It can be easy to get caught-up in the stress of the holidays. However, this is a great time to stop, take a pause, and just breathe — with the intention of asking yourself…
What am I thankful for?
When we are struggling it can seem tremendously challenging to feel grateful, and easier to slip into a pattern of taking everything for granted. We all know that person. We may even be that person. If you are, pushing yourself to adopt an “attitude of gratitude” can transform your life. It transformed mine.
While I prefer to define myself by my strengths and not my problems, you might be wondering, ‘what does she know?’ I’ll tell you — I am a positive deviant. Despite facing a mountain of adversity and trauma in my life, including a number of adverse childhood experiences and life events, I adopted strategies and behaviors that enabled me to master resiliency and succeed.
If I had to boil it down to one approach, it would be living every moment with relentless gratitude — and I mastered this the hard way.
When I was 21, unbeknownst to me at the time, I suffered from severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which commonly results in co-occurring social anxiety. I had just started a competitive PhD program and would go to the laboratory at two in the morning, every morning, so that I could do my experiments when nobody was around. I would also burst into tears whenever the professor called on me in class. Then one day the sky fell — I had a full-blown panic attack that provisionally crippled me.
Thankfully, one of my dearest friends found me, pulled me out of my car, drove and then carried me home. Afterward, after falling in the shower and crawling down the hall to bed, I managed to call another friend who is a medical professional and explained my symptoms. She set-up an appointment for me to meet with a primary care physician that week and recommended I watch a documentary called The Secret in the meantime. As a result, I began actively replacing negative thoughts and emotions with positive ones.
The “simplest way” to blanket all of my destructive thoughts and flashbacks was to shift the reel playing in my mind from “what happened” to a state of relentless gratitude. Given my experiences and perpetual triggers, this was not easy.
To give you a glimpse of my life in the months beforehand (not including everything leading up to it or since), my father estranged himself from my siblings and I, my apartment burnt to the ground and I lost everything I owned, and I was involved in a tragic car accident where my two closest friends passed away.
I literally had to re-frame my thoughts minute-to-minute.
Over time it became instantaneous — practicing gratitude transformed me and is now embedded in every aspect of my life. This was not a matter of putting on rose-colored glasses, evidence proves gratitude results in lasting benefits to mental health and the brain.
In a randomized controlled trial published in Psychotherapy Research, practicing gratitude resulted in long-term benefits for adults reporting clinically low levels of mental health. Specifically, participants struggling from issues related to anxiety and depression who wrote gratitude letters once per week for three weeks reported significantly better mental health, up to three months after their writing practice ended. According to researchers Wong and Brown, gratitude can produce lasting mental wellness and changes to the brain by re-framing and reducing negative emotions; activating the medial prefrontal cortex, which is especially important for behavior, memory, and social cognition in adults; and is beneficial to mental health even if thoughts and feelings of gratitude are not shared with others.
With lasting benefits to the brain and mental wellness, and evidence that gratitude also improves physical health, pro-social behaviors, resilience, self-esteem, sleep, well-being, and more, regularly practicing gratitude is a strengths-based, health-promoting strategy for nurturing wellness. Of course, there will always be something to ruminate over and worry can be beneficial — it can inspire action and is correlated with intelligence. As I described earlier however, anxiety and toxic stress can be completely debilitating and embolden illness.
So the next time you feel anxiety or negativity creeping-up on you, empower yourself with the choice to pause — and honor everything you are grateful for. Or even better, why not feel and share these thoughts consistently every day to improve your health and relationships? Like me, your life may depend on it — and you just might learn to thrive, instead of survive.
Dr. Heidi L. Pottinger is a director of clinical investigations in the department of health promotion sciences at the University of Arizona, founder of Child Health & Resilience Mastery (CHARM), Inc., and a fellow of The OpEd Project.