Thanksgiving: The Healthiest Holiday (For Your Brain)

Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions…and not just in the moment.

Even if all you do is sit around and eat all day, (and we do recommend turkey, and dark chocolate,) the giving thanks part of Thanksgiving is actually powerful exercise… for your brain. Today we take a look at the neuroscience of this powerful phenomenon.

Start The Holiday Season Right; End It That Way Too

Thanksgiving marks the start of “the holiday season.”

This time of year, between now and New Year, is for many people a time of increased stress, depression and anxiety. In fact, a survey by the American Psychological Association (APA) found that 44 percent of women and 31 percent of men report an increase in stress around the holidays.

Yet Thanksgiving’s eponymous activity — giving thanks — arms us with a strong weapon to ward off this stress and negative emotion.

Studies show that expressing gratitude literally exercises the areas of the brain responsible for emotional control. Better emotional control means less stress. Less stress means a happier holiday season.

For this reason, we encourage you to jump on to the momentum Thanksgiving gives us, and keep it going all throughout the holidays.

A daily practice of gratitude from now through New Year’s Day is a strong move towards getting your peak brain and protecting yourself from the holiday blues.

Neuroscience proves it.

What Giving Thanks Does to Your Brain

Psychologists at Harvard Health say that giving thanks can make you happier. In their words:

“In positive psychology research, gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness. Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.”

These are valuable conclusions. But neuroscientists like us want to know why. What is happening inside the brain that is responsible for this?

While the neuroscientific research on gratitude is still too young to give us a complete answer at this time, several important studies do provide fascinating insights.

In their paper, Decomposing Gratitude: Representation and Integration of…Gratitude in the Brain, (published just this May in the Journal of Neuroscience,) researchers used fMRI*-based evidence to pinpoint the neurocognitive processes associated with gratitude.

*Functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, is a technology that assesses brain activity by measuring blood flow. Shown here, an active anterior cingulate cortex, or ACC.

The researchers found that the intensity of someone’s gratitude correlated with varying degrees of activation in a part of the brain called the perigenual anterior cingulate cortex (pgACC), a subarea of the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC).

In short, the stronger your feelings of gratitude, the stronger the blood flow and neuronal activation in this area.

So what’s up with the ACC?

Gratitude as Mental Exercise

The ACC “lies in a unique position in the brain, with connections to both the ‘emotional’ limbic system and the ‘cognitive’ prefrontal cortex.”

Because of this dual-connectivity, scientists believe the ACC has an important role in the neuronal circuitry of affect-regulation.

Affect-regulation is the ability to control and manage uncomfortable or painful emotions. The inability to control these emotions is largely responsible for depression, anxiety, anger and hostility. Furthermore, when we can’t control these emotions from within, we often turn to associated negative behaviors to try to control them from without. (This sad list includes substance abuse, violence, rage, suicide, etc.)

As this information comes together — the functions of the ACC, and how gratitude activates it — a picture begins to emerge of how giving thanks is indeed a way to physically exercise the part of your brain that helps you control your emotional state.

Turns out there’s some real science behind the notion that expressing gratitude makes you happier.

Gratitude and Meaning-Making

Other fMRI research also correlates ratings of gratitude with brain activity in the ACC, while also indicating another region of the brain: the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC).

The mPFC, associated with social reward and interpersonal bonding, is similarly thought to function “at the intersection of core affect and cognitive context.” However, in regards to the mPFC, researchers go so far as to suggest it may be “critical for generating ‘meaning’ in a stimulus.”

What does this mean? That the meaning we give to an object or event — and the emotions we feel in connection with that meaning — comes from our brains.

Again let’s allow the bigger picture to emerge:

All this science suggests that when we practice gratitude we not only build emotional resilience, we also empower our meaning-making brain’s to more helpfully process the story of our lives.

By exercising gratitude, we can score significance to life events in a way that helps us truly enjoy them more in the present, and store them as more positive memories for the future.

Make a Commitment. Make It a Practice.

Thanksgiving gives us the opportunity to reflect on our lot in life, identify the good within, and express our gratitude for it. As we’ve just learned, all this is very powerful brain exercise.

But as with any other type of exercise, brain exercise and mental-fitness training, (our expertise here at Peak Brain Institute,) require regular practice in order to yield real and sustainable benefit.

Gratitude‘s Lasting Effects on The Brain

One 2016 study examined the effects of a 3-week writing intervention on 293 individuals with issues related to depression and anxiety. The participants who wrote daily letters of gratitude reported significantly better mental health when re-assessed as much as 12-months later. (These self-reports were further validated with fMRI assessments.)

In the words of the researchers:

“Most interestingly… the gratitude letter writers showed greater activation in the [MPFC] when they experienced gratitude in the fMRI scanner. This is striking as this effect was found three months after the letter writing began. This indicates that simply expressing gratitude may have lasting effects on the brain.”

Though New Year’s Day is typically the day for making “resolutions” — the commitments you make to yourself for your own self-improvement — we suggest you take advantage of the opportunity to follow today’s momentum of giving thanks.

Starting today, take a few minutes every day to write down the things you are grateful for. It’s one of the simplest exercises you can do to get your peak brain!

Don’t let the holiday season bring you down. Let it build you up. Thanks to Thanksgiving, you’ve already begun. All that’s left to do now is keep going.

For more information on how you can build lasting brain changes and get your peak brain, we’re here.
IG: peakbrainLA
Call us: (424) 603–4950

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