For those with an active eating disorder or in recovery, the start of the holiday season, with its emphasis on the abundance of food, can be extra challenging. Practicing self-care and self-acceptance are helpful tools to have, but there is one very powerful practice that has been shown to help people with eating disorders. And that’s the power of gratitude.
Many times, eating disorder symptoms can arise from a desire to numb the effects of anxiety, regret, tension, loneliness, or distress. An eating disorder can consume the mind with fears of weight, body size and image, and counting calories. As these negative thoughts intensify, the more a life filled with happiness and meaning may become unthinkable.
That’s where the power of gratitude can help your eating disorder recovery. Eating disorders compel a person to isolate and disengage. Practicing gratitude motivates you to seek inspiration and encouragement and can remind you that life holds so many good things for you to enjoy. Practicing gratitude readjusts your outlook from simply surviving to thriving.
Here’s something interesting—practicing gratitude can actually change your brain! A 2008 study measured the brain activity of participants who thought and felt gratitude. What the scientists found was that gratitude causes synchronized activation in multiple areas of the brain lighting up parts of the brain’s reward pathways. Gratitude was shown to boost the secretion of the neurotransmitter serotonin and activate the brain stem to produce dopamine. Dopamine is the brain’s “pleasure chemical.”
In addition, gratitude can help relieve pain and stress, because those areas of the brain associated with gratitude are part of the neural networks that light up when we socialize and experience pleasure. Those parts of the brains control emotional regulation, such as heart rate and arousal levels associated with pain reduction and stress relief. Feeling grateful creates a more relaxed body state and allows the benefits of lowered stress to wash over us.
Positivity can become our way of life thanks to the flexibility or plasticity of our brains. When your brain is flooded with positive thoughts, you will feel better. As a result, other areas of your life can improve including your relationships, health, performance at work or school, and achieving your goals and dreams. New studies show that gratitude can improve the quality of your sleep. In other words, it has been scientifically shown that the more we think positive, grateful thoughts, the healthier and happier we feel.
This is where gratitude is a powerful tool in the healing process. Being in an attitude of gratitude means being intentional about which thoughts you choose to think, and that goes hand in hand with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. CBT allows you to reframe an event in your mind and change the way you feel about it. It allows you to restructure the way you think and perceive situations. It connects your thoughts, feelings, and behavior and shows you that your happiness isn’t dependent upon an event but rather how you perceive it.
How can you start practicing gratitude?
Practicing gratitude can be done in many ways. You can feel grateful for something in the past such as a positive memory, in the present as you count each blessing as it comes into your life, and in the future by creating a hopeful and optimistic attitude about your life. Here are a few more things you can do to start practicing gratitude:
- Write a daily journal. Gratitude journaling encourages you to identify and reflect on the good things that are happening, no matter how small. The things you focus on grow, so taking the time to cultivate gratitude and can have a profound impact on your overall happiness and quality of life.
- Practice positive affirmations every day. They are positive phrases you say or listen to that will challenge your negative or unhelpful thoughts. All you need to do is pick a word or phrase that that motivates you, encourages you, and boosts your self-esteem. There is even MRI evidence that suggests certain neural pathways increase when people practice self-affirmation.
- Practice gratitude meditation. Gratitude meditation is a type of meditation that allows you to focus on the things in your life you are grateful for. It’s not just about feeling thankful for the good things in your life but everything in your life. That’s because there are things that may seem bad initially, but upon reflection, give you an opportunity to learn and grow.
- Learn to enjoy stillness. By practicing gratitude, you will become more aware of the present and the blessings that surround you. This heightened awareness leads to a sense of stillness and quiet within. It can deepen your experience of gratitude.
By practicing gratitude, you will start to notice the little wins of your recovery. Each of these small victories, strung together, strengthen your ability to notice and appreciate all your hard-fought accomplishments. Gratitude can be a powerful and effective way for you to overcome your eating disorder, one day at a time, empowering you on your journey.
We understand the holidays can be a difficult time for many. If you or someone you know needs extra support especially during the holiday season, please reach out to us. The sooner the better. At Wallace Family Therapy, we are trained to provide the most effective treatment that meets your specific needs and challenges. We’re here to help you.