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When I was 19 years old I was in the passenger seat driving through Oklahoma. After dinner it was a little misty, but we decided to keep driving rather than stop for the night.
Suddenly we had to slam on our breaks as our visibility was reduced to no more than 6 feet in front of us.
We had driving right into a wall of thick fog. We crawled along at 5mph to the next exit where we found a place to stop for the night. IT was completely impossible to keep moving through that fog.
Come morning the sun was shining and we were able to move on our way safely.
When the trauma takes hold it feels like I am running into that wall of dark fog.
Nothing can be seen clearly. Everything is scary. Every shadow is a semi-truck about to run me down.
Trauma lives in what is commonly referred to as our lizard brain This is the primal part of our brain that is responsible for our fight, flight, or freeze response. This part of our brain is not capable of rational thought.
Now when we are actively suffering abuse this can be an amazing thing. It can get us out of an unsafe situation. Unfortunately it’s a little less helpful when we aren’t actually in danger.
I’ve talked a lot more about fear, and how we react to it in my post about walking on fire. What I want to talk about today is a tool that I use to help me stay grounded in reality. Gratitude.
Gratitude Can Change Your Brain
Now we all have been told time and time again how an attitude of gratitude can help you have a more positive mental outlook. Well now there’s science to back it up!
UCLA’s Mindfulness Awareness Research Center has been studying gratitude. They say:
Having an attitude of gratitude changes the molecular structure of the brain, keeps gray matter functioning, and makes us healthier and happier. When you feel happiness, the central nervous system is affected. You are more peaceful, less reactive and less resistant.
Gratitude doesn’t work just because it helps us focus on positive, it actually can change the brain in positive ways!
Writing down that gratitude can have an extremely powerful effect as well. In one study participants were divided into three groups. One group were to write about positive experiences of the week, a second on the negative experiences, and a third could write either positive or negative.
10 weeks later the group that focused on gratitude were 25% happier than those who were in the negative group. They also reported fewer physical health complaints.
In another study participants were given brain scans after receiving a monetary gift. The scans of those who reported feelings of gratitude were different than those who reported feelings of guilt or obligation.
Gratitude Changes Your Heart
Now we have all heard it preached at church to have a grateful heart, but it turns out the change is more than figurative.
At the Heart Math Institute some really interesting research is being done on how the heart is affected by our emotions and how it then in turn affects the brain. Turns out the heart actually sends more signals to the brain than the brain does to the heart!
When the heart is coherent, meaning it is beating out stable patterns, it influences the brain in positive ways. This leads to greater mental clarity and ability, and increased decision making capabilities.
When we intentionally experience sincere positive emotions such as caring, compassion or appreciation for someone or something, the heart processes these emotions and begins to become coherent and send out positive information throughout the entire body.
Choosing Positive Emotions
Anyone who knows me knows that I am NOT a fan of the “just choose joy” movement. Emotions just aren’t that simple. As the movie “Inside Out” teaches us there are purposes to every emotion.
Crying is very therapeutic. A good cry can boost your mood, increase endorphins, an help you get better sleep among other benefits.
We have to give ourselves permission to feel the full range of human emotion. It’s there for a reason. Check out the book “” or “” to learn more about how stuffing emotions causes damage.
That said we can choose where we focus our primary emotional energy. We can choose to be intentional about watching for and celebrating those things which are good in our lives.
This is where the gratitude journal comes in.
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Taking a little time each day to intentionally focus on the positives in our lives keeps us grounded in reality. When we control our heart and our emotions we can control our brain. We can keep our brains in a healthy state where they are less likely to be hijacked by trauma.
I lie to take the time to focus on gratitude twice every day. In the morning I think about general things I an grateful for like the sun, a new day, my warm bed, food to eat, etc. In the evenings I like to take the time to jot down a few thanks that are specific to that day such as something cute a child said or an unexpected visit from a friend. Gratitude prompts are also great for art journaling.
By starting and ending my day with gratitude I am able to keep myself centered in a reality where I accept both the bad and the good about my life situation and feel in control of my actions when triggers hit.
There are many other types of journaling that can be strengthening and healing as well. If you’d like to learn more sign up for my 5 day email journaling challenge.
So, what are you grateful for today? I’d love to see it in the comments!