Giving Thanks: Building Resiliency Though Gratitude

I wanted to talk to you today about the power of Gratitude. As you know, we are in the season of giving Thanks, with Thanksgiving coming up this month for those of you in the US, and having just celebrated it  a couple of weeks ago in Canada.  So that’s why I thought that this is a good time of year to talk about the emotional state of giving thanks also known as Gratitude. Most people following me know that my primary focus in healthcare is on weight loss, so you may be wondering why I am discussing Gratitude. Well weight loss is not just  a BODY experience but it is also a MIND experience and this is where gratitude comes into play. 

Let me explain why. First of all, I hear the following types of comments all the time from people before they start working with me.  They’ll say “you know, I’m an emotional eater” or “when I feel stressed, I turn to food.”   Can you see yourself in those examples?  Stress, anger, resentment, anxiety, worry, fear are all emotions that are often very powerful triggers for a lot of people to reach for their comfort foods.  I am sure that many of you may well be feeling a mix of those emotions right now given the impact COVID-19 has had on our lives, on top of the usual day to day stresses and finding it harder to get control over your cravings.  Let’s look at this connection between comfort food and stress.

Comfort Food and the Stress Response 
Comfort foods make us feel so good because they raise biochemicals in our bodies such as endorphins and increase dopamine which makes us want to go out and get more of these “feel good” foods.   So when we experience negative emotions that trigger the stress response, known as the fight or flight response,  we want to feel better and food can be used as a quick fix.  But using comfort foods as a response to stress has consequences especially over the long term. Obviously, when people are trying to lose weight, turning to comfort food during periods of stress is going to be a major obstacle to them reaching their final goal and feel like they are in control of their weight loss journey. 

Over time as this cycle of “Stress – Eat – Feel Better”  repeats itself again and again it becomes an even more powerful conditioned response to keep using food for comfort.  It even comes from a different part of the brain that is more primitive where we store our automatic responses that are faster and do not require thinking time.  For this reason,  it’s not just an issue of being more “disciplined going forward”.  This is the reason why such patterns are SO hard to break.  Do you see yourself there? You may be saying yep, I get it. If so, what can you  do about it now. 

Well, one of the things to do to break this Stress/Eat cycle is to reduce your stress response.  You may think that is easier said than done because we  cannot always eliminate the situation(s) that are stimulating our stress response.  That is true but what you can do is take control over your perspective around the stress.  If you can shift how you look at it or change the lens through which you observe what is happening, it will change your response to it. In other words are you going to activate the stress response triggering the behaviour to eat your comfort foods again or prevent the stress response so the desire to reach for comfort food is eliminated?

Another huge benefit to shifting perspective and reducing stress is that you can then use the prefrontal cortex part of your brain. This is the executive functioning part of the brain and it is going to help you deal better with the actual cause of your stress.  This means you can tap into more effective  problem solving strategies to deal with the cause of the stress rather than just reacting to the stress.  This also empowers you to be able to make more mindful choices around food as opposed to turning to comfort foods.  

Shifting Perspective – The Power of Gratitude 
Gratitude is the most powerful emotional state one can use that will shift your perspective on whatever is troubling you. When we intentionally focus our attention on what we feel grateful for in our lives it will help us give less power and attention to the things that are causing us stress.  I know this sounds simplistic but that is what makes it so powerful.  In fact this concept is the basis of a world renowned book Man’s Search For Meaning by Victor Frankl, written after WW2.  I highly recommend this book if you feel you need more support in order to change your perspective.  In the meantime read on to learn a very simple strategy you can use to put you on this path towards more gratitude and using it to help you decrease your stress and help you manage your stress eating behaviour.

Building  Gratitude 
This simple strategy is to start a Gratitude Journal.   Each night, you write down at least three things that you’re grateful for but feel free to write more than that.  The simple act of writing them down is critical as it starts to build new neural connections in your brain.  Initially perhaps you will find you can only think of a few things and they may repeat themselves over and over again.  But stick with it because eventually the list will expand in number of items and it will also expand into other areas of your life that have been a source of your stress in the past.   As you write each item down try to take a moment to really feel the gratitude for it rather than treating this as an exercise of just creating a checklist of items.  The more you tap into the feeling of gratitude the more transformative this will be for you and it will have a more powerful impact on changing your brain patterns around stress.   When you do this simple act of gratitude journaling this will start to change your overall perspective and you’ll find that you are less reactionary to situations when they do come up, meaning you are not getting into a stressed state. 

You will find that overall you are more grateful for what you do have in life and how things are going. And yes, things happen. And yes, there can be and will be tough situations life throws at us for sure. But you’ve got perspective on it, you won’t slide down into a really intense negative state which then then triggers a “comfort food” reaction. 

That’s my tip for you during  this season of Thanksgiving.   It will be a very transformative experience for you if you start doing this for a few minutes at the end of each day, and really feel the gratitude.

Ask yourself – What are you grateful for in this moment

Enjoy and be grateful.  Here are items from my gratitude journal:  I’m grateful that you’re taking the time to learn about  this. I’m grateful that I get to help people every day.  I’m grateful for my family, Willow (shown above), friends and the gift of health in my life and theirs. That’s what I’m grateful for. 

Have a great rest of your month and I look forward to connecting with you again.