Mindfulness, Gratitude, and Connection: Cultivating a Healthy Mind



Mindfulness, Gratitude, and Connection lay at the foundation of a healthy mindset. With a growing body of research in this area, we are starting to better understand the benefits of these 3 attributes. In this article, I want to share with you these benefits and how you can cultivate Mindfulness, Gratitude, and Connection in your daily life.


Recent articles of mine have focused on physiological contributors to mental health such as hormones, inflammation, digestive health and the microbiota because as we know, the mind and body are undeniably connected. Often times it’s a game of chicken and egg trying to decipher what triggers a downward spiral in mental wellness. Working on both the physiological and mental aspects is so important, with Mindfulness, Gratitude, and Connection at the forefront of cultivating a healthy mindset.


Mindfulness


Mindfulness is the practice of bringing awareness to the present moment. This means paying attention to surroundings in the environment, sensations in the body, thoughts, and feelings in a purposeful and nonjudgemental manner. In this way, mindfulness aims to bring us out of our overactive and overthinking minds, and into the here and now.


What does the research say?


Mindfulness practices reduce stress levels in healthy individuals (1), and may also be helpful for those that struggle with symptoms of depression and anxiety. Mindfulness based cognitive therapy has been shown to have a beneficial effect on symptom severity in those with depressive disorder (2), as well as significantly reduce the risk of relapse in those with recurrent major depressive disorder (3). Meditation practices have the potential to improve symptoms of anxiety (4). Mindfulness practice, specifically mindfulness meditation, may even create changes in the neural connections of our brains particularly those areas involved in regulation of attention, emotional awareness and self-awareness (5).


Ways to Cultivate Mindfulness


1. Just notice. Throughout the day when you find your mind wandering off into the abyss, try and bring your attention into the present moment by noticing your surroundings. You can do this by naming objects that you see around you, or sensations that you feel. For example, thinking to yourself “that’s a very green tree” or “I can feel the cool breeze on my arms.”


2. Bring awareness to your present actions. Do what you’re doing, and only what you’re doing. Often times we’re thinking about doing multiple things at once with our thoughts scattered all over the place. Try paying attention to the task at hand no matter how small it is. For example, if you find you’re mind wandering while brushing your teeth, remind yourself of the present task by saying to yourself “I am brushing my teeth.”


3. Mindfulness meditation or yoga. With practice, both meditation and yoga aim to improve the awareness of our bodies, thoughts, and feelings. Guided practices are a good place to start for an introduction to mindfulness meditation. There are plenty of apps out there making it easy to incorporate into your morning or evening routine (my favourite is called Insight Timer). Also check out your local yoga studios, as many will have an introduction month offer for newbies making it easy to try without the long term commitment.


Gratitude


Gratitude is the act of acknowledging and appreciating the goodness in life, including what is valuable and meaningful to someone. In a letter from Harvard Health Publishing, the author states that “gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships” (6).


What does the research say?


Gratitude is related to increased life satisfaction and well-being (7). In the context of personality, gratitude is likely to be found in those people that are more open, agreeable, conscientious, altruistic and less likely to be found in those who are neurotic, or possess negative emotions of anger, hostility, and depression (7). Gratitude may also have a positive effect on relationships and physical health, particularly stress and sleep (8).


Ways to Cultivate Gratitude


1. Keep a gratitude journal. This involves keeping a journal to write down three (or more!) things at the end of each day that you are thankful for. The idea behind this is to bring awareness to the positive aspects of life that can often times get forgotten or drowned out by negative thoughts.


2. Write a thank you note. Not only does this bring feelings of gratitude to yourself, but it can also nurture your relationship with another person at the same time (win-win!). You can also make a habit of verbally thanking others to express your appreciation.


Connection


As human beings we are wired to seek out connection with the environment, a higher meaning, and other humans. Here, I will focus on the importance of social connection. Connection through social media and other online forums is becoming easier to access nowadays, but are these connections enough? Quality over quantity may be the way to go when it comes to social connections. Showing up and being present with those around us may be more beneficial in creating meaningful connections that contribute to wellbeing.


