Resources for Recovering Resilience: Gratitude Primes the Brain for Coping

I write often, in Bouncing Back or in these posts, [“I Need to Shift My Attitude!“] of the power of gratitude and the practice of other positive emotions to pull us out of negativity, contraction, getting stuck in our survival responses of fear, anger, or depression. Gratitude, along with kindness, compassion, love, delight, awe, generosity, etc., helps us shift and broaden our perspective, strengthening our capacities to cope. My latest story about this priming to cope, and then a new exercise…

On Valentine’s Day two weeks ago, I spent a lot of the morning full of gratitude, feeling the love and support of so many resonant connections in my life, cards, phone calls, e-mails going back and forth. I was primed for joy and happiness. That afternoon I had an appointment with my tax people to figure out my 2013 taxes. There were many changes in my life last year after the publication of Bouncing Back. I closed my San Francisco office after twenty years of private practice there. (Still practicing full time in Corte Madera.), Less income, less deductions. There was some more income from sales of the book and from offering workshops, but also many more related expenses. It was hard for me to predict how my taxes as a self-employed person would change. I sent in my data; my people sent back questions; I returned the answers; they crunched the numbers…..

Sitting in the appointment that afternoon, I learned I owed thousands of dollars more in taxes by April 15. I felt a huge shock wave move through my body; I felt the beginning of OMG and what looked surprisingly close to panic. I also was aware of bringing my hand to my heart, bringing some self- compassion to bear – “Ouch! This hurts” – and doing my best to stay mindful. I stayed present and engaged as Anne and Lois began brainstorming possible solutions. I was present, not numb. We came up with some ideas I would still have to implement. I left the office with my equilibrium fairly intact, breathing, breathing, breathing.

On the drive home, I could tell I was not in a problem solving mode. I still remembered the goodness of the morning, the optimism of the afternoon meeting. I wasn’t trying to figure anything out. Just trying to settle into trusting that things would work out. Then, slowly, out of the blue, not out of trying, ideas began floating to the surface of my consciousness. Oh well, I could do this, or…oh, there’s a resource we hadn’t thought of yet, or… oh, there is a safety net I’d forgotten about. The gratitude practice of the morning primed my mind and heart to stay open. The mindfulness and compassion practices of the afternoon session kept my mind and heart open. All of these practices primed my brain to stay open and engaged, not go into survival mode, to stay in that defocused mode of processing where the brain makes its own associations, connects its own dots, and comes up with its own solutions. Gratitude created conditions in the brain for coping, and I was mighty grateful for that.

Exercise: Often we do our gratitude practice at the end of the day, recording in a journal or sharing with a friend or simply singing in the shower what we’re grateful for from the day. In this exercise, practice gratitude first thing in the morning, priming your brain to cope with whatever glitches or grumps arise during the day. Notice and strengthen your attention on what you’re grateful for throughout day. When something upsetting happens, notice it, hold it with self-compassion and self-empathy, but also return to your gratitude practice, notice the upset being held in a larger perspective. Notice any solutions emerging, not from worry but from your own intuitive wisdom. If gratitude allows you to move through your day with more openness and flexibility, take a moment to be grateful for that.