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Giving Thanks: The Role of Gratitude

person writing in gratitude journal

The role of gratitude in recovery is to help reorient the brain from despair to hope. Like the well-worn tracks down a popular ski slope, humans create ingrained neurological pathways. If we constantly talk to ourselves negatively, “You’re so stupid to do that.” Or “If you weren’t lazy, you would have figured this out by now,” then that becomes our default way of thinking.

It’s possible to create new paths that move us into a more positive state of being. The theoretical underpinning of eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), a therapy used to treat trauma, states that our minds have an innate capacity to heal, just as skin wants to heal after it gets cut. However, if something gets stuck in the wound, then the skin can fester for a long time. Similarly, traumatic and emotionally intense experiences can leave people with emotionally charged memories that are not fully processed. These memories fester, leading to hyperarousal (outbursts of anger, crying) or hypoarousal (exhaustion, shutting down, disengaging).

Many people use substances to numb the difficult feelings associated with emotionally intense experiences. Others have traumatic experiences once in active addiction. Part of recovery is working through these negative experiences, in order to gain a broader, more adaptive perspective on what happened, and thereby to put the past into the past.

In order to do this successfully, we need positive images to incorporate into treatment and our personal recovery practices. In treatment, therapists use therapeutic techniques like cognitive behavioral therapy to help people change their thought patterns and EMDR to reprocess traumatic and other negative events on an emotional level to help people get past them.

Personal gratitude practices can also help us reprocess our self-talk, to build up a positive perspective that counters and replaces that negative self-talk. Research studies have shown that gratitude can promote positive outcomes, reduce symptoms of trauma, and lower levels of stress and depression.

Make New Paths

As we move into the holiday season, we will likely face some trying times, as well as joyful ones. It’s important to stay focused on what we are grateful for, rather than let our brains take us back to the well-worn paths of negativity, ruminating on all of the terrible events of our past. A gratitude practice can help us do just that.

It’s hard to make that switch. If you drop a coffee mug, it can seem fake to think, “That was an accident. I was not clumsy.” when your brain is so used to immediately jumping in with, “What a klutz!” When we start a gratitude practice by noticing what we have to be grateful for—a place of our own, a bright sunny day, a kind email from a friend, we start also to see the good in ourselves—how good we are at going to meetings, our ability to stick to an exercise program, the way we stay in touch with friends and family.

Once we begin to see the good in ourselves now, we can look back and see what we did to get ourselves through hard times and the ways in which we managed well through difficult, even traumatic, experiences. We start to feel grateful for having gotten through those times to the healthier place we are in presently.

Practice Gratitude

These are positive practices you can try to see which work best for you.

  • Before bedtime, reflect on the best parts of your day. It can be hard some days to come up with much of a list, but even one good thing can bring a smile and a sense of gratitude. Be as specific as possible: “My sister called today and made me laugh.” “The grocery clerk really liked my bracelet.” “The puppy learned to sit at my command.” “The sunset was gorgeous tonight—red, orange, and pink.” Specificity can help you become more aware of what you have to be grateful for.
  • Identify three small things that you’re grateful for every morning, or quietly before a meal, or at bedtime, once again being as specific as possible.
  • Set aside time each day or maybe a few times a day to visualize a favorite place or time where you felt deliciously content. Settle into the feelings you had in that place and let them seep into your present consciousness. Doing this regularly is another way to shift your emotions, thereby shifting your thoughts.
  • When you hear that negative voice, stop and look around. What do you see that makes you happy and grateful? This is the holiday season so maybe you see a cheerful fire in the fireplace or a slice of pumpkin pie waiting to be eaten. Maybe it’s a new baby in the family. Or it might be something as simple as red and gold leaves swirling in the wind outside the window. List each thing and take a second or two to be grateful. This can be particularly useful during stressful times like the holidays.
  • Mix up your gratitude practices. Meditate one week, journal another, keep a gratitude jar for a month, have gratitude calls with a supportive friend.

Practice Self-Compassion

If you find it difficult to feel gratitude, which is common among trauma survivors particularly, practicing self-compassion has many of the same benefits and can lead to feeling thankful and content. These practices can boost self-compassion:

  • Write a letter to yourself as if you were your most compassionate, empathetic friend (and likely the way you would write to someone who needed support and reassurance). Read it later.
  • Write down what your negative voice says. Review and ask yourself if you would talk to a friend that way.
  • Create a self-gratitude mantra, one that reminds you of the best of yourself. For example, “I am strong and worthy.” Or “I am making progress every day with each positive step I take.”
  • Start a meditation practice. Contemplation and relaxation can silence the critical and negative voices in your head.
  • Celebrate all of your successes, from making a perfect slice of toast to getting a new job, from getting outside when all you wanted to do was burrow into your bed to making a presentation at work.
  • Practice kindness. Doing acts of kindness for others cultivates gratitude for what you can do—practicing generosity—and how those acts are received by others.

“In all things, give thanks” is a biblical quote, but we don’t have to be religious to recognize its truth. When we can find gratitude in every circumstance, we build resilience, hope, and strength. We learn that we are who we need to be and that’s something to be grateful for indeed.

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