, S. S. (2010). The depression cure: The 6-step program to beat depression without drugs. Cambridge, Mass.: Da Capo Lifelong).

But this doesn’t have to be the case. It takes just a little effort to reverse the pattern to a positive one. Placing your focus instead on things you feel grateful for – things you possibly even overlook or take for granted – can actually “reboot” parts of your brain that contribute to personal happiness. Research shows that developing an attitude of gratitude is not only good for your emotional well-being; it can also significantly increase your life span, improve health, help you deal with adversity and improve your relationships with other people.

Practicing gratitude for as little as five minutes each day, for instance, keeping a gratitude journal, can increase your long-term wellbeing by more than 10 percent—the same level of impact on the happiness scale as doubling your income (Sacks, D. W., Stevenson, B., & Wolfers, J. (2012). The new stylized facts about income and subjective well-being. Emotion, 12(6), 1181)!  As you practice feeling thankful for what you have – and not dwelling on what you don’t – you can actually trigger positive feedback loops and open yourself to amplified feelings of gratitude.

Studies show that optimism helps foster more disease-fighting cells, and releases endorphins that improve your mood (Segerstrom S. C. (2005). Optimism and immunity: do positive thoughts always lead to positive effects?. Brain, behavior, and immunity19(3), 195–200. doi:10.1016/j.bbi.2004.08.003). You not only feel happier, but you also strengthen your immune system and build up an increased resilience toward stress. Those who count their blessings sleep better, experience less chronic pain and adopt healthier lifestyles (Emmons, R. A., & McCullough, M. E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(2), 377-389).

By applying a bit of mental discipline and redirecting mindful awareness to a positive focus, you can develop an attitude of gratitude. Keep in mind that gratefulness is a skill you can develop with practice, and that it can have far-reaching benefits to your emotional and physical well-being.

When you are stuck in negative ruminations, consider the following tips to brighten your mood:

  1. Refocus. Pay attention to the little things that make life better. Gratitude is about noticing that there is always something positive, regardless of how difficult circumstances are at the moment. 
  2. Reframe: If you can’t stop dwelling on bad things that have happened, think of a negative event that ended up with a surprisingly positive outcome. What did that teach you?
  3. Remember: Being a caregiver is a generous gift of time and energy. Reminding yourself on a daily basis of what you are doing for someone should give you a boost.
  4. Reminisce: Recall the joyful and fun times you have spent with your loved one, and allow yourself to bask in the warmth of those moments.

Once you are ready to develop your gratitude muscle, consider flexing it in the following ways:

  1. Create a gratitude journal.  At the end of each day, write down at least three things you are grateful for. Begin with the basics, such as life, home or food, and move deeper as you start to notice more things that give you joy.
  2. List acts of kindness shown to you in the journal. Ungrateful people are less likely to perceive acts of kindness, even when their environment is loving. Learn to recognize where you are held and supported.
  3. Perform random acts of kindness. This can be more rewarding to you than to the receiver!  And remind yourself that being a caregiver is the most generous act of kindness.
  4. Communicate your gratitude. Send an unexpected thank you note or letter of gratitude to someone who has inspired or supported you. Visit someone and express how much he or she means to you. 
  5. Smile! A smile is not only contagious, it also activates the release of “feel-good” messengers in your brain (like dopamine, endorphins and serotonin) that can benefit your own health and happiness. And your smile just might end up in someone else’s gratitude journal!
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