The Science of Gratitude: How It Improves Your Health
December 4, 2017
The holiday season elicits plentiful although sometimes superficial expressions of gratitude, the appreciation of the positive aspects in life. But gratitude is not just a nice idea. When incorporated into daily routines, it can impact people's physical and emotional life in very meaningful ways. Gratitude has been documented to increase one's sense of wellbeing through stirring more positive emotions; feeling more alert and awake; and experiencing more joy, pleasure, optimism, and happiness. The practice of gratitude has physical benefits, as well, strengthening the immune system; improving sleep; and reducing pain, blood pressure, and even A1C, a measure of blood glucose.
HIV and other health challenges can complicate embracing gratitude, but the ability to identify blessings in one's life has real power. Practicing gratitude doesn't deny the very real issues that face every person living with HIV, but encourages the willingness to identify those things for which we can be grateful.
The benefits of gratitude have been described in numerous clinical settings. In one study of persons with neuromuscular disease, individuals randomly assigned to a "gratitude-outlook group" (incorporating a regular gratitude practice) exhibited heightened wellbeing, especially in their ability to maintain positive moods despite their medical condition. While the physiological mechanisms are not entirely understood, gratitude clearly plays a role in reducing stress and resulting inflammation. Furthermore, positive emotions such as gratitude have been shown to impact immune activity directly via endocrine and behavioral processes. One study documented associations between positive affectivity (traits such as gratitude, enthusiasm, and energy) and lower morbidity and decreased symptoms of pain.
Those living with HIV can benefit, as well. Gratitude and a positive affect have been shown to improve psychological health for both those newly diagnosed with HIV and long-term survivors. In a study of 159 individuals diagnosed with HIV within the prior three months, a five-session, in-person intervention that taught positive affect skills significantly improved psychological health. This could lead to further interventions that support adjustment to a new HIV diagnosis.
A 17-year longitudinal study of people living with HIV/AIDS found that, even after controlling for health behaviors (medication adherence and substance use), so-called spiritual (not religious) coping strategies, including practicing gratitude, clearly predicted greater survival. Remarkably, the study found that people using these strategies were two to four times more likely to survive.
Developing a Gratitude Practice
Many people living with HIV, each of whose lives has been touched by some degree of negativity (and often tragedy), find it difficult, at least initially, to embrace the idea of gratitude. They might be unable to identify anything for which they can be grateful. They might feel like a victim or have righteous indignation toward others or the drugs or behavior that led to losses in their lives. While these strong feelings should certainly be expressed and processed, real health benefits derive from consciously incorporating gratitude into daily, self-care practices. One of the more effective ways to do this is to maintain a gratitude journal. Richard Emmons has proposed some guidelines for keeping such a journal. Here are his tips:
In addition to journaling, many practices foster positive moods and create better physical and psychological health outcomes. These include mindfulness, connecting with nature, learning to observe our own thoughts, and being vigilant to the dance between both the positive and negative energies in our lives.
Keep the following guidelines in mind as you experiment to find the gratitude practices that work best for you:
Practicing gratitude does not mean denying the bad and even terrible things that have happened to us. However, for our very survival, it is necessary to notice and acknowledge the positive, life-affirming forces that are all around us, as well.
David Fawcett, Ph.D., L.C.S.W., is a substance abuse expert, certified sex therapist and clinical hypnotherapist in private practice in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. He is the author of Lust, Men and Meth: A Gay Man's Guide to Sex and Recovery.
This article was provided by TheBody.
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