Gratitude Journaling for Heart Health

by Leigh on March 7, 2017

gratitude journaling for heart health catherine priceJournaling has long been seen as a useful tool for emotional wellbeing, allowing us to reflect on our experiences, process thoughts and feelings, and enhance our decision-making abilities for a happier emotional life. Now, researchers have found another potential benefit: gratitude journaling for heart health.

This latest research comes courtesy of scientists in the Departments of Psychiatry, Family Medicine and Public Health, and Medicine, at the University of California. The researchers enrolled 70 people with stage B asymptomatic heart failure (HF) and assigned them either to 8 weeks of gratitude journaling or treatment as usual as part of clinical trial NCT01615094 (Redwine et al., 2016).

At this stage of HF, there is an opportunity to slow down disease progression. Effective treatment can delay symptom development and enhance quality of life, but little research has been done on the effects of gratitude journaling on physical health, let alone heart failure. Where studies have been done, these have typically relied on self-reported measures of health.

Gratitude Journaling for Heart Health

In this pilot study, researchers measured specific factors related to heart failure, including biomarkers for inflammation, as well as resting heart rate variability, and scores on a six-item Gratitude Questionnaire. Those enrolled in the study had an average (mean) age of 66 years and were randomized to either a treatment (journaling) or control (usual treatment) group.

The results in this study found that people who maintained a gratitude journal for 8 weeks had reduced biomarkers for inflammation, a key factor in progression of heart disease and other chronic health issues. The journal group also had improved trait gratitude scores, meaning that they felt more grateful than those in the control group. In addition, the journal group had increased parasympathetic heart rate variability responses during the task, suggesting benefits for heart health.

Gratitude journaling is a practice of appreciating positive life features. It can be as simple as recording five things each week for which you are grateful, such as ‘eating a delicious meal’, ‘making a new friend’, ‘reading a great book’, or even just ‘waking up each morning’. Gratitude journaling for heart health can help you to organise thoughts and feelings, put emotions in context, and make meaning from life’s ups and downs. It may be especially beneficial for anyone newly diagnosed with a chronic illness who is struggling to find hope and happiness.

How to get the most from gratitude journaling

Gratitude journaling is turning into something of a science, with researchers like Robert Emmons of the University of California, Davis, making a career from studying the practice. The growing body of research on gratitude suggests some top tips for gratitude journaling practice, including:


Find your motivation – knowing why you’re keeping a gratitude journal and reminding yourself of this motivation can make journaling more effective than when you just go through the motions. Your motivation may be to ‘feel happier’ or to ‘appreciate the good things in life’, and you should keep this in mind when starting and continuing to journal.

Go deep – listing a whole host of things for which you are grateful can be helpful in confirming a sense of abundance, but describing in depth one or more specific things can have greater benefits it seems.

Keep it simple and fun – the key to a healthy and happy life is good habits, so rather than having to find time every day to fill out your gratitude journal, make the habit easier to maintain by journaling just once a week on a specific day. This will also help keep things fresh, avoiding the situation where you adapt to gratitude and no longer appreciate the small things in life.

Focus on people, not things – material possessions and events can certainly prompt gratitude, but focusing on your gratitude for individual people in your life is liable to have a greater impact on your overall happiness.

Write by hand – online gratutude journals or mobile apps can make it easier to maintain a journal, but research suggests a stronger emotional impact from writing about negative experiences longhand compared to typing (Brewin & Lennard, 1999). Although research is yet to be carried out to see if the opposite is true, it may be that writing about positive experiences by hand in a gratitude journal could enhance positive feelings compared to typing gratitude journal entries.

Relish each gift – instead of scribbling down a list of one-line items, closing you journal and moving onto the next task on your to-do list, make time to savor each thing you document in your gratitude journal. Think about how and why you are grateful for each thing you write down, how it makes you feel, and the depth of your gratitude.

Consider the alternative – it can be hard to pick out specific things for which we are grateful, especially if you’ve been journaling for a while. If you’re stuck, try switching things around by imagining life without certain things. You’ll soon identify plenty of things to be grateful for, and that you probably take for granted every day.



References

Brewin, C.R., & Lennard, H. (1999). Effects of mode of writing on emotional narratives. J Trauma Stress, Apr;12(2):355-61.

Redwine, L.S., Henry, B.L., Pung, M.A., Wilson, K., Chinh, K., Knight, B., Jain, S., Rutledge, T., Greenberg, B., Maisel, A., Mills, P.J. (2016). Pilot Randomized Study of a Gratitude Journaling Intervention on Heart Rate Variability and Inflammatory Biomarkers in Patients With Stage B Heart Failure. Psychosom Med, Jul-Aug;78(6):667-76.

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