Gratitude–Taking Neuroscience to the Next Level

As the year draws to a close, I find myself wondering what the heck just happened to us all and how on earth we can move forward into a new year. 2020 was a rather boring wild ride. How does that even work? I have no idea.

All I know is that I am flooded with gratitude when I think about 2020 being over and starting over with a fresh new year. I hope that we will not mess 2021 up as badly as we did 2020. It’s wonderful to have a chance to do better.

The depth of gratitude that I feel for the opportunity for a fresh start has me thinking about gratitude in general, and how we can use it to improve our mental health.

Human brains are created with a built-in negativity bias. We are hard-wired to see things in the worst possible light. There’s a great reason for this. As people evolved, the ones who remembered the scary stuff lived to procreate. As a cave person, it helped you stay alive to remember where the tiger lived. Over time, our brains became more and more prone to remembering our worst experiences.

While this was genetically advantageous to cave people, for modern humans it’s a mental health nightmare. Research shows that it takes five positive experiences to emotionally outweigh a negative one. Just think about the ramifications of that in day to day life. If something negative happens in a relationship, five good things have to happen for things to get back on an even keel. Over time the negative experiences tend to overwhelm the positive ones. No wonder relationships often end badly.

It’s not just relationships that are impacted by the negativity bias. Traumatic and hurtful experiences of any kind can fill people’s minds with negative thinking to the point that they can’t even see the good things that they have in their lives, which leads to mental health conditions like depression and post traumatic stress disorder.

This is where gratitude comes in. Practicing gratitude on a regular basis can help you to intentionally overcome the hard-wired negativity bias, leading to a happier and healthier life.

It’s not difficult, but it does take a little bit of effort. All that is required is that you bring up something positive that happened and allow yourself to absorb the experience and the feelings that go with it. Take your time with the positive emotions and really take them in. The more often that you practice gratitude, the more your brain will create new neuropathways that notice positive experiences–meaning that you will see more things to be grateful for, leading to a happier life.

In order for gratitude to work, it really does need to be a practice–something that you do on a regular basis. I’ve had clients who have a list of things in their lives that they’re grateful for that they read to themselves daily. I’ve also had clients who keep gratitude journals, where they write down two to three positive experiences per day in order to absorb the good emotions. How wonderful it must be to re-read a journal full of beautiful experiences that you’re grateful for!

These good experiences don’t need to be anything newsworthy. Someone smiling at you on the street, a tasty breakfast, a good night’s sleep, or the chance to start a fresh new day could all be examples of things you could write in your gratitude journal.

Here’s where we can take neuroscience to the next level. Every time that you pull up a memory, your current situation changes it. This is why memories feel sadder when you’re depressed, or happier when you’re in love. By pairing a negative memory with a positive experience, you can literally re-write the negative one to feel better, or at least more neutral.

This phenomenon is why therapy works. When you bring up difficult experiences in an environment that feels safe, with a person who is non-judgmental, you change the memory in your brain. Traumatic memories feel a little safer, hurtful memories feel a little kinder, and so forth.

You can do this on your own by intentionally pairing a difficult memory with a positive one, or with gratitude. Be sure that good feelings in the positive experience outweigh the negative ones in the bad experience. Then, bring up the good feelings, experience them, enhance them, and link them with the negative experience. Suddenly you’ll find that the negative experience doesn’t feel quite so difficult anymore.

It takes some practice, but it works.

As you go through the last few days of 2020, I encourage you to do your best to take note of the small, everyday things that happen, and take the time to be grateful for them. I think it will help us to make the end of 2020 as good as it can possibly be.

For more information, I suggest Rick Hanson, PhD and his TED Talk, Hardwiring Happiness, which you can find at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jpuDyGgIeh0.

Happy New Year to you and your family.

Blessed are the Assholes

Hi everyone! Thank you for being patient with me over the past two weeks while I went through a major re-write on my book and my book proposal. I attended the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference and had the opportunity to pitch my book to literary agents. Four of them asked me to send them my book proposal and sample chapters, and I was so excited and nervous at the same time that I put in a week of work on re-writing and editing everything to try to look as polished and professional as possible. I sent everything off on Sunday and now I’m trying not to obsessively check my e-mail for responses.

Hopped up on adrenaline, I spent every waking moment for a week trying to get my work to a standard that I felt good about, and somewhere in the middle of all of that work I had an epiphany–none of this would have happened if it weren’t for two of the worst experiences of my life.

The first of those two terrible experiences was my own illness. I focus on healthcare and mental health in my blog and podcast because my book is the true story of my own terrible illness, which was brought on by a whiplash injury. I was in the middle of dancing with a partner, when he forcibly dipped me and seriously injured my neck. For reasons that are only now becoming clear, this injury led to a year and a half of severe migraine symptoms.

That was bad enough, but as I sought help from the medical system, doctors kept telling me that my problem was just anxiety. As a licensed and practicing psychotherapist, I knew that wasn’t true and found a way to heal myself through alternative means. Now I want to share this story in order to provide a road map for others who are struggling through illnesses and can’t get the help that they need.

The second of those two terrible experiences was a breakup that I went through two years ago. I thought I’d finally met the man that I was going to spend the rest of my life with, but after 10 months of the easiest relationship I’d ever had, he suddenly broke up with me. He said that he’d never loved me and wanted to go back to his ex-wife. I was devastated, and I’ve been struggling to move on ever since. But as I struggled through that intensive re-write last week, the thought popped into my mind, “I wouldn’t be on the verge of publishing a book if he hadn’t broken up with me. I would never have gotten this close to my life-long dream of becoming a published author if he hadn’t broken my heart. I’d gotten too comfortable to keep seeking.”

As I shared this thought with my own therapist in our most recent appointment, she nodded and said, “You know, I used to have a framed print of the words ‘Blessed are the Assholes’ over my desk. When people treat you badly, it often leads to the best parts of life.'”

Blessed are the assholes.

Hearing this line brought up so many memories. All of the times that life went sideways and I couldn’t figure out why. All of the times when doors kept slamming in my face and I felt that all of my choices had dried up. The former supervisor who ran me out of the company. The ex-husband who cheated. The friendships that suddenly ended over nothing. So much pain.

And yet, those parts of my life needed to die in order for new parts of my life to be born. I was clinging to things that felt incredibly important to hold on to at the time, but now I’m nothing but happy that they’re gone because better things came to take their places. I didn’t understand at the time that room was being prepared for what was to come next.

Please don’t misunderstand me. This isn’t an “everything happens for a reason” blog post. I hate that platitude so much. Nothing makes me feel more invalidated than, “Well, remember that everything happens for a reason,” when my heart is broken.

When life is messy and cruel, don’t invalidate the pain by anticipating that something wonderful will come out of it. It might. It might not. What’s important at the time is to acknowledge how much it hurts and allow yourself to grieve. It’s only when you come through to the other side of the healing process that you will start to see what came into your life as a result of the loss. Only then will you be able to bless the assholes for wrecking what you thought you wanted in order to show you that you could have more.

If I ran into my former boss who ran me out of the company, I would thank her for being such a jerk to me. If she hadn’t, I would probably still be working as an insurance agent. The idea makes me shudder.

If I ran into my former husband, I might thank him for leaving me, because if he hadn’t I would probably still be married to him (what a horrible thought!), and I would never have become a therapist.

And now I’m realizing that if I ran into my ex-boyfriend, who I thought I was going to marry, I might just thank him for breaking my heart. If he hadn’t I wouldn’t be here on the verge of becoming a published author.

Often it is through pain that we become our best selves. Blessed are the assholes.