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Practicing Gratitude during Brain Injury Recovery

As human beings, we experience a range of thoughts and emotions. Mood fluctuation is perfectly normal and I think it is fair to say that no one, whether they admit it or not, can be happy all the time.

In fact, the concept of toxic positivity could be defined as failing to acknowledge, to minimise or to deny ourselves negative thoughts and emotions. Although being focused on the positive may have some clear merits, it may also have for effect to label some of our thoughts and actions as inappropriate, invalid or negative which can open up a whole different can of worms.

Let’s explore what’s the negative bias

Research has shown that across a wide array of psychological events, people tend to focus more on the negative as they try to make sense of the world.

“We tend to...

  • Pay more attention to negative events than positive ones.

  • Learn more from negative outcomes and experiences.

  • Make decision based on negative information more than positive data.” [1]

This negative bias is inevitable as from a young age, our brains are programmed to scan for negative events and outcomes in order to keep us safe. In fact, research has shown that our brains tend to react more intensely and remember more vividly negative things or events. This in itself isn’t a bad thing unless we start to overlook some of the positive that is also experienced on a daily basis.

Left unchecked, the negative bias can really affect our mental health as it might lead us to dwell on the negative and lead us into a downward spiral. So without ignoring those negative thoughts, feelings and emotions as toxic positivity would suggest, let’s explore how practicing gratitude can help re-wire our brains to scan for the positive in our lives and give it the place it deserves.

Gratitude in a nutshell

Gratitude is our ability to acknowledge and focus on what we have, instead seeing our attention directed onto what we don’t have.

Examples of gratitude practices can include:

  • Writing or recalling 3-5 things that went well during the day

  • Taking time to think about what we are looking forward to for the day ahead

  • Journaling

  • Writing a gratitude letter/email (to yourself or someone else) or doing a gratitude visit.

  • Starting a gratitude jar in which you add a piece of paper each day. Write 3 things that you are grateful for and you’ll find that your jar will soon fill up.

  • Saying thank you to someone who’s been helpful or done something from which you’ve benefited e.g.: thank you for helping prepare dinner

  • Find an object and put it in a place where you are bound to see it every day. When your eyes meet this object, take a moment to think about something you are grateful for.

  • Go for a gratitude walk and notice things that you are grateful for

If none of those are for you, hop online and you’ll find so many more ways to practice gratitude which could be easily included into your daily routine.

Every night, I sit with my kids, one at a time, and we talk about 3 things they were grateful for during their day. They found it hard at first, but now if I accidentally miss a day, they are quick to remind me…mom, we haven’t done the 3 things tonight.

Research carried out on gratitude shows that gratitude can be of clear benefits for your mental health too. For a start, gratitude practices have been linked to helping us look for positive emotions. It may not happen overnight, but you may start experiencing a gradual shift.

When we stop taking things for granted, we quickly notice the daily things that add value to our lives.

If you feel uncomfortable sharing or communicating to others what you are grateful for, you’ll be reassured to hear that the simple act of taking the time to write things down can help shift your focus from negative thoughts and emotions and therefore positively influence your mental health.

Lastly, a research with a cohort of 300 adults, noted that those practicing gratitude showed greater activation in the medial prefrontal cortex when they experienced gratitude in the fMRI scanner. [2] Gratitude really has an effect on our brains, no wonder so many are taking this practice on board.

Gratitude in the context of brain injury recovery

As we know, brain injury comes with many challenges and it can be hard to screen for positive when we have constant reminders of things being different. At times, it can feel overwhelming to be surrounded by so much negative and heartache. It's not surprising to hear that experiencing these feelings can have a profound effect on our mental health.

Gratitude practice prompts
Weird Wonderful Brain Gratitude Prompts

As we know, mental health also plays a huge role on how we approach and manage our recovery journey. Brain injury recovery can take place over several years and it isn't linear either. Set-backs are common hence why I think it's good to be aware of lots of tools which can be helpful in maintaining our mental health in a healthy place. Practicing gratitude is one of those tools which may be worth exploring. Sometimes, a few minutes per day practicing gratitude can be helpful in screening for the great things that we have in our lives. It can be a dear friend, noticing a flower blooming, birds singing, having a safe place to live, having a hot water, having the energy to work on improving a skill or simply being grateful for allowing ourselves the time and space to rest if we need to. There is so much re-wiring happening in our weird wonderful brain as we heal, perhaps introducing a gratitude practice can be helpful in forming new pathways that minimise the negative for thought!

Regardless of your age, neuroplasticity is possible. Just as it is possible to create new neural pathways, I believe gratitude can be a useful tool to mitigate our negative bias. All you need to get started is a piece of paper and a pen, what have you got to lose from giving it a go right!

Need more help getting started? Check my free 7 days Gratitude Journal

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