Last week I came across this article from the American Heart Association, that shows the relationship between negative emotions and stroke risk. Negative emotions (such as stress, hostility or depression) increase the risk of stroke in middle aged and older adults. A quick internet search of these key words leads to many other studies showing similar results. Considering how stressed and depressed we are as a country, studies that show results like this are somewhat alarming.
However, I don’t think the idea that our emotions can affect our health is new news. I’m sure we’ve all seen the depiction on TV of the stressed businessman who explodes with rage and then drops on the floor clutching his chest. Or we’ve heard someone say “Calm down before you have a stroke!”
But I think seeing research confirm repeatedly that there is a direct link between our emotions and our health is good news, even if you are someone who finds themselves frequently feeling less than positive emotions? Why? Because you can do something about it. Knowledge is power.
While I’m not saying we can change our natural tendency towards pessimism or optimism (and obviously someone with clinical depression will need additional help), I absolutely think we change our overall experience on a daily basis.
How? For starters, a diet with a broad spectrum of nutrients supports our brains and our bodies, endorphin pumping exercise increases cardiovascular health and improves mood and self care work like massage, meditation, yoga and breathing exercises all dissipate stress when done regularly.
If all that seems like way too much to take on at once, I recommend starting with gratitude exercises. Research on gratitude is relatively young but the studies that have been done are showing great promise that there is a connection between feeling grateful and our well being. Gratitude has been shown to reduce stress and boost the immune system. Positive emotions may even reduce the risk of sudden death from heart conditions like CHF and CAD. If you’re not convinced you should try some yet, here’s a great article that goes over several gratitude studies and the mental and physical health benefits participants received.
Gratitude exercises are something you can do every day and most take just a few minutes to do.
Here are some of the gratitude exercises I recommend to clients and have practiced myself:
1. Create a daily gratitude list. Keep a notebook by your bed and each night before bed, write a list of the things you are thankful for each day. It can be something that happened that day or something you are grateful for in general. Try to come up with at least 3 items each night and do this for at least 3 weeks to create a habit. This exercise can even help you get better sleep.
2. Write a gratitude letter. Think of someone in your life who had a positive effect on you (big or small) and write them a letter telling them so. Explain what it was that they did/said and how thankful you are to them because of it. Mail it.
3. Meditate on gratitude. Spend 5 – 10 minutes each day meditating on some of the things you feel thankful for (perhaps it’s your health, your warm home, your children, the food on your table etc). Set a timer and sit comfortably in a quiet place with your eyes closed and begin to focus on your breath. With every inhale, think to yourself “I offer gratitude for___________”. With every exhale, think to yourself “Thank you” or “I am blessed.”
4. Start a gratitude journal. Once a week, sit down and write about all the things you are grateful for that week. Go in as much depth as you feel like. Let all the good things come out on paper. Squash the negative thoughts (at least in this journal). Some weeks you may find this hard if things aren’t going so well – but dig deep. You will find something.
5. Schedule a gratitude visit. Maybe you’re not the writing type. No worries! Instead of writing a gratitude letter as outlined in #2, schedule a visit, lunch or coffee with a person you’d like to express your gratitude to. It doesn’t need to be something major. The idea is that it will make you and them feel good (and that’s good – it’s infectious!).
6. Express gratitude before you get out of bed. If you can’t do anything else, before you even get out of bed in the morning, express gratitude out loud or even in your head. Thank you for waking up! Thank you for a good night’s sleep. Thank you for this sunny day. Thank you for the sleepy person laying next to me. You get the idea.
7. Say thank you in a conscious way. How often do we say please, thank you, you’re welcome etc in a robotic, routine way? It’s great that we are polite, it’s not so great that there often isn’t any feeling behind it. When you express gratitude thoughtfully and sincerely on a daily basis, it will have a greater impact on the person you are saying it to (and on you as well). Continue to say thank you, you’re welcome etc but before you say it, pause and connect the thought of gratitude directly to the person you are saying it to. Thoughtful and conscious acts have an effect on our bodies and our minds.