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Have a Brain-Friendly Thanksgiving

Although I have decided not to participate in this economic downturn, I understand that many of you range from mildly anxious to scared to death.  Feeling scared and anxious, especially over that which you can’t control, doesn’t serve you, my friends. Worrying doesn’t change what it is. On this eve of our American holiday, I want to give you a gift so that you can focus on what you want and on improving your world.  My gift to you is… Thanksgiving.

No, this is not like Al Gore giving you the internet.  Thanksgiving, in Carolann-land, is a verb that describes the act of giving thanks.  I make this point to separate it out from the noun Thanksgiving, the holiday which Americans watch NFL games and eat their week’s worth of calories in one sitting, neither of which are brain-friendly activities, with the exception of the tryptophan in the turkey that makes me happy and sleepy.

Expressing thanks or an attitude of gratitude is the theme of the day amongst most of the self improvement gurus.  Who heard of a gratitude journal five years ago? (If you kept one, this is me virtually patting you on the back).

Since then it’s been on Oprah.  Not so crazy now, huh?

Actually, I was not all that ready to embrace the concept, especially if it involved giving even another five minutes of my time and attention.  Sorry Oprah.  Though for the most part I take your word as gospel, as a left brain processor and long-time skeptic of all things woo woo, I needed more than just the promise of greater happiness.  I needed evidence.  I needed to conduct an experiment.

The gratitude journal seemed like too much of a commitment for this experiment.  I started small.  As I was driving in the car, I would think about all the things for which I was grateful. I was grateful that my car starts every time I turn the key.  I was grateful for the LASIK which gave me crystal clear distance vision.  Etc. I did tend to be in a better mood, and I still needed more.

I started the gratitude exercise with people who really annoyed me.  This was harder.  What was this experience trying to teach me?  This was usual approach I took to try to find something to be grateful for.  Sometimes, I was just grateful that I kept my temper.  I did find that I was much better able to stay in the moment. Still, I needed more.

Here is the more, and why you might consider cultivating your own attitude of gratitude.  Many recent neuroscientific studies have shown an increase in calming chemicals when people feel gratitude.  Nothing like a PET scan or fMRI to make me a believer.  These calming chemicals help to create neural pathways in the brain that counteract negative emotion.  And, this is important because negative emotions release chemicals like cortisol and make the brain more predisposed to experience negative emotion.  It is the very definition of vicious circle.  An additional benefit to feeling grateful, especially if you practice it during times of stress, is that you build up your brain’s ability to cope with setbacks.  You literally change your brain.

So, have some gratitude, release some happy chemicals, create some resilience, seems easy enough, yes?  In fact, why haven’t you run screeching away from your screen to pick up one of those handy dandy gratitude journals?

Glad you’re still with me, because there is a catch. In the words of one of my favorite self-improvement gurus Wayne Dyer, “You gotta feel it.”  This is the one time that faking it not only doesn’t work, it is counterproductive.  If you’re not feeling it, chances are you’re feeling guilty or bad about not feeling it, which then causes the brain to release cortisol (and according to the late night ads on CNN, that’s the main cause of belly fat).  And, you strengthen the negative emotion pathways in the brain.  If you’re having a hard time feeling it, turn on the news.  I bet you’ll find something worthy of giving thanks.

On this day, I am grateful for so many things.  I am grateful that I live in a country where I can freely express my views without sanction from the government.  I am grateful for the social media sites that have allowed me to meet wonderful new friends.  I am grateful to my fellow coaches who provide inspiration, support and new thought in an ever-emerging profession.  I am grateful to friends and family for their love tireless support.  I am grateful for the opportunity to help others achieve their dreams.  Once I get started, the list gets long and the smile gets wide.

What are you grateful for today?  Can you feel it?  Whom are you going to give that thanks to and how do you plan to do it?

Warmest regards, and to my American friends, Happy Thanksgiving,


p.s. – I’d like to start a tradition with my family in which we write our gratitude statements on a slip of paper and put them into a gratitude box.  Then, around the table on Thanksgiving day, we each pass the box around and read what’s in there.  Who’s in with me?

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One Response to “Have a Brain-Friendly Thanksgiving”

  • rgmccall:

    I’m fascinated to read about some of the brain science that is being done. It’s really encouraging to know that we actually have some control over the chemicals in our brain, and especially that it is possible to help protect your brain and body from the effects of stress and negative emotions.

    I’ve experienced this, at some level, through meditation. When I allow my mind to get very quiet, focus only on my breathing and just sort of listen, I experience a peaceful, calm feeling.

    Then at the end, I always think of the things that I’m grateful for. This is easier for me after I’ve meditated, because it allows me to focus on simple things that my busy mind may overlook or take for granted. I’ve noticed when I do this that I feel happy, relaxed and have a sense of well-being. And, it gives me some perspective that allows me to get through stressful times during the day.

    Thanks for posting this, Carolann. I like the idea of the gratitude box!

    Happy Thanksgiving!

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