During the months of November and December, with Thanksgiving and other holidays upon us, there is a lot of talk about gratitude. We are often asked to think of what we are thankful for in our lives. However, when we are struggling with anxiety, depression, addiction or other mental disorders, it can often be difficult to think about and reflect on what we are grateful for. It can seem like nothing in our life is going our way, and that we don’t have much of anything to be thankful for. When we aren’t feeling well mentally and emotionally, our view of ourselves and the world is often distorted and clouded by the negative, so that becomes all we can see. The positives and things that we can be grateful for in our lives often become minimized. However, staying in this kind of mindset often hinders our recovery and keeps us stuck. By beginning to turn our mind to a place of gratitude, we can begin to get unstuck and move forward in our recovery. Gratitude changes the way we interact with others and with the world at large, and promotes thoughts and attitudes that are supportive of our recovery.
5 Steps Towards Cultivating an Attitude of Gratitude:
Shift your mindset. Being grateful requires making a conscious decision to shift our mindset and way of being. As we talk about in Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT), we must make a decision to “turn the mind”- that is, we must make an inner commitment to ourselves to focus our thoughts on what we are grateful for in our lives. When you wake up in the morning, say to yourself “Today I am going to focus on being grateful and aware of the positive things in my life.”
Notice judgments – There are going to be lots of things that may get in the way as we try to cultivate an attitude of gratitude. One of those things may be our own judgments about ourselves and others. Have you ever been really happy about something that happened in your life and then immediately thought “I don’t deserve to be happy” or “when’s the other shoe going to drop?” In DBT we focus a lot on learning to notice our judgments more and let them go. Our judgments often keep us stuck in negative thinking patterns and keep us in what is called emotion mind- a state of high emotional intensity where we are often unable to think rationally and are very extreme in our thinking. In DBT we learn that while the goal is not to completely get rid of judgments, we can learn to be more aware of them and also not get as attached to them, which will in turn help us change our attitude and be more grateful.
Practice mindfulness – Mindfulness is all about focusing on the present moment and living with awareness and attention. When we are going about our daily lives, we are often distracted from the present by thoughts of the past and worries about the future. This prevents us from enjoying the present moment. Learning to be more mindful of the present moment will help us recognize all that we have to be grateful for on a daily basis. So step outside and notice the sun on your face. Blast your favorite music while on your morning commute. Hug your family. Savor that cup of hot tea on a chilly fall day. It’s often the little thing in life that can bring immense joy, when we are aware and present for them.
Start a gratitude journal – I started keeping a gratitude journal a few years back. Every night before I went to bed, I wrote down 3 things I was grateful for in that day. It could be big things, like getting a new job or being grateful for my best friend, or small things, like being grateful for a nice healthy dinner, or the beautiful fall weather. Putting into writing what I was grateful for that day really helped me shift my mindset and start to appreciate the positives in my life that I do have, instead of focusing on the negative and what I’m lacking. I stopped doing this as a daily practice, and recently recommitted to making this a part of my nighttime routine. It only takes a few seconds to write a gratitude list, but the effects are long lasting.
Embrace our imperfections. As we begin to cultivate awareness and gratitude in our lives, there may be days where this is difficult and when we get stuck in a negative mindset. This is OK, and this is normal. The key is to not judge ourselves too much when we have difficult days or are experiencing painful emotions. It is important to acknowledge that this will pass, and that we can move forward. With awareness and effort, gratitude can be cultivated and practiced as a daily skill in our lives. As we do this, we will begin to see our gratitude multiply and our mindset shift.