What does the research say?


Social connection is important for mental health and those with poor quality relationships or lack of social support are at a greater risk of depression (9). Along with mental health, social relationships contribute to physical wellbeing. An article in Nature aimed to describe how social connections affect our physical health, stating that “threats to social connection may tap into the same neural and physiological ‘alarm system’ that responds to other critical survival threats” (10). When it comes to social media relationships, the research is mixed, however social media promotes shallow or weak connections, and may increase narcissistic behaviour, and possibly lead to mental health concerns in some people (11). Real-life interactions may be what is more important, and even chatting with your barista at the coffee shop can increase positive emotions (12).


Ways to Cultivate Connection


1. Talk to a stranger. Create those real-life interactions by chatting with your barista, the person next to you on the bus, or a neighbour passing by.


2. Put the phone away. In order to do #1, you may first need to put away your phone. Instead of walking down the street with your head in your phone, give your neck muscles a break so you can say hello to those passing by. And if you’re with a friend, keep the phone out of sight and out of mind.


3. Listen. Be present with your friends, family members, and significant other, and practice active listening. Again, you may need to put the phone and other distractions away. Allow yourself to simply be there for that person.


If you're looking for guidance in creating a healthier mindset, talk to your health care provider or come see me at Juniper Family Health (778-265-8340) in Victoria, BC.


References:


1. Chiesa, A., Serretti, A. (2009). Mindfulness-based stress reduction for stress management in healthy people: a review and meta-analysis. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 15(5) doi:10.1089/acm.2008.0495.


2. Strauss, C., Cavanagh, K., Oliver, A., Pettman, D. (2014). Mindfulness-based interventions for people diagnosed with a current episode of an anxiety or depressive disorder: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. PLoS One, 9(4) doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0096110


3. Piet, J., Hougaard, E. (2011). The effect of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for prevention of relapse in recurrent major depressive disorder: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Clinical Psychology Review, 31(6), 1032-1040 doi:10.1016/j.cpr.2011.05.002


4. Chen, K., Berger, C., Manheimer, E., Forde, D., Magidson, J., Dachman, L., Lejuez, C. (2012). Meditative therapies for reducing anxiety: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Depression and Anxiety, 29(7), 545-562. doi:10.1002/da.21964


5. Tang, Y., Holzel, B., Posner, M. (2015). The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation. Nature Reviews, 16(4), 213-225 doi:10.1038/nrn3916


6. Harvard Health Publishing (2011). In praise of gratitude. Harvard Mental Health Letter. https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/in-praise-of-gratitude


7. Wood, A., Joseph, S., Maltby, J. (2008). Gratitude uniquely predicts satisfaction with life: incremental validity above the domains and facets of the five factor model. Personality and Individual Differences, 45, 49-54 doi:10.1016/j.paid.2008.02.019


8. Wood, A., Froh, J., Geraghty, A. (2010). Gratitude and well-being: a review and theoretical integration. Clinical Psychology Review, 30(7), 890-905 doi:10.1016/j.cpr.2010.03.005


9. Teo, A., Choi, H., Valenstein, M. (2013). Social relationships and depression: ten-year follow up from a nationally representative study. PLoS One, 8(4) doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0062396


10. Eisenburger, N., Cole, S. (2012). Social neuroscience and health: neurophysiological mechanisms linking social ties with physical health. Nature Neuroscience, 15(5), 669-674 doi:10.1038/nn.3086.


11. Twenge, J. (2013). Does online social media lead to social connection or social disconnection? Journal of College and Character, 14, 11-20 doi:10.1515/jcc-2013-0003


12. Sandstrom, G., Dunn, E. (2013). Is efficiency overrated?: Minimal social interactions lead to belonging and positive affect. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 5(4) doi:10.1177/1948550613502990

Naturopath Victoria, BC

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