Gratitude Is Hard This Year, But It’s Imperative

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A couple of months into the COVID-19 lockdown, I began exchanging gratitudes with a friend of mine. Each morning, we text each other a list of five or six things we’re thankful for. 

Sometimes it’s small, everyday stuff: a hot mug of peach tea, starting a new book, clear blue skies. Other days the list is much more profound: the support of good friends, my health, hope. 

Either way, I detect an almost imperceptible shift in my mood after I send the text each day: I feel lighter, focused, more optimistic. It puts things into perspective.

I’ll admit that on some days though, especially lately, it’s difficult to zero in on what I’m appreciative of. With the season of gratitude upon us, it’s understandable that we might find being thankful harder this year than in years past. 

But that’s exactly why we should practice gratitude these days more than ever: science has now proven that giving thanks is able to alleviate stress and worry. 

Feeling Grateful Is Tricky Right Now

“We are all experiencing a collective sense of loss due to the COVID-19 pandemic and other factors,” says Talkspace therapist Liz Kelly LICSW. “We are experiencing a loss of safety, security, and connection, and that can be really painful. In addition, the holiday season can be stressful in general, but it can be especially difficult if you are experiencing isolation, financial stress, or a lack of social support.”

I probably don’t need to remind you of the many struggles we’ve faced in 2020, from the pandemic to ongoing political crises. It’s unsurprising that we’re not in a super appreciative mood. 

Kelly adds: “It can be really difficult to feel gratitude when we are overwhelmed with negative emotions, grief, or anxiety.”

From Better Sleep To Lower Stress, Gratitude Has Many Upshots 

Ironically, the challenges of 2020 are actually why we need to practice gratitude now more than ever. A growing body of research shows that what was once considered a spiritual wellness trend has a range of health benefits. 

A 2009 study in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research shows that gratitude improves sleep quality, while a 2008 report in the Journal of Research in Personality concluded that it can lower stress and even depression. 

Glenn Fox, an expert in the science of gratitude at the USC Marshall School of Business, said: “Benefits associated with gratitude include better sleep, more exercise, reduced symptoms of physical pain, lower levels of inflammation, lower blood pressure and a host of other things we associate with better health.”

The American Psychological Association found that giving thanks can support cardiac health, and a 2019 Journal of Experimental Social Psychology study showed that it facilitates healthy eating in adolescents. Links have also been found to increased generosity and fewer visits to physicians

Gratitude Practices Can Improve Your Outlook

Giving thanks is also connected to boosting general well-being and optimism.

“Practicing gratitude strengthens our resilience and trains the brain to cope with adversity in more positive ways,” says Kelly. “It’s similar to strengthening a muscle at the gym. Practicing gratitude strengthens the brain’s ability to problem-solve, improves mood, and broadens our perspectives. Identifying what you are thankful for is really helpful for getting out of a thought rut or funk!”

Kelly says that practicing gratitude on a daily basis can help you become less reactive, more resilient, improve your connections with others, and boost your mood over time.

Her own clients have used gratitude to identify their priorities and values in life: “It’s extremely helpful for learning to recognize what things and activities truly bring you joy and restore your energy.”

Being Thankful Helps With Anxiety And Depression

It is thought that gratitude can also be helpful to people with existing mental health issues. For a 2015 Psychotherapy Research study, Berkeley researchers examined 300 college students who were undergoing mental health counseling, many for issues related to depression and anxiety. The participants who wrote gratitude letters “reported significantly better mental health four and 12 weeks after the exercise ended,” as compared to the participants who wrote about negative experiences. 

The researchers concluded “that gratitude writing can be beneficial not just for healthy, well-adjusted individuals, but also for those who struggle with mental health concerns. In fact, it seems, practicing gratitude on top of receiving psychological counseling carries greater benefits than counseling alone, even when that gratitude practice is brief.”

Researchers Are Still Learning How Gratitude Works

But how exactly does such a seemingly simple exercise have such profound effects on our minds and bodies? 

The Berkeley researchers were able to draw four insights from the gratitude letter-writers as to what might be behind gratitude’s psychological benefits:

  • Gratitude unshackles us from toxic emotions: you focus on positive emotions, which makes it harder to ruminate on negative experiences.
  • Gratitude helps even if you don’t share it: you don’t actually have to send the gratitude letter in order to shift your focus away from negativity. 
  • Gratitude’s benefits take time: there appears to be a positivity snowball effect, i.e., positivity begets positivity. 
  • Gratitude has lasting effects on the brain: the gratitude letter writers showed greater activation in the medial prefrontal cortex when they experienced gratitude in an fMRI scanner, three months after the study — suggesting that the brain can be trained to be more sensitive to the experience of gratitude down the line.

Incorporate Gratitude Into Your Daily Routine

We’ve seen that counting our blessings benefits our sleep, physical health, and mental well-being — as well as supporting symptoms of anxiety and depression. 

But if you’re still feeling reluctant to start your own gratitude practice, Kelly advises thinking small at first. 

“Try to think of three things you appreciate in that moment,” she says. “You could feel grateful for your cup of coffee or your hot shower that morning. See if you can take time each day to express gratitude, perhaps in a journal or as part of your routine.” 

“You can also appreciate when bad things don’t happen,” she adds. “For example, you could express gratitude for good health and safety from harm. In addition, think of the people in your life that are helpful to you and make a point to let them know what you appreciate about them.”

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