3 ways to protect your brain from daily stress by savoring positive emotions

If you spend time each day paying attention to what is going well in your life, you will notice feeling more relaxed and, generally, happier. Science actually shows that focusing on the positive aspects of our lives has a positive effect on our brain. Perspective shift can have a tremendous impact on our brain health.A new study shows that maintaining sustained activity in a brain region called the ‘ventral striatum’, is directly linked to maintaining a positive emotional mindset. People with more sustained levels of activity in their ventral striatum directly report higher levels of psychological ‘well-being’ and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol (1).

Read these two paragraphs and notice your bodily sensations as you read each one:

In my life, I have the privilege each morning to walk in nature and visit with owlets, flickers, kingbirds, and meadowlarks. I have friends who show up when I need support and laugh with me. I am raising an incredible child; my daughter is intelligent, creative, and kind. I feel fulfilled by my work and am financially supported by my work;  I am physically strong and capable.

This is where I choose to focus my attention and energy each day.

Listen to this story, in comparison: I just finalized a divorce; I live in a small, temporary home and need to find a long-term home; I only get to see my daughter half of the time; my daughter is struggling to learn how to read and I haven’t been able to give her the focused time she deserves; I don’t have a partner in my life and deeply want one; I spend most of my free time working because I want/need to build financial stability in my life – I have had to build a sustainable business as a single mother during the covid pandemic. I have chronic, life-long health issues that I have to manage on a daily basis.

Did you notice a difference in how you felt from reading those? Personally, when I read the second one, I feel anxious and depressed. When I read the first one, I feel expansive and grateful. Every time we choose to focus on gratitude, like in the first paragraph, we activate our hypothalamus (2). Our hypothalamus communicates with our limbic system and increases a restful state which leads to greater stress relief, better sleep, decreased anxiety and depression, decreased pain and increased energy.

In contrast, when we focus on anxiety, fear, worry, depression, sadness – we create negative feedback loops in the brain.

A few months ago, I spent a lot of time caught up with the second story, and I felt like my life was ‘chaotic’ and ‘crazy’. Then, one day, I had a distinct perspective shift and was able to pivot and spend more time focused on the first story – nothing drastic changed other than my perspective. And, I could notice a distinct difference in my nervous system – I felt (feel) relaxed and happy; I am sleeping well. Life feels exciting and fun.

I’m not recommending you walk around with stars in your eyes and ignore that there is strife and difficulty in your life and in the world. It is important to acknowledge all aspects of emotion. What I am recommending, is that when you realize you are focusing on the negatives, that you flip your thinking and acknowledge something that you are grateful for. The more time you spend in your day reflecting on gratitude, the greater positive effect you can have on yourself.

This has been shown to have long-lasting effect. In a recent study by University of Berkeley,  people who used gratitude as part of their mental health treatment had positive brain changes 3 months after completing the treatment as compared to people who did not use gratitude as part of their treatment. (3)

Here are 3 ways that you can bring more gratitude into your life:

Personally, I have intentional times each day when I incorporate gratitude into my life.

First, when I am working out, running, or practicing qi gong I spend the time in my inner mind observing where I am grateful.

Second, when I catch myself in a negative emotional loop – often about some aspect of my life feeling ‘unfair’ – I flip my thinking around and think about what I have in my life that brings me joy.

Third, every night when I am completing my journaling practice for the day, I first record the answer to ‘If I had a second time to live today, what would I do differently?’ – this is a great reflection on how to improve your daily life. Then, I record, ‘What am I grateful for today?/What did I do well today?’ The act of recording the answers to both of these questions helps me to keep making improvements in my daily life while also acknowledging that which I am good at, that which is going well in my life. It creates a nice balance.

These studies show us that with some active choice in where we focus our attention, we can directly affect our brain chemistry in a positive way. Consciously spend time each day focusing on positive thoughts and emotions and you will increase activity in the ventral striatum and decrease levels of cortisol, you will activate your hypothalamus and increase a restful brain state. Focus on gratitude and you will decrease anxiety and depression. Directly using positive intention can directly control your brain state and positively affect your life.

What are you grateful for in your life? What is going well for you? How can you bring intention into your daily life to cultivate and savor positive emotions?