How A Thankful Brain Reduces Stress

By Ellie Cobb, Ph.D. - Thankful Director of Psychology


Most of you have probably heard that gratitude is good for your mood and reduces stress. You’ve heard correctly! In fact, science actually shows that thankful people can create a neural override of the brain’s negativity bias. Cultivating thankfulness structurally and functionally changes our brain. So how does this actually work?


The brain is a complex system, and many neural processes are happening in the brain when we are being thankful. When we intentionally choose to notice the good in our lives, we engage our brain in a beneficial neurological process.


Studies indicate that people who intentionally practice the act of thankfulness show greater neural sensitivity in the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is the cognitive and emotional processing control center of the brain. When our prefrontal cortex lights up and becomes activated, it allows us to feel regulated and connected to others.


In addition to activating the prefrontal cortex, gratitude practice quiets our typically overactive stress response in the nervous system and brain. The stress response is often overactive in the brain, because the limbic system, the part of the brain primarily responsible for the stress response, develops before we are born. In contrast, the prefrontal cortex, our reasoning mind associated with gratitude, continues to develop through adulthood. Consequently, our brains are more practiced to be in stress-response reactionary mode. This means we need to do more intentional practice to help the brain’s emotional and cognitive reasoning region to activate. Excitingly, neuroscience research now shows that practices like mindfulness and gratitude both activate our cognitive and emotional processing center of the prefrontal cortex, which helps deactivate our stress-response in the limbic system.


As our brain regularly engages with the practice of being thankful, the rational and thoughtful capacities of the brain are strengthened. This reduces the brain’s reactivity to threat and stress. When the brain’s stress center becomes less reactive, it also reduces our stress hormone, cortisol, throughout our body. This makes us feel less stressed and more regulated. As thankfulness helps bring online our regulated mind, this rationality and regulation facilitate the brain’s ability to focus on more positive aspects of life instead of potential threats.


This is how thankfulness practices can literally create a neural override in the brain that can make us feel more mentally and emotionally regulated and well. By intentionally connecting to the goodness of life and to the goodness in each other, we quiet our typically overactive stress response.


You will not be the only one feeling less stressed from feeling thankful. Research shows that expressing thankfulness for someone else creates a double mental health boost. When we are on the receiving end of gratitude, our brains also register this in the prefrontal cortex. This means that when you express your thankfulness for someone else directly to them, you are not only activating your calm, rational, emotionally-regulated region of the brain, you are also activating theirs. Therefore, both the expressive thankful brain and the receptive thankful brain help deactivate the threat-detection stress-response region. Thankfulness really does have the double bonus effect of reducing both individual and collective stress and increasing emotional regulation for all!

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