by Tom Cloyd - 4 min. read - (reviewed 2023-01-25:0121 PT)
At year-end, we now have a period of relative quiet and calm. The holiday rush is over or nearly over for most of us. The New Year is approaching but not yet here. We can begin to assess our situation and take deliberate action to strengthen ourselves.
I urge you to start today something that will have immediate positive results and which you can easily continue indefinitely: a gratitude practice.
“Practice” suggests two very different things. One is a deliberate action to develop some skill. The other is any activity engaged in often and repeatedly as part of daily life. We often start with deliberate practice hoping that it will become a routine practice. That is precisely what I encourage you to begin today. I’m going to encourage you to do this practice not once but twice a day, and for very good reasons.
Gratitude is not denial, but rather the result of a shifting of attention. When we focus our attention on painful or toxic things, we automatically feel bad. When we focus our attention elsewhere, our feelings can change. This is simply how our brain works. We can make use of this by deliberately shifting our attention to produce gratitude. The result will be clear and beneficial. Sources of pain in our life, such as traumatic memories that have not been permanently transformed into mere narratives, will still remain, and we will need to deal with them in a separate effort.
Gratitude supports and promotes healing. We do not have to wait for our healing to finish before we start promoting health. Indeed, since healing very often goes forth from healthy parts of ourselves, creating or strengthening those healthy parts will often speed up our healing! This alone is an excellent reason to start today.
Gratitude is likely protective. Individuals who routinely experience gratitude may be less likely to experience trauma when encountering events that commonly elicit high levels of perceived threat and pain.
Gratitude probably promotes posttraumatic growth (PTG). Evidence suggests that gratitude aids in both recovery from psychological trauma and the emergence of posttraumatic positive growth.
How to get started. First, consider that our brain naturally tends to see reality in a negative way. This has a protective function, but so does correcting this bias, because feeling better promotes our mental health. Note that this negativity bias tends to create inattention to the positive aspects of our life.
Then, consider that the gratitude you will most benefit from relates to your personal life. This means that your practice needs to be “personalized”. It’s one thing to be grateful that you live in the USA, where you can access responsibly managed health care when your depression goes into an acute state, but yet another to be grateful for a particular friend or therapist who reliably pulls you out of mental holes into which you periodically fall. So, let’s be personal.
Get a blank sheet of paper. To help adjust your perspective on your own situation, try putting yourself in someone else’s: Mentally step into a tent in a refugee camp in Thailand where you are living along with thousands of other Rohingya refugees from Myanmar. You’ve been here for 5 years. Half your family didn’t make it out of your small village in Myanmar when the soldiers attacked. You doubt they’re still alive but won’t give up hope. You are utterly dependent on United Nations aid workers for food and medical care, and their service is not always reliable, so you try to hide food in your tent. It sometimes gets stolen when you leave for various reasons, as you must from at times. Some days you can barely start your day because you can see no future way out of your situation, and it’s clear that your physical health is slowly getting worse.
Now, pause to look around your actual present environment. Notice the dry floor, the roof that (I hope!) doesn’t leak. Consider the ease with which you can access food, people to talk to, services like transportation and police, and medical care. I’m sure your situation is less than perfect. Mine is also, but it could be far worse.
Write down today’s date. Then write down several things you are grateful for. Try for 3 to 5 or more.
Being very specific is powerful. I always list my hands, because I’m a serious musician on two instruments. And I list my eyes, because I’m an avid reader and computer user. Often ahead of those comes my wife and two daughters, as they have changed my life profoundly.
You can do more: beside each item you list you can write a specific reason you are grateful for this item.
When you have your small list finished, sit quietly and be still for at least a minute. Allow your mind to fully notice what you have recognized and especially what you are feeling.
This pause, coupled with the noticing, serves not only to increase your awareness but also to strengthen the connections between what you have come up with and the feeling of gratitude.
Finally, I urge you to consider doing this twice a day - shortly after you awaken in the morning, when it will help to set the feeling you take forward into the new day, and at bedtime, when it will significantly quiet your restless mind and help to create the calmness which allows sleep to some easily. You can remind yourself to do this by putting a spiral notebook or folder with paper beside your bed.
☀ ☀ ☀