Killing Pain with Gratitude
For many of us, 2020 was a tumultuous year. After coming out of a holiday season that perhaps looked quite different from typical seasons, it may have left many of us struggling with feelings of frustration, depression, anxiety, and grief. As we enter a new year, the stress of not knowing what lies ahead can be overwhelming and impact us on multiple levels. In my practice I have seen how people’s emotional state can affect them physically- from increased neck tension and pain, to headaches, dizziness, and even sleep disturbances.
The perception of pain itself is a double-edge sword. Research has demonstrated that physical pain can trigger emotions, such as anxiety and depression, and that these emotional states can trigger physical pain. So how can we break this cycle?
The central processing area for this chicken-and-egg scenario is our brain. Our brain controls all of our behaviours and bodily functions through an intricate network of cells and chemical messengers. When our brain senses a threat, it calls for the release of our stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol. Short term, this enhances our survival; however, long-term stress, such as worrying about your job and finances, caring for a sick loved one, or living through a pandemic, can trigger a prolonged elevation of cortisol. Studies have demonstrated that increased cortisol levels can lead to weight gain, sleep disturbance, high blood pressure, and anxiety and depression. In addition, increased cortisol can lower our pain threshold, making us more susceptible to feeling more body aches and pain.
Hacking Your Brain to Feel Good
There are many approaches to counterbalance this vicious cycle all with the end result of altering our brain chemistry so that we can feel good. In recent years, scientists and psychologists have been studying how a simple act of gratitude can change our perception and actually boost the ‘happy’ centers in our brain.
Gratitude refers to the feeling and emotional state of giving thanks or being grateful. This can be a very complex emotion to dissect, but with practice, gratitude can be rather easy to elicit. When expressing gratitude, the brain releases two chemical messengers- dopamine and serotonin.
Dopamine, sometimes referred to as our reward messenger, triggers positive emotions, enhances learning and memory, and drives motivation. Serotonin, sometimes called our happy molecule, is essentially our anti-depressant chemical messenger. It too helps us feel good, enhances motivation, and promotes better sleep.
So, a simple practice of gratitude can have drastic positive repercussions on our brain health, emotional balance, and, in turn, our ability to cope and manage with physical pain and discomfort.
Developing a gratitude practice does not need to be hard; however, when we are not feeling our best it can be difficult to get started. Some easy examples of ways to express gratitude include:
Keeping a gratitude journal
Giving a friend or colleague a compliment
Sending a thank you note to someone who has had a positive influence on you
Finding 5 things you appreciate in nature or your environment
Writing a review for a local business or community group
We will all experience discomfort at some point in our life, whether it be physical or emotional. Knowing about the powerful effect of gratitude can be a wonderful first step in coping through challenging times and creating more balance in your life. I challenge you to begin today and find at least one thing you are grateful for!
Dr. Speranza is an upper cervical Chiropractor in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. She follows the protocols of the National Upper Cervical Chiropractic Association (NUCCA) to help people experiencing problems with postural related dizziness regain balance, return to doing the activities that they love, and ultimately take back control of their health.