Many of us are overly stressed. We strive to balance our demands at home, work, and other community obligations. With these competing demands it is easy to understand why people don’t want to add anything else to our busy life. However, there is one emotion that has the power to put stress in its place—gratitude.
Stress is a chronic problem and wastes our energy and can actually have a negative impact on our health and our personal relationships (Childre & Martin, 1999). Researchers have discovered that our heart is much more than a pump. Our heart is part of our nervous system and even has it own brain. Additionally, researchers originally thought that our brain controlled our heart but we now know that our heart can influence and even override signals from our brain while regulating our body (Childre & Martin, 1999). In sending signals to our brain and to aid in body regulation our heart produces neurotransmitters and hormones. One of these is hormones is atrial natriuretic factor (ATF) or the “balance hormone”. This hormone regulates many of our bodily functions, blood pressure, and electrolyte balance (Childre & Martin, 1999). Gratitude is one of the keys to having our systems balanced to facilitate being calm and relaxed.
Getting away from some of the negative thoughts and feelings in our head such as frustration, anger and stress and focusing on our hearts with positive feelings of affection, appreciation, love, compassion and gratitude keep or heartbeat consistent and coherent and allow us to perform at our best (Childre & Martin, 1999). When I am overly stressed or negative, I have found that gratitude or appreciation is one of the easier positive emotions on which to focus to reduce the stress. An example from my life will illustrate how this works.
One night it snowed a lot. I was scheduled to go for an 8 mile run the next morning. I grew up with cold winters and spent many childhood winters playing in the snow and as a teenager many weekends skiing. However, since moving to the south I have come to appreciate the warm winter weather and the luxury of year around training outside. I looked out the window and the negativity started; I hate being cold, I don’t need this workout, I can’t run that far, etc. With encouragement from my wife I got dressed and headed out. I discovered early on that I was correct—it was cold outside and I hated it, my legs felt like cement and I had strong doubts about completing the workout, and I thought I should just stop and go home. As I rounded a corner the wind started to blow snow from the trees into the sunlight. It was absolutely beautiful. My focus shifted from negativity and doubt to appreciation for the scenery, my ability to run, and being grateful to be outside. My ability to perform dramatically improved. My legs lightened up, I did not notice the cold and had a great run. What made the difference? I shifted to positive emotions (different from just positive thoughts) and the subsequent physiological heartbeat changes that accompany those feelings. I have used this moment as a guide and I have had similar experiences when work, family, or other obligations have stressed me.
So what is the key to applying this information to reducing stress? Shift your focus to the positive emotion of appreciation or gratitude. It may be helpful to focus on the scenery, the enjoyment you get out of your family, or think of someone you love and appreciate. This is more involved than making a list of things you are grateful for, it is focusing on theses things until you feel the appreciation or gratitude. It is important to practice these skills at various times during the day. Build them into your day and make them a part of your routine. While these skills take practice the return on the little investment of time will be worth the rewards.
Reference: Childre, D. & Martin, H. (1999). The heartmath solution. San Francisco: Harper.
About the Author: Dr. Lee Johnson is a faculty member in the Marriage and Family Therapy Program at Brigham Young University. He is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, AAMFT approved supervisor, and a USAT Certified Triathlon Coach.