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Gratitude: Spiritual Medicine for the Heart

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Author: Justin Mckibben

Today I am grateful for so much, and there is so much enriching my life I can’t explain or justify. Too often do we forget to appreciate the gifts we have every second of every day, like our own pulse… our own heartbeat.

Having appreciation in our hearts goes a long way, especially those of us in recovery. Being grateful is essential to staying aligned with our interpersonal connections and our compassion. Gratitude reminds us where we come from, what we have accomplished, and how others have nurtured us in that process.

Now it seems it can be healing at our core, from where all love and emotion starts… in the heart.

According to research published by the American Psychological Association acknowledging the beauty and the fulfilling aspects of life can result in improved mental health, and also ultimately physical health in patients with asymptomatic heart failure.

This brings one to speculate that if those who have suffered severe heart failure can see such impressive results in their recovery, what does that mean for the rest of us?

Is gratitude in our lives a key element to a happy and healthier heart?

Gratitude and Spirituality

Paul J. Mills, PhD, is a professor of family medicine and public health at the University of California, San Diego. Mills was the lead author on a study published in the journal Spirituality in Clinical Practice.

In this study Mills defined gratitude as part of a broader outlook on life, with elements described as:

  • Noticing and appreciating the positive parts of our life
  • It’s often credited to an external source (e.g., a pet), another person or a non-human (e.g., God)
  • Also a commonly an aspect of spirituality

Past studies have shown people who considered themselves to be more spiritual actually had greater overall well-being, including physical health. So taking that into account Mills and his colleagues set out to examine the role of both spirituality and gratitude as potential health markers in patients recovering from heart failure. In relation to his work Mills stated,

“We found that more gratitude in these patients was associated with better mood, better sleep, less fatigue and lower levels of inflammatory biomarkers related to cardiac health,”

Study of Stage B

186 men and women were included in the study. Each of them had been diagnosed with asymptomatic (Stage B) heart failure for at least three months.

Stage B includes:

  • Patients who have developed structural heart disease (e.g., have had a heart attack that damaged the heart)
  • Do not show symptoms of heart failure (e.g., shortness of breath or fatigue)

According to Mills this stage is an important period for therapy in hopes of blocking the disease progression because patients are at a high risk of progressing to symptomatic (Stage C) heart failure, so improving quality of life is paramount.

Researchers created scores for gratitude and spiritual well-being with standard psychological tests then compared those scores with the patients’ scores for:

Higher gratitude scores were associated with better mood, higher quality sleep, more self-efficacy and less inflammation.

Gratitude Lists

The researchers then asked some of the patients to write down three things for which they were thankful most days of the week, which they continued for 8 weeks.

Yeah, they had them write gratitude lists… in case it sounded familiar.

According to Mills, patients who kept gratitude journals for those weeks showed amazing points of improvement, including:

  • Reductions in circulating levels of several important inflammatory biomarkers
  • Increase in heart rate variability (considered a measure of reduced cardiac risk) while they wrote their lists

What is the point of all this? Well I personally think it’s pretty amazing the idea that science may support the notion that gratitude is its own medicine for the organ that pumps the blood of life through our bodies. That our emotional muscle can be flexed to the point it takes better care of itself.

The theory our gratitude has the potential to impact our health at the heart of it all is awesome!

Being thankful and acting on that can actually make us healthier, and for many drug addicts the extra help goes a long way with the damage we have done to our bodies with alcohol and other substances. Not to mention how important gratitude becomes in a lot of our everyday lives in recovery.

Something about two birds and a stone…

The concept of healing through gratitude isn’t new, and holistic healing is all about working on the inside and out, integrating it all to get the most out of the process. Letting mental, physical and spiritual health be a part of each other can make all the difference, and being grateful for your life can help you save it.

Healing can come from the places you least expect it, and help can come in all forms when we are willing to accept it. Drugs and alcohol do real damage to our bodies and our lives, but there are people who want to help. If you or someone you love is struggling with substance abuse or addiction, please call toll-free 1-800-951-6135

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