Gratitude: Upgrade Your Life - Revising Our Programming

Author // Marcy Axness, Ph.D.

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Gratitude: Upgrade Your Life
Revising Our Programming
The Only Question, Always: Growth or Protection?
Growth / Protection Regeneration Gap
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Revising Our Programming

There are many simple and effective ways to do a pattern interrupt on spiraling negativity, whether it’s sadness, stress, anger or whatever—and each time we make a choice to exit that negative brain pathway, we are indeed “uninstalling” those old operating programs we don’t want, rewriting them with healthier ones. Here are a few methods that are tried and true:

Breathe. Put your attention on your breath and mindfully take in some slow, deep breaths…holding each one for a few extra counts. (This encourages extra oxygenation of the blood going to your brain to help it cope with the neurons firing away like crazy in this intense moment!)

Focus on gratitude. Think of something that pulls up the “grateful” or “appreciative” feeling from your mental file cabinet, and then immerse yourself in that feeling now. It can be the memory of an event that made you feel wonderful…the thought of a person whom you deeply love…something exceptionally kind someone did for you…or even a pet you adore. This is especially helpful when you’re in the grip of angry feelings, because as sophisticated an instrument as your brain is, when you’re in a stressed or highly emotional state, it becomes fairly primitive and can only deal with one thing at a time—either anger or appreciation. Research demonstrates that appreciation brings us into inner alignment at the levels of the brain, heart and mind.

Notice & name: The simple act of observing and identifying for yourself the emotions you’re feeling can help the brain structures driving those negative feelings to self-correct, and help you find your way back to a lighter, freer emotional tone. It also helps lasso your mind back from rehashing the past or rehearsing the future, and to situate you in the present moment, the only place where true serenity can be found.

Smile. Research shows that when we smile—even if it at first feels forced, because we’re really in a funk—we do get happier. Again, it’s the brain’s own pharmacy at work!

Nourish yourself. Omega 3 EFAs (essential fatty acids) are the equivalent of motor oil for the healthy functioning of the brain. As our national fish consumption has dropped over the decades, our depression rates have indeed risen, and scientists think there is a connection. Getting your Omega 3s is simply an enlightened, basic health practice—just like brushing and flossing.

Connect with others. Spend some time in the real (not virtual) presence of someone with whom you feel comfortable, supported and safe—ideally someone who is grounded and centered. Thanks to “mirror neurons” (recently discovered by scientists in the new field of interpersonal neurobiology), another person’s emotional calm can be contagious, and by simply being in their presence we can feel better. One of the primary qualities that will characterize this generation of innovative peacemakers is resilience—the capacity to weather tough times and challenges with equanimity at the physiological, psychological and behavioral levels. Meaning we don’t collapse, freak out, or smash things when the pressure’s on. It bears noting that people who score high on resilience feel comfortable reaching out, and that the interdependence of asking for help (and giving it back when help is asked of you) is one of the healthiest capacities a person can develop.

Do something. I love a saying from David K. Reynolds’s Constructive Living: “Accept your emotions as they are and do what needs to be done.” If the dishes need to be done, do them. If the floor is nasty, sweep or vacuum. It may require an act of will, but tackle that messy corner of the room you’ve been avoiding. An activity as mundane as scrubbing the bathtub can be surprisingly restorative when we immerse ourselves utterly and completely in each moment’s movement: the warmth and hum of the water, the pitted texture of the sponge, the tangy smell of the cleanser, the stretch of the arm muscles when reaching to the far side…and the satisfaction of the gleaming, ring-free final result.

Which brings us back to appreciation!

These suggestions aren’t just for crisis moments, but are fundamentals for developing our own inner well-being and peacefulness. Two themes prominent in these activities are connection and appreciation, both of which have emerged in human health research—both mental and psychological—as superstars. The relatively new field of positive psychology finds that the single most potent means of amping up our joy—and also our physical energy and well-being—is to cultivate gratitude. Scientists talk about keeping a gratitude journal, writing gratitude letters, and an exercise one doctor calls “three blessings,” in which you take time each day to write about three things that went well, and why.

Even more simply, though, appreciation can take the form of noticing more fully some of the myriad things we normally take for granted in daily life. For example, the small act of eating a piece of fruit can take on a whole new dimension when we turn our attention to what is embodied in that apple—seasons of nurturance by rains, sun and those who cared for its tree—and the amazing fact that the flesh of that fruit will be transmuted into us in the coming hours and days.