Why write? Thinking or talking about an event can lead to ruminating, where you become lost in your emotions. But writing forces you to slow down, says Joshua Smyth, distinguished professor of biobehavioral health and of medicine at Pennsylvania State University, who studies expressive writing. The mere act of labeling a feeling—of putting words to an emotion—can dampen the neural activity in the threat area of the brain and increase activity in the regulatory area, says Annette Stanton, chair of the department of psychology and professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at UCLA. Dr. Stanton’s research suggests that expressive writing can lead to lower depressive symptoms, greater positive mood and enhanced life appreciation. “Writing can increase someone’s acceptance of their experience, and acceptance is calming,” says Dr. Stanton.
But since the pandemic started, he’s added another healthy habit: Reminding himself why he’s grateful. When Mr. Gardner starts to feel frustrated or annoyed these days—that he can’t meet with his employees in person, take a trip, or see a friend—he interrupts his thoughts with a question: “What is the gift in this situation?” “Focusing on the positive helps me better absorb the negative,” says Mr. Gardner, a 37-year-old owner of a branding firm in Chicago.
Feelings of gratitude activate three main areas in the brain: the brain stem region that produces dopamine, the primary reward chemical; the reward center, where dopamine is released; and the anterior cingulate cortex, which helps us focus on information that is relevant and communicates between the brain’s thinking and emotional circuits, says Alex Korb, a neuroscientist. “Your psychological well-being depends less on the things that happen to you and more on the things you pay attention to,” says Dr. Korb, author of “The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time.” “Gratitude will shift your brain’s attention.”