By: Donald. A. Zorn, MD
It is Saturday morning, which means that I am at one of my favorite spots on earth, our back porch. My incomparable bride has just brought me a lightly toasted, buttered English muffin, perfectly painted with orange marmalade and still warm. One can't help but feel grateful, for this is heaven.
The back porch affords a small vista, and in this spot I read, think, daydream, and occasionally feel inspired. Eventually though, Taska reminds me of the day’s duties, and off we go. Nevertheless, these “back porch moments” leave me changed, grateful, and recharged.
If only I were more disciplined. In the hustle of life, no doubt I could handle the rough-and-tumble better if I could just summon up a dose of those back porch moments. Being able to do so when stressed requires patience and discipline, and I am not the best at that.
In this, my first health posting, I wish for you “back porch moments" though your own place of peace and gratitude may be much different from mine. I hope as well that you will learn to make it portable, carrying it with you and using it effectively in the many situations that call for calm in the midst of life's storms.
One effective technique is consciously calling up a sense of gratitude in situations when you might not ordinarily feel thankful. We are all flooded with gratitude from time to time: the birth of a child, the unexpected gift. Gratitude in unhappy circumstances requires effort, just as praying for one’s enemies does.
The benefit? Modern life is certainly stress filled. Our bodies respond to stress with hormones which increase heart rate, breathing rate, and blood pressure, and leave us with a sense of unease. Unchecked, repeated exposure to the stress response is bad for body, mind, and spirit. Many of us grow so used to the stress response that we hardly recognize that we are in it.
Consciously practicing gratitude is one way to induce the relaxation response, which causes a reduction in stress hormones. The relaxation response is thought to alter concentrations of certain brain chemicals resulting in a sense of well-being. Other research suggests that reducing the stress response boosts the immune system.
How does one develop a sense of gratitude? Well, by practice. Any good discipline is developed by careful, consistent practice.
One effective way is described by the internist Lee Lipsenthal, MD, in his recent book Enjoy Every Sandwich. Dr. Lipsenthal, the medical director of the renowned Dr. Dean Ornish’s Preventive Medicine Research Institute, developed esophageal cancer at age 52. His first symptom happened to be difficulty swallowing, and came out of the blue while he was eating his favorite sandwich. At the height of his career he was dying, leaving behind his wife and two teenaged children.
While his physical health was declining, Dr. Lipsenthal consistently began each day by thinking of 10 things for which he was grateful. At bedtime, he would write down 10 things he experienced that day for which he was thankful. With his body wracked by disease, he was still able to purchase no small measure of peace through this discipline of conscious gratitude. He found that life now took on a new richness, and his relationships with his family and friends became more precious.
Conscious gratitude resets our focus, allowing us to find joy and peace in life's inevitable challenges and sorrows. Grateful people tend to be happy and satisfied, and as a result can feel, and be, healthier and whole.
So find your own place of solitude and gratitude. Learn to take it with you. Practice to the point that it becomes a habit, a discipline. It can be for you the source of reviving peace and a pillar on which your good health can be rebuilt. More on the health benefits of gratitude in my next post.