Patti Armstrong is an award-winning author and was the managing editor and co-author of Ascension Press’ bestselling Amazing Grace series. Her latest books are: Big Hearted: Inspiring Stories From Everyday Families and Dear God, You Can’t Be Serious. She has a B.A. in social work and an M.A. in public administration and worked in both those fields before staying home to work as a freelance writer. Patti and her husband live in North Dakota, where they are still raising the tail end of their 10 children.
Is your brain a trap for negative thoughts or a magnet for the positive? It’s not just a personality trait but also a way of actively shaping our brains.
According to research reported in Psychology Today, fixating on the negative can damage neural structures that regulate emotions, memory, and feelings. Cortisol, a hormone our body produces when stressed, breaks down the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain involved in forming new memories. The more cortisol is released in response to negative experiences and thoughts, the more difficult it becomes to form new positive memories.
Producing cortisol also damages other areas of your brain. Research from Stanford University revealed that complaining shrinks the hippocampus—an area of the brain that’s critical to problem solving and intelligent thought. The hippocampus is one of the primary brain areas destroyed by Alzheimer’s.
The cortisol puts us in a fight-or-flight mode, directing oxygen, blood, and energy away from everything but the systems that are essential to immediate survival All the extra cortisol released by frequent complaining impairs immune systems and raises blood pressure and blood sugar so that you’ll be prepared to either escape or defend yourself.
Change Negative Thought Patterns
Given that there is so much negative news these days, this information is troubling. But the good news is that we can change our thought patterns and even hardwire happiness into our brains and slow the loss of brain cells.
Meditating on joy and gratitude reshapes our brain for happiness. Research shows that even changing from negative thoughts to occupying our minds on activities as simple as crossword puzzles can begin to change our thought patterns.
If crossword puzzles can make us more positive, imagine the power to rewire our brains if we lift up our minds up to God in joy and gratitude. This past Lent, Father Russell Kovash, pastor of St. Joseph in Williston, ND gave a retreat on "Gratitude is the Virtue That Changes Us." He explained that praying a daily “rosary of gratitude” has dramatically changed his life. He first heard about it from his friend Patty Schneier whose spiritual director had recommended it.
“It has been 8 years now and I will not go to bed until I pray a rosary of gratitude to thank God for the blessings he has bestowed on me,” Father Kovash said. “It has dramatically changed my life with many fruits as I see how ridiculously good God has been in my life.” He credited the rosary of gratitude with giving him a deep abiding peace and joy.
“I thank God today for blessings that 8 years ago, I would not have even thanked him for, or maybe I would have complained about them,” Father Kovash said. He explained that gratitude pervades his life now and he begins noticing God’s blessings from the moment he gets up in the morning.
The way it’s done is simply to take each bead of the rosary and thank God for something. Initially, Father Kovash said he started with just a couple decades and it took him awhile to come up things. But now, it takes him 2 minutes and it has changed the way he looks at the world. “Now I appreciate things I would not have even noticed before and even things I would have complained about.”
Father Kovash gave an example of some of the things he thanks God for on his rosary beads: “Lord, thanks for my wonderful comfortable bed, for hot showers, for modern plumbing… Lord, thank you for my shoes, my clothes, my ability to talk and to walk, for the Mass, for the great sacrament of confession, for the Eucharist—your Body and Blood. Thank you for your patience with me, thank you for the cross, thank you for the gifts of faith and hope and love, thank you for my parents, thank you the priesthood—for my priesthood….”
Gratitude Changes Everything
Through the lens of gratitude, Father Kovash said he has come to even appreciate problems. “Now, I’m thanking God when I’m throwing up with the flu. I thank him for my great health. I thank him for the slow driver in front of me, because maybe I need to slow down…. I thank him for my crosses, it prevents me from becoming a spoiled brat which happens when we get everything we want.”
Father Kovash credits gratitude with increasing his love of God and the joy and zeal for advancing his kingdom. After reflecting day after day on gratitude, he started regularly repeating the words from Psalm 116: “Lord, what can I do for all that you have done for me?”
Being filled with gratitude helps us to look at things through an eternal lens, according to Father Kovash. “We will truly come to see what is really important in life—those things that have a bearing on eternity,” he said. “When have a passion for the mission of God, no longer will we be lukewarm. Gratitude will light us on fire.”