Being Grateful When Times Are Tough
A few years ago, I looked at this perspective of gratefulness. Little did I know at that time that we would be in the center of a pandemic crisis. In one way or another this is by far the toughest challenge I have experienced. The reality of this is being driven home everyday when public health officials are recommending that we cancel Thanksgiving celebrations! Seriously, the one day of the year that we set aside to be grateful with family and friends is too dangerous for us to get together. Is it possible to be grateful under these conditions?
First, the benefits of gratitude
Gratefulness is correlated with life satisfaction and happiness. Those who tend to be more grateful rather than bitter are generally more positive, more satisfied with their lives, and will be able to see the silver lining even on cloudy days.
Ryan Fehr, a world-renowned expert on gratitude, has stated that gratitude “is a virtuous force in good times, and may have even more positive power in bad times.” “During a difficult time, gratitude is more important than ever. Research shows that gratitude can help us cope with traumatic events, regulate our negative emotions, and improve our well-being.” (https://blog.foster.uw.edu)
Gratitude, in and of itself allows us to see the best in each other and in our lives. Practicing gratitude helps us become more optimistic. There is a lot of data that suggests that actually writing about what we are grateful for each day improves optimism. Optimism helps us stay grounded. Recording our emotions decreases activity in the amygdala, the emotional center of our brain. So, whether you goal is to reduce anxiety or increase gratitude, giving thanks in written form can lead to a calmer outlook during this very stressful time.
How do you find a way to feel grateful?
An important point to remember is that gratitude is not frivolous – it is a coping strategy. Gratitude lifts our spirits and floods our brain with serotonin and dopamine. Dopamine controls the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. Serotonin plays a large part in mood regulation and anxiety. It seems logical that we need to get these neurotransmitters flowing and gratitude will do that.
You cannot fake it until you make it, Gratitude is an emotion and you must feel it to get the brain response. Our brain does have the capacity to rewire itself. We have to recognize a positive experience that we feel grateful about. We must change the way we think. When we consistently and repetitively recognize something to be grateful about in any situation – our brain will respond. We will be more drawn to the awareness of the positive side of things instead of dwelling on the negative side of life. Sounds easy, doesn’t it?
How can you get your brain out of the threat response?
Let’s take a look at the brain and find out how it is reacting right now. Our brain is always on alert for threats. It is a gift from our ancient ancestors. Well below our level of awareness our brain senses a threat (real or not). In response to that threat it goes immediately into fight or flight. Adrenalin is released and we go into high alert. All of these changes occur before we are consciously aware that anything is happening. We don’t live in the same environment as our ancient ancestors. Once their threat was over, their brains stopped the response. We don’t have that luxury, especially with the seemingly unending virus. COVID fatigue is as widespread as the virus. Our brains have been in a chronic stress loop for a long time. Cortisol is overtaking our brain and body. How do we stop this cycle? What do we even have to be grateful about?
Even though our brain has been hijacked by stress, we do have the ability to stop the chronic stress loop. Take a step back, take a deep breath, and think of just one thing that you are grateful for. Just one. Focus all of your attention on that one thing. Even if that attention is short lived, you have started to change your brain. Expressing gratitude will start to shift your brain out of all the negativity you have been experiencing. The more often you do this, the more often your brain will start to be on the more positive side of things.
Steps to experience gratitude when times are tough
· Make a list – but keep it simple.
When you are looking for something to be grateful for, make a list. The list doesn’t need to be long because you are only going to concentrate on one thing to be grateful about. When you select one thing, you can emotionally invest yourself in it.
· Start with any little thing.
When you are struggling – find any little thing that is working for you: your breath, food to eat, a place to sleep. These may be items that you take for granted but this exercise is to recognize what they bring to your life and feel grateful about that. By acknowledging and noticing these small things – you can shift your ability to better deal with the challenges in your life.
· Get up and help someone else.
The pandemic has caused chaos all over the world. Take a close look at what other people are going through and it might make the picture very clear – no matter what, you have a lot to be grateful about. The widespread losses in property and life in the wildfires of California , the catastrophic hurricanes pounding Florida and the Gulf Coast areas , the healthcare workers who are giving everything to take care of the sickest of people with COVID, some even losing their own lives, and it becomes clear that even as we battle our own fears of COVID, we have a lot to be grateful for. When I watch survivors express gratitude that they are alive – I am so grateful for the life I live. We can always be in a place where we can help someone else. Our dopamine will be pumping with gusto. We will feel terrific.
· Focus on the ‘Why’.
Concentrate on why you are grateful. In a gratitude journal – write why you are grateful for each item on your gratitude list. You are attaching meaning and emotion to the words you have written. You have to experience this emotion. When you write why you are grateful, your brain is more apt to reap the benefits of gratitude.
· Do one thing you are good at.
In the midst of our lives we get so buried by life. At that time – go do something you are good at. When we can’t get anything done to completion – we feel worse about ourselves. But when we accomplish something our mood improves (flowing serotonin). We understand that we can move forward based on the talents we possess. Those positive feelings will enhance our brain. We will regain a sense of confidence and at that time we will be grateful for getting to that point. Remember, gratitude is a coping strategy and helps us survive when we didn’t think we could.
Campbell, P. (November 25, 2014). Gratitude in tough times. Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/imperfect-spirituality/201411/gratitude-in-tough-times.
Goldstein, M. (April 21, 2020). Benefits of gratitude during COVID-19. Retrieved from MJH life Services and Psychiatric Times.
Kromer, E. (March 24, 2020). How to cultivate gratitude during difficult times – and why it can make us all feel better. Retrieved from https://blog.foster.uw.edu/cultivate-gratitude-difficult-times/
Young, G. (January 21, 2016). How to be grateful when times are tough. Retrieved from http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/254199.