Anxiety, stress, and depression are at an all-time high right now – especially in America. In its most recent annual survey of stress in Americans (2017), the American Psychological Association found a statistically significant increase in stress levels in the U.S. over what was reported the year before.
Some of the reasons were political, some had to do with the uncertainty that comes with modern living.
I’m sure you know stress isn’t good for us. It has profound effects at the physiological level. As your adrenal glands release the stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, you sweat more, your pupils get bigger, and your heart rate increases.
But the problem potentially can get much worse than dilated pupils and a faster heartbeat. . .
If the stress response becomes chronic – meaning that basically it never stops, as opposed to being a brief response to a short-term problem – then it changes your immune cells, leading to long-term inflammation.
That puts you on a slippery slope, because inflammation often causes chronic pain like arthritis or autoimmune conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease. Besides that, a growing body of evidence links inflammation to a higher risk of heart disease, depression, and a variety of cancers.
Yet incredibly, there’s a simple phrase you can say on a daily basis that might keep all these problems at bay…
Where psychology and biology intersect
If you’re curious how chronic stress can have such a profound effect on your immune system, the answer is pretty simple, as shown by a consortium of researchers across the U.S. who participated in a study recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
It turns out that chronic stress alters the gene activity of your immune cells. And this happens before they even enter the bloodstream. That means your immune cells are armed and ready to fight infection or trauma before they even find any infection or trauma to fight.
The change takes place in your bone marrow, where a stress-induced modification selects for an immune cell that will be pro-inflammatory. This means that stressful experiences affect gene expression in your immune system.
And that means working for a rotten boss, or facing debt, or engaging in a feud with someone affects you on the most profound cellular level.
These cellular changes lead to the unpleasant symptoms so much of our population knows too well – fatigue, depression, trouble sleeping, and shorter tempers. Experts have long blamed genetics and environment for these issues, and those things certainly play a role. But increasing research shows that low-grade inflammation affects all these symptoms, across ethnic groups, income brackets, education levels, and geographic boundaries.
Doctor says three words help keep “inflammation emotions” at bay
Yet even as the research points to more problems raining down on us as a result of our rising inflammation levels, increasing amounts of research also point to holistic treatments as the best way to handle it all.
If you prefer a more scientific explanation, think of it this way: Any time your cortisol and adrenaline levels spike, inflammation increases all over your body. This affects your emotions, prompting what Dr. Deepak Chopra calls the “inflammation emotions” – fear, anxiety, anger, and hostility.
But — here’s the flipside. It’s a proven fact that positive emotions lower inflammation. Dr. Chopra himself published a study that tracked patients with chronic heart failure who were asked to write something in a gratitude journal every night.
The inflammation markers in the blood of those patients went down, and their health improved to a significant degree. In fact, writing in a gratitude journal had a greater positive effect than any drug.
Some might argue it’s like walking a tightrope… because the bigger your problems are, the harder it becomes to do something positive such as expressing gratitude – especially when your health is on the decline and your emotions are spiraling downward.
Yet gratitude could be the easiest and quickest way to get you back on a path toward good health. True, there are many other holistic steps you can take to lower inflammation, including working on building good relationships with friends and family so you experience positive emotions — empathy, joy, and a sense of calm — more often. Meditation also works wonders. Getting fresh air outdoors helps a great deal.
But simply expressing gratitude is probably the easiest of any of these. Really, expressing gratitude is as easy as saying the three words “I’m grateful for…” and then filling in the blank as you go about your day.
How to start your gratitude practice
The big takeaway here is not complicated: finding and appreciating the good things in your life will help you feel better. And when you feel better, you make better choices. You can handle more. You want to do more, like take a walk or try a new recipe or do any of the countless other things that keep your body healthy and cancer-free.
Here are some tips on starting your gratitude practice:
- Commit to writing a few lines every morning or evening in a gratitude journal. List at least one thing you’re thankful for, and why. You can use a blank journal or get one of the many guided journals available online (just Google the phrase “guided gratitude journal”).
- Be specific. One of the reasons gratitude journaling works is that it changes the way you look at your entire life. So, yes, you can write the same list of things every day – but don’t stop there! Look for new things to be grateful about and write down why you’re grateful. For example, “I’m grateful my sister invited me over to dinner on a day I was running behind and didn’t have time to cook.” Or, “I’m grateful I got a phone call from a friend I haven’t talked to in a while.”
- Write in your gratitude journal when you feel calm and focused. If you’re always exhausted just before bed, it might be better to switch your practice to right after you wake up.
- Focus some of your gratitude on people you’re thankful for instead of just material items or personal situations. You’ll find it can improve your relationships with them – particularly if you go a step beyond and tell them you’re grateful for them.
- Writing out your gratitude statements by hand is reportedly the most effective way to benefit from this practice, but if you’re always on the go you might try a gratitude app like Mojo or Day One.
A gratitude journal is not a magic cure-all for everything that ails you. It’s one thing among many we all need to do. But if you want to reverse the symptoms… lower inflammation levels and halt the progression of diseases like cancer… and avoid getting stuck on the path of no return, gratitude is the first – and easiest – step you can take.
Do I keep a gratitude journal? No, I offer prayers of thanks every night before I go to bed, and I take that occasion to thank God for all the good things in my life – the ones that are always there AND the new ones that happened that day. It’s a pretty lengthy part of my prayers, because when you start doing this it turns out there’s an enormous amount of good things – most of them things you don’t really give much thought to.
Written journal or prayers of thanks – the practice reminds you and requires you to focus on the positives in your life. And, frankly, this isn’t “natural” and few of us do it without prodding. You will find it wreaks a marvelous transformation in your life.
- “13 Ways Inflammation Can Affect Your Health.” By Amanda Macmillan for Health.com, 4 March 2015
- “16 ways to combat inflammation (according to science).” By Tamim Alnuweiri, 27 June 2017.
- “5 Scientific Ways Gratitude Influences Your Autoimmune Disease.” By Dr. Deborah Anderson for Huffington Post. 6 November 2017.
- “Americans Just Broke a New Record for Stress and Anxiety.” By Melanie Greenberg Ph.D. for Psychology Today, 19 February 2017.
- “Chronic Stress Changes Immune Cell Genes, Leading To Inflammation: Study.”
- “Gratitude Study.” Chopra Foundation site.
- “Highlights from the Research Project on Gratitude and Thankfulness.” By Robert A Emmons, et al. 2003.
- “Why Deepak Chopra has set his sights on eliminating inflammation.” By Erin Bunch for Well and Good, 23 March 2018.