Giving Thanks Changes Your Brain

It may be easy to feel gratitude on such a cozy occasion such as Thanksgiving surrounded by family and friends, a roasted turkey, some delish sweet potato and pecan concoction, and lots of other yummy stuff that you really don’t need, but are going to indulge in anyway.  You can light candles, say a few words of thanks before digging in, and feel totally blessed.

Or maybe not.  The holiday can be pure hell, an event you can barely endure, with you hating every minute and counting the seconds for it to be behind you for another year.  One annoying relative goes on endlessly about which tires are best.  While it’s probably very useful information, you lost interest after the first couple of minutes. Then, there’s that one relative with breath so bad that you want to offer them a mint. 

It’s really up to you as to how you experience the holiday no matter who’s seated at the table, how toxic their breath, or how boring you find the conversation by intentionally directing your thoughts and attention on the good or the bad.

This same choice is available to you in any situation in life. You can choose thoughts promoting calm and happiness or thoughts creating stress and discord. Choosing the first option and practicing mindfulness calms your parasympathetic nervous system and through neuroplasticity, the ability of your brain to change form and function from repeated behavior, emotion, and thought, can physically alter your brain.

Your thoughts cause cellular reactions in your body which are to your benefit or not.  When you’re in your happy place thinking happy thoughts, norepinephrine flows in your blood stream.  Because norepinephrine and similar feel-good neurochemicals lock into the cellular receptors in your body when viruses or less desirable chemicals look for a place to enter your cells and hook on, they can’t because the receptor sites are already filled with the happy chemicals. This process makes for a happier you and stronger immune system.  

Your brain doesn’t differentiate between visualizing something and an actual event chemically and responds and fires the same.  Because your thoughts cause lasting, physical changes in your brain, this gives you the remarkable ability to change your brain and life.  Neuroplasticity is the super power we all have. 

For example, I went to court last week.  Unfortunately, I’m a regular.  Because I tried to kill myself, resulting in a brain injury, I lost custody of my children. All of my visitations with them had to be supervised.  I was also ordered by the court not to drive them.  While the restrictions were warranted and in the best interest of the children at the time they were originated right after the brain injury, they aren’t necessary two and a half years later.  A lot has changed since then, thankfully, but the legal system is infuriatingly and ridiculously slow. I have been trying to get to court for over a year and a half to have them revised. 

I followed the court order down to the letter on the supervision for over a year and didn’t drive the kids until I took the on-road driving test and passed, like a sixteen-year-old.  However, I relaxed the requirements a bit on my own for the last year and a half complying with telephone and on site daily supervision, but not around the clock.

The judge isn’t going to announce her decision until the end of January for the round in court last week. For the Thanksgiving holiday visitation, she ordered that the restrictions were still to be in full force.  Initially, I was mad and insulted to the point I was ready to tell my ex-husband to not even send the kids.  

That was the “old Debbie” reacting out of ego.  However, when I gave the news time to sit with my changed brain and new way of thinking, I soon began to see a different way to respond.  I can focus on and react to the limitations of the visit or I can focus on the fact that I get to hug my kids and be with them for a couple of days.  It’s my choice.  I can choose to experience the visit, as a visit with the grandparents around a lot or I can choose to not even have them come and have a sad and painful Thanksgiving creating my own struggle and reality.  I can’t change the restrictions, but I can consciously choose the way I think about them and respond to them which changes my experience.  If I want peace and happiness, I have to think and make choices accordingly.

I can choose to experience the visit, as a visit with the grandparents around a lot or I can choose to not even have the kids come and have a sad and painful Thanksgiving. In either scenario, I am creating my own reality.  I can’t change the restrictions, but I can consciously choose the way I think about them and respond to them which changes my experience.  If I want peace and happiness, I have to think and make choices accordingly.

Because of neuroplasticity, choosing a calm response repeatedly actually changes the pathways in your brain over time.  What happens in your brain is similar to a sled going down a hill. The first time down, the sled has to plow through the rough snow, making new trails.  After many runs, the sled’s path becomes worn and is the default.  While my brain isn’t virgin snow, the grass isn’t quite showing through yet on the path as evidenced by my initial reaction, but I’m making progress.

How you experience Thanksgiving – or the toilet overflowing or a traffic jam or whatever – is completely up to you.  Your experience of this life is what you perceive it to be.

Have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

image credit:  https://www.flickr.com/photos/digidreamgrafix/

8 Comments

  1. botticellibelle Reply

    Happy Thanksgiving, aunt Debbie!
    You're a constant inspiration to me and I miss you so much. I wish we could have been with you (or you with us) for the holiday. It is good to be reminded, especially when things are rough, that there are reasons to be grateful… No matter what.
    **HUGS**

  2. Gratitude is an action and I have found great joy ad benefit in giving and helping when life is good and hen life is tough- it ALWAYS is better after I give gratefully.

    Gratitude like Faith are action feelings. I can only have and keep them when I give them away.

    • Debbie Hampton Reply

      How right you are! This is something I, too, have learned. Could not agree more.

  3. Paula Froes Reply

    Gratitude is the key to life Itself.

    Grateful to you Debbie and the way you face truth! 🙂

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