A dear friend was recently diagnosed with a serious illness. In coping with her diagnosis and to keep friends and family updated on her treatment, she started an online blog. Her most recent post was thoughtful and reflective because it emphasized the importance of gratitude. She wrote about many of things she was grateful for and really didn’t focus on any of the negative feelings that can exist when coping with a serious disease. After all, it’s hard to be negative when you are talking about all that you have been blessed with.
It got me thinking about the whole mind-body connection and the role of gratitude and our health. As clinicians, we are focused on medications and evidence-based guidelines, but what about promoting gratitude as part of our treatment recommendations? What is the relationship between gratitude and health?
There is a wealth of research linking gratitude to positive health outcomes, and this research is growing. Robert Emmons, a professor of psychology out of UC Davis, is a leading researcher in the science of gratitude and has demonstrated several positive benefits, including reduced stress, improved immunity and better sleep. A study out of England demonstrated a reduction in feelings of depression for those who practice activities that promote gratitude. And research currently underway is looking at the neuroscience of gratitude.
So here's what I propose: At a time in healthcare when we focus on prevention through exercise, healthy diet and screening tests such as mammograms, perhaps promoting the practice of gratitude has its role.
There are several ways to practice being grateful. Keeping a gratitude journal, for example, is a start. Here, you document five things you are grateful for each day. If we can encourage patients to keep a food journal or chart their headache patterns, then a practice that promotes positive mental health and reduces stress is not a stretch.
I have began to promote the practice of being grateful with my patients. For my friend who is going through a terrible time, being grateful every day is proving helpful and is frankly inspiring to all those who are supporting her.
Bindu Kumar, M.D., is a Philadelphia-area physician with expertise in primary care and occupational medicine. She maintains her family medicine board certification in both the United States and Canada.
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