The Importance of Practicing Gratefulness During Times of Uncertainty
In a world of flux, disease, and death, of uncertainty and suffering, it is easy to get caught up in all that is wrong with today – to focus on our differences and disagreements. We take up arms against each other, instead of solving problems together. We throw proverbial flames at each other, instead of connecting.
According to our current understanding of neuroscience, when we feel unsafe, our nervous system seeks survival and protection, focusing on the evil and scary things. Our primordial instincts focus on despair.
But our brains have also evolved a sophisticated system of safety and connection that allow us to call upon the better part of ourselves. Our higher brain functions, the most highly developed systems of our brain, want to think critically and focus on hope and healing. But being stuck in a state of survival makes it difficult, if not impossible, to reach this state of calm.
Also, we have evolved with an intimate connection to the nervous system states of those around us. When we see the fear and panic of others, our nervous system feels anxiety and panic.
There is an answer: to develop signals to our nervous system that we are not under imminent threat of injury or death. When our nervous system feels safe and calm, we can call upon the better part of ourselves. We can access our higher brain functions of critical thinking and problem-solving. And we can enter a state that feels connected to those around us and focus on hope and healing for ourselves and humanity.
Gratefulness as a Signal of Nervous System Safety
You're probably wondering, what does gratitude have anything to do with the nervous system? Quite a lot, it turns out.
Polyvagal theory, developed by Dr. Stephen Porges, provides our most cohesive modern understanding of how the nervous system functions. As described above, our nervous system enters different states based on its safety signals from the environment.
While many of these safety signals are unconscious, there are also contemplative practices that we can use to activate the vagus nerve, termed the “nerve of compassion.” Why is it called this? Because research shows us that people with high vagus nerve activation are prone to feeling emotions that promote altruism (i.e., compassion, gratitude, love, and happiness).
The vagus nerve is most active when our nervous system is in a state of calm and safety. And while the vagus nerve can lead to feelings of gratitude, it can also be stimulated by practicing gratitude.
Of course, if you are a fan of eastern psychology or psychology in general, you've probably heard of the importance of gratitude. Even apart from polyvagal theory, gratitude has been found to have many positive effects on wellbeing.
In terms of the nervous system, making it a point to consciously focus on the things that are good in our reality, can signal to our nervous system that we are safe. And more signals of safety to our nervous system lead to higher brain functions, critical thinking, and feelings of hope.
There's also something called co-regulation. Our nervous system picks up on the signals of safety or danger from those around us. But when we are better able to send secure messages to our nervous system, the more we can co-regulate those around us. That is, we can help their nervous systems feel calm and safe along with ours.
As you've read so far, I'm sure you've begun to think of how our gratitude can impact our community and our world. If you don't feel comfortable thinking on such a grand scale, consider how this could affect your partner, children, siblings, parents, etc.
The states of your nervous system play an essential role in your overall health as well. You don't have to dig much to find the research linking stress and anxiety with bodily illness.
While there are many more ways to activate the vagus nerve (or “vagal pathways), gratitude is highly accessible and relatable. I challenge you to try it and pay attention to the way it makes you feel. Do you notice a difference in your thought patterns? Do you see less tension in your body?
What are some things you can be grateful for during these uncertain times?