As we approach the Thanksgiving holiday, we find ourselves struggling with global, national, and personal life challenges unlike any other season before in our lives. As we find ourselves confronted with the compounding effects from the trifecta of the COVID-19 pandemic, racial and social injustice, as well as political division in our nation, it can seem like there is so much spiraling beyond our control. How our lives have been intimately impacted by needing to mentally, emotionally, and physically restructure our routines in order to meet the demands of working from home, home-schooling, and “physical” social distancing, as well as co-experiencing a shared collective trauma as a result of the latter, has brought to the forefront the negative effects these uncertain times can have on the dimensions of our mental, physical, emotional, social, spiritual, and occupational wellness. With Thanksgiving being less than three weeks away, how should or can we feel grateful under such dire circumstances? Although, it can feel counter-intuitive or be emotionally antithesis, it is precisely under crisis situations, when we have the most to gain by refocusing and shifting our awareness to a gratitude mindset.
Gratitude Has the Power to Heal
How might practicing a gratitude mindset, help you to gain a new perspective and potentially find meaning, hope, and even a sense of joy in the midst of uncertainty, loss, and pain? According to Robert Emmons, a leading scientific expert on gratitude, “In the face of brokenness, gratitude has the power to heal. In the face of demoralization, gratitude has the power to energize. In the face of despair, gratitude has the power to bring hope. In the face of such uncertain times, gratitude can help us to build adaptive coping skills and resilience.” Practicing gratitude can help us to be more present-focused, which in turn, helps to alleviate anxiety, sadness, depression, and worry about the future. Rather than trying to control a situation that is beyond our control, which has the potential to do more harm than good, tapping into what you are grateful for can help you to remain grounded, support feelings of calm, and serve to anchor your awareness to both the external and internal resources, comforts, and supports that are still present within your sacred circle of control. Fostering a gratitude mindset does not mean that things are easy and it may be the last thing we want to do; however, focusing on gratitude opens our minds, hearts, and bodies to new ways of thinking, feeling, and being. It can positively impact our sense of perceived support and strengthen our relationships, which is so crucial at this time. It can help us to put our personal struggles and obstacles in perspective and to find balance. This stretching of our minds and our brains, known as neuroplasticity, which becomes the bedrock for growth and change to occur even during conflict, in and of itself is something to be grateful for.
Building Up Your Psychological Immune System
According to research, “gratitude has been found to be psychologically protective, especially after natural and man-made disaster, and that gratitude is an important factor in resilience and healing after disaster.” Studies have shown that gratitude, “may spontaneously catalyze the healing process and can serve as a soothing healing agent during these uncertain times when so many of us are looking to protect, heal, or stay strong”. Nurturing a gratitude mindset can have a positive impact on our mental, emotional, and physical health. Research findings have also indicated that gratitude helps lower cortisol levels in our bodies by about 23%, which is a hormone that plays an important role in helping the body respond to stress. Gratitude has also been found in studies to enhance psychological well-being and strengthens the emotion-related activity of the brain; specifically, the amygdala’s activity under the limbic system seems to be positively impacted when practicing gratitude. It has also been found that consciously cultivating an attitude of gratitude can build up a sort of “psychological” immune system that can cushion us when we fall. There is scientific evidence to show how and why practicing gratitude is so important to our overall sense of well-being, but what I find most beneficial about practicing gratitude is that it can help us to hold and begin to come to terms with both realities, the good and the not so good things that co-exist concurrently.
Embark on a Gratitude Journey with These Activities
As part of my self-care, I have been challenging myself to find creative ways to use art-making, journaling, mindfulness-based meditation, and self-reflection practices to shift into a mindset of gratitude. Practicing gratitude can become an opportunity for self-reflection, as well as an opportunity to create a family ritual that brings awareness to the people, places, things, moments, hopes, and dreams that add value, purpose, and meaning to your life. There are so many ways you can begin to practice gratitude. I offer these simple ideas to ignite your inspiration as you take this opportunity to embark on a gratitude journey for the next upcoming days heading into the Thanksgiving holiday.
Keep a Gratitude Jar
Keeping a gratitude jar or a blessing jar is a great activity to try for yourself that you can also share with family and children. To create a gratitude jar, find any large jar or container (e.g. mason jar). It can be clear or translucent, I prefer clear because it allows you to see the jar filling up as more slips of paper are added over time. Each day, try to find one thing that you appreciate or are thankful for, write it down on a slip of paper, and add it into the jar. Try doing this for at least a few weeks or even several months. On the not so good days, seeing the jar filled with messages of gratitude or blessings can offer support and serve as a gentle reminder to shift your focus and perception onto the simple things that provide comfort and bliss. When the jar is filled, find time to empty out the gratitude notes (this is the best part)! Rediscovering reasons why you and those around you were feeling grateful for no matter how big or small helps to reaffirm and revive those experiences
Create a Gratitude Tree
Creating a gratitude tree is another great activity that can be created by yourself or in collaboration with children, loved-ones, and family. Gratitude trees are physical opportunities to encourage the expression of appreciation. They can come in many forms either hand-drawn, cut-out or sculpted from paper or fabric, or even arranged from gathered fallen twigs and broken tree branches. Blank leaves, which are cut-out from sheets of paper, are filled out with messages of gratitude that can be added to the tree over a period of time.
Start a Gratitude Journal
Keeping a creative gratitude journal is a wonderful way to begin a conscious conversation with yourself. All you need is a journal, either lined or unlined, and your favorite writing or drawing utensils. Try to add some creative flair to your gratitude journal with images, doodles, magazine cut-outs, photos, inspiring quote printouts, etc. To get started, some reflection questions to prompt writing and/or art-making in your journal can be, “Who are the people that have supported me, helped me, or given me guidance? What have been some challenging experiences in my life that have me stronger or changed me in some way? Can I be grateful for those experiences? What are some little examples of beauty that I can notice throughout the day? What are some small things in my life that bring me comfort or joy? What are some of the things that I often take for granted in my life? In what moments of my day have I found happiness, peace, or love? In what ways can I be thankful for my body and its health, strengths, and abilities?
Share the Gratitude
Aside from the sampling of ideas listed above, you can also share an uplifting social media post or message of appreciation with a friend or a loved one, enjoy and appreciate at least one thing or more about the people you interact with (e.g. personal or professional relationships), or pick out three different parts to each day that you can be grateful for and enjoy them. There is even an app that you can try called Happier that helps you to practice mindfulness and gratitude with a community of people who share the same common goal if you are a more technically-savvy individual. Although these are truly stressful and challenging times, practicing gratitude can help to connect you to something bigger than yourself by searching for and uncovering the goodness that still exists externally, whether that be other people, nature, or a higher power. Allow yourself to move in small steps. If you are finding it difficult to find a reason to be grateful in one area of your life, then try another area. Be gentle with yourself and dare to try something different. I encourage you to practice the art of gratitude in your everyday life.