The Thanksgiving Holiday is all about wonderful food, family, friends and trying to recognize and remember all the good people and other blessings we have in our lives. What you may not realize is the powerful effect that gratitude has on the human heart, brain and the role it can play in helping us be successful in our drug and alcohol addiction recovery. One of the simplest and most powerful tools we can use to tap into the amazing energy of being thankful is called, “Gratitude Breathing.”


The Brain and Heart Science Behind Gratitude Breathing

Whenever we have negative feelings like depression, anxiety, stress or fear, our Limbic System (the brain’s emotion/pleasure/reward center) sends out a “crisis alarm” and starts looking for some kind of release or relief. If the logic center of the brain (Frontal Lobes) buys into this cry for help – whether it’s real or imagined – then our whole body starts to respond. We often begin breathing irregularly or hold our breath. Our heart rate tends to spike and increase. Our muscles tense up as adrenaline kicks in. Then, once the crisis passes, we naturally let out a deep breath of relief. This signals to the brain that everything is OK again. If you continue slow, deep breaths, your muscles start to relax, your heart rate decreases and balance is restored to your mind and body. With Gratitude Breathing create this calming process on demand. We start the process consciously, just as our body would do naturally.


We all are familiar with deep breathing as a technique that has been used for generations in meditation and stress reduction. But what is the brain and heart science behind gratitude? An amazing group of scientists at the Institute of Heart Math in Northern California have spent decades studying the link between the brain and the heart. They have discovered that the heart is much more than a “pump”—it’s the body’s most powerful electromagnetic energy generator, producing about 60 times more electrical energy than the brain. The heart contains neurons like those found in the brain, stores memories, is intelligent and has more connections to the brain than any other organ in the body. The heart and the brain have a tremendous effect on each other. One of the most common examples is stress. When we feel stressed, the brain’s Limbic System sends out a warning signal and the heart responds by speeding up with jagged, irregular heart rhythms. After years of consistently being burdened by stress, the heart can begin showing signs of wear with heart disease, heart attacks and other problems.


Scientists at the Institute of Heart Math decided to find out which human emotions have the most positive, calming effect on the brain and heart. They connected individuals to heart and brain monitors and had them focus on different positive emotions like love, kindness, peace, etc. Of all the emotions, the one that had the greatest calming effect on the brain and heart was “gratitude.” When individuals focused on the people and things they were most grateful for, their heart rhythms became very smooth and even, and in turn, their brain waves also smoothed out. After years of testing and proving, researchers found that the most effective way to focus on gratitude and bring about a calming effect was through “Gratitude Breathing.”


Gratitude Breathing Technique

There are 4 simple steps:

  1. Take in a deep breath for a count of 6. As you breathe in, imagine that your heart is expanding as it takes in the oxygen—clearly visualize this. It may help your focus if you place your hand on your heart.
  2. As you take the breath into your heart, think of someone or something for which you are deeply grateful. In your mind say, “I am thankful for (insert the person, place or thing).” Visualize what you are grateful for in your mind.
  3. Breath out for a count of 6 and imagine the gratitude flowing out from your heart and filling up your whole being.
  4. Repeat the process as many times as needed until you feel calm, relaxed and your brain’s logic center back in the driver’s seat.


At first, this will probably be a little awkward, but with practice it will become quite natural. Experiment, make little tweaks and see what works best for you. If you have trouble thinking of what you’re grateful for in the moment, keep a “gratitude list” on your cell phone that you can instantly access. When you’re feeling the negative emotions that can lead you down the path to indulging in your addiction, use Gratitude Breathing to calm your panicked heart and emotional brain, and put your logic/self-control center solidly back in the driver’s seat.


Enjoy the Thanksgiving Holiday, and remember the amazing positive effect of gratitude on the human heart and mind—not just once a year, but everyday of your life!


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