The importance of gratitude, smiles, and deep breaths.


  • Stress can keep our bodies in a state of fear, making it hard to enjoy the holiday season.
  • Practicing gratitude can help soothe the nervous system, making us less reactive and more relaxed.
  • Simple changes, like smiling with our eyes and remembering to breathe, can also help us to feel safer and more connected to others.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      “If you want to improve the world, start by making people feel safer.” — Stephen PorgesAs a Polyvagal-Informed Therapist, I have been trained to see the world through a lens of safety. I just spent Thanksgiving weekend with family. They smile with their eyes. They smile with their whole face; they are truly excited and grateful to see me.

    Greetings and goodbyes include long hugs that release a healthy dose of oxytocin. My nervous system relaxes, and I just kick back and enjoy being with them. Fully connected and safe. Wouldn’t it be nice to feel that way all the time?

    Identify fear in people and facilitate a transition back to safety.

    To do this, you must understand human nature. Our neurological design supports a need to be seen, heard, and to feel accepted. We want to know we are not alone.

    Isolation is a threat to our species. When we are alone, we feel suspicious and more afraid. There is a lot to be afraid of in our world but taking a position of protection instead of connection will naturally create more fear. How do we create a safe environment, one that is conducive to connection?

    When our bodies are in a state of fear, we are unable to access the creative, curious, courageous, and confident parts of ourselves. When we are clear-minded and calm-bodied, we feel more compassionate and connected to others.

    So how do we make the holiday season more “safe” and connected?

    Here are three simple steps:

    1. Carry with you a mantra of gratitude.

    What if you approached this holiday season with a grateful heart? I know the holidays can be a time of grief and stress but know that you can be sad and overwhelmed and still be grateful. Gratitude can change the molecular structure and chemistry of the brain. It creates an effect on the nervous system, leaving you more peaceful, less reactive, and less defensive. In other words, you’re more social. Your heart beats out a message or vibe to others, indicating that you are safe.

    2. Genuinely smile.

    When we were mandated to wear masks during the pandemic, I got in the habit of looking for “smiling eyes.” Neurologically speaking, we have a built-in radar system that seeks out safe faces for connection. Our lives depend on it. Skip the Botox and expensive eye cream and let those crow’s feet speak! Take a moment to look at people in the eyes and smile, sending a message of “peace on Earth.”

    3. Remember to breathe.

    If we can keep our nervous system calm, it helps co-regulate others’ nervous systems. Breathe in slowly and exhale completely. Use your belly to breathe. It’s the diaphragm that “brakes” the anxious nervous system, so skip the chest breathing this season. When you start to feel stressed, stop and take a conscious break to breathe. Those around you will also benefit from it.

    We live in a world of division. Let’s experiment, if only for six weeks, with making this holiday season safer and more connected. Happy holidays!