The Effects of Gratitude on Heart and Brain

Image from NIH.gov.

I’ve written about the ways gratitude can improve your life.

Gratitude can improve your romantic relationships, help you sleep better, decreases depression, even decreases suicidal thoughts.

A 2017 study conducted at the University of Seoul, South Korea, focused on the effects of gratitude on neural network functional connectivity, and how gratitude affects your heart and brain at the same time. 

The study observed 32 healthy volunteers–17 women, 15 men–and had them go through two 5-minute exercises called the gratitude and resentment interventions. The participants followed instructions written and spoken on a screen while they were in an MRI scanner. The first minute of both the gratitude and resentment exercises participants focused on slow, deep breathing, relaxing and calming themselves.

During the gratitude exercise, the participant was asked to focus on a mental image of their mother for four minutes and to tell their mothers in their mind how much they loved and appreciated her.

During the resentment  exercise, the participant focused for four minutes on a moment or person who had made them angry.

During the gratitude intervention, scientists observed lower heart rates than in the resentment intervention. The scientists wrote:

Given that [heart rate] is decreased among people with high self-esteem, and increased among people with high stress and anxiety, our results suggest that gratitude intervention modulates heart rhythms in a way that enhances mental health.

Scientists also found that there was a connection between expressing gratitude and higher activity in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a part of the brain that is involved in decision making, ethics and emotion (among other things). Higher ACC activity means lower rates of anxiety and depression. Lower ACC activity means “emotional disorders, such as social anxiety disorder and major depressive disorder.”

“Our gratitude intervention could play a pivotal role in reducing anxiety,” they wrote. “This evidence is consistent with the idea that ACC activity is facilitated by meditation.”

While we all know gratitude is a wonderful, healing emotion, I wondered: why exactly did the scientists ask participants to use a mental image of their mother for the gratitude test?

I found this sentence in the study fascinating: “Gratitude towards a parent has been associated with resilience and low levels of aggression as well as high levels of happiness and low levels of depressive symptoms. Although expressing gratitude toward one’s mother is a powerful positive experience that can lead to a happier life, putting this theory into practice is difficult in many cases.”

Family relationships can be difficult, and I know that Thanksgiving can sometimes be a stressful or upsetting experience. Take these Korean scientists’ advice and spend a few minutes in gratitude meditation before meeting with family. And if Thanksgiving leaves you feeling raw and upset, give me a call. I want to help you have the healthiest family relationships you can.

Satu Woodland is owner and clinician of Mental Health Solutions, an integrative mental health practice located at Bown Crossing in Boise, Idaho. If you would like to discuss the information in this blog further with her, please call 208-918-0958. She sees adolescents and adults. Information in this blog is not intended as medical advice. Please consult your health care provider about decisions regarding your health.

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