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© 2012-2019 Linda Mabry Lewis DBA Mountain Oils & Healing
"When upon life's billows you are tempest tossed,
When you are discouraged, thinking all is lost,
Count your many blessings name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord hath done.
Count your blessings, name them one by one;
Count your blessings, see what God hath done;
Count your blessings, name them one by one,
And it will surprise you what the Lord hath done."
"I can't complain but sometimes I still do."
Gratitude, appreciation, just noticing the little good things in life, can improve your well-being, both physically and mentally. I'm talking about more than just "affirmations", although those can be very powerful. I mean actual, heart-felt gratitude. And not just about that raise you just got, or the much-desired present someone put into your lap. I mean about the smile someone gave you on the street today, or the pretty flower you noticed when you were taking out the trash.
Gratitude journals are a popular thing these days — there are even journals you can buy that are started for you. I've never been very regular about journalling anything, including things I'm grateful for. But I do practice constant gratitude. When something annoys or upsets me, I'm learning how to find something good about it. Water well is dry? I'm grateful we can buy some water — and that we don't have to buy ALL our water. Tripped over my husband's shoes — AGAIN? I'm just glad he's here and has shoes for me to trip over.
Now before this starts to sound like Pollyanna's "glad game" **, let's look at the health benefits of gratitude. Feeling gratitude causes multiple changes in your physiology, and those changes are supportive of both physical and psychological well-being. Grateful people are happier people, and happier people are healthier people.
Feeling gratitude (or love, or compassion, or the "good" emotions) activates the parasympathetic nervous system. That is the "rest and relaxation" side of your autonomic nervous system, and activating it causes the feel–good hormones such as serotonin, endorphins, and enkephalins (among others) to be released into your system. These chemical messengers relax one's body, help reduce pain, and just generally make us, well, feel good. They can speed up healing from an injury or illness, too, or help your body prevent the illness in the first place. They also help reduce stress. While some stress is good and necessary in our lives, chronic stress has been linked to a number of serious ailments, such as cancer and heart disease. It also can interfere with healthful sleep and clear thinking.
There are a number of articles on the internet about the health and psychological benefits of gratitude and giving tips on practicing gratitude. WebMD has a good article which references several studies at different universities (https://www.webmd.com/women/features/gratitute-health-boost).
An organization called Heartmath (http://heartmath.org) has studied the effects of emotion on the human heart, and the resulting effects on various aspects of human health. They've shown repeatedly that feeling gratitude ("appreciation") causes your heart to function more smoothly, and in harmony with your brain energy. They call it "coherence". And they've also shown that having your heart be coherent increases measurable components of a healthy immune system. If you go to their website, they have a whole section of research papers you can read or download. They also have some steps you can take to learn how to create coherence (go to Resources -> Heartmath Tools).
I was just starting to read the book Heartmath, by Doc Childre and Howard Martin, when I was on a fairly long road trip. I'd completed the first part of the trip and was half-way through the second part when my car broke down. I was fortunate; it broke down just as I was leaving my hotel for that day's drive and not while I was on the freeway going 75 mph. This particular malfunction would probably have caused the car to flip and roll. Also, I was only a block away from a repair shop, and was able to limp my way over there. A number of other things occurred in that whole situation. The shop did a temporary repair that we hoped would get me to my next stop. The repair didn't hold — the shop had told me it might not, and they paid the tow bill to get me back so they could do a better but more expensive and time-consuming repair. The cause of the breakdown was a previous repair that had been done incorrectly, the car rental place used false advertising to get me in there and took forever, etc, etc. As I sat in the waiting room, I started practicing the techniques I had just been reading about, using gratitude to create coherence. Instead of being panicked and upset, worried about my timetable and money and being by myself and a full day's drive away from friends or family, I stayed calm and in good spirits. I was able to think about Plan B - getting a vehicle rental, getting my room back at the hotel, calling the family member who was my next stop. By being calm and relaxed, I was able to handle each new issue well, instead of blowing up or melting down. My situation hadn't changed, but by focusing on the positive I was able to be more effective in dealing with it.
But can we control how we feel? Yes! We most certainly can! The first step is to notice your thoughts. Your thoughts and words are interpreted by your body as if they are real, whether they are or not. That's why when you are rehearsing an argument that hasn't even happened yet you can feel upset or angry. Or when you're thinking about that dinner date you've been looking forward to, you feel happy and relaxed. It hasn't happened, it may not ever happen, but you're already reacting to it emotionally.
But what if you are justified in being upset or angry? Well, so what? Is your anger at that jerk who just cut you off in traffic having ANY impact on the jerk? No, it isn't, and it's harming YOU! Are you going to give a jerk who probably doesn't even know you exist the power to harm your health? Or the power to cause you to do something that is dangerous or that could get you a ticket? Not worth the price, is it?
So how do we do this? Notice when you slip into thoughts that are upsetting. If those thoughts are not helping you solve a problem, if they're not productive in some way, short-circuit them. One way to do that is to just become aware of your body, how you're positioned (sitting? standing?). Where is the pressure in your body? Do you feel a chair underneath you? Your feet on the floor? Pay attention to your breath going in and out. Notice if you can feel your heartbeat. ‡
Once you've disconnected from the stressful thoughts, you can practice gratitude. What's good in your life? What beauty is around you? What are you thankful for? You don't have to come up with a long list. In fact, it's probably best if you find just one thing and focus on it intently. When you are feeling sufficiently grateful for something, notice how your body feels. Your heart and mind are calm, relaxed, and functioning in harmony. Your breathing is easy and regular. Focus on that for a while. Did you know you can recreate that physical response, just on its own? It will take a little while, but if you practice you can do it. Your thoughts can control your body, which will then help you control your thoughts and your feelings. It's a feed-back system, a kind of chemical response loop, and you can control it with some practice.
Also, negative ions help stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system. That's why running water in a stream or brook, a gentle breeze, or a light rain can make you feel more relaxed. As you might have guessed, there are essential oils that can help, too. According to the Reference Guide for Essential Oils by Connie and Alan Higley, diffusing bergamot or other citrus oils, lavender, cedarwood, marjoram, or lemongrass produces negative ions in addition to the effects of the oil's frequencies and chemical makeup. If you're "in a mood" and having a little trouble getting yourself out of negative thinking, try diffusing or inhaling one of these oils.
It requires a little effort, a little self-discipline, to learn how to practice gratitude. But the rewards are well worth it! Maybe Pollyanna's "glad game"** isn't such a bad idea, after all!
Blessings, and Be Well~
** One of my favorite books as a child was Pollyanna, the story of an orphan who goes to live with her grouchy aunt. Pollyanna's pastor father had taught her to play the "glad game", which was to take anything that she was unhappy about and find something good about it. It's a classic child's book, but if you've never read it, do! It's a good story.
‡ If you are NOT in your car and are having trouble getting a handle on anger or irritation, a drop of Ylang Ylang oil applied over your liver and inhaled from your hand can do wonders!