Feeling stressed or down? Here’s a simple practice proven by science to help you feel better

Don’t you love it when something you intuitively know to be true turns out to be proven right by scientific research?!

My favourite mindfulness practice to help counter stress, anxiety or feeling down is gratitude meditation. It’s a simple practice but I’ve found that whenever I feel anxious or frustrated, sitting still and focusing on all the things that I’m grateful for and that make me happy is very powerful.

Now, researchers have found that when people experience gratitude, the same parts of the brain’s prefrontal cortex light up as those that are responsible for regulating emotions, bonding with others, and feeling empathy. This is the same part of the brain responsible for socialising and experience pleasure, as well as stress reduction and mindfulness.

So it’s not surprising that other research has found that people who practice gratitude regularly (i.e. every day), have better sleep, better romantic relationships, are less likely to get sick, more likely to exercise and are happier! Research also shows that gratitude practice can counter depression.

Practicing gratitude regularly is the key. Doing 2 minutes of gratitude now is not enough! You need to make it a habit by practicing it often.

This means that when you hit a bad day you’ll be able to turn on your gratitude skills and help yourself cope much better. And when you have a good day you’ll be able to savour and enjoy it more.

It’s important to note that being grateful is not about blocking out reality and avoiding difficulties – in fact, mindfulness practice is all about being with what’s difficult without running away.

But our brains have evolved from our cave-dwelling ancestors to be more captivated by negative issues and emotions (the “wild animals” that might attack us!), so to counter this we have to make an effort to create a habit of noticing what is positive. Gratitude is a great way to do this, without trying to “fake it” – because there really are many things all of us can be grateful for!

So I have some great strategies for how you can practice gratitude starting right now:

  • Meditate with a guided gratitude meditation – here is a guided meditation that I have made for you, so sit down, close your eyes and try this!
  • Once per day take a few minutes to focus on what you are grateful for right now. To help you do this, I’m running a Gratitude Week on Facebook this week – starting on Sunday I’ll post a simple gratitude practice each day on my Facebook page. If you like writing, I recommend you journal what you’re grateful for each day too.
  • Savour the pleasant moments in your day – each day, try to notice the simple, pleasant experiences and spend a minute focusing on the joy and good fortune of the experience. It could be a great cup of coffee or a meal, or the laughter of your child, or a phone call from a good friend.  Anything really! But the more specific it is, the better – if you try to be thankful for big things like your health or family, it can be harder to turn it into a simple habit.
  • Be aware of loss and death as a way to remind you to cherish what you’ve got. Last week an old work friend of mine passed away at a young age – this sad experience reminded me how important it is to cherish my partner and child, family and friends. And anyone who has had their home burn down will tell you how grateful they are for their belongings. Loss is a great opportunity to focus on what we DO have and how lucky we are to have it.
  • Don’t forget to notice the silver linings – even a difficult experience can have an up-side, so try to pick up on these silver linings when you have a challenge. That’s not to say we should forget the grief or disappointment and just “bright-side” everything. It’s just that we have a choice: we can either notice only the loss or problem and that’s all. Or we can also notice that good things (like a new beginning, learning or growth) do come from all our difficult times.

And now I’d like to express some gratitude – to you! Thank you so much for being there, reading my blogs and pursuing your own mindfulness practice – badly needed in this hectic world.

Until next time, may you go well.

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