Gratitude Practice: What It Is and What It Is Not

As I plan for Thanksgiving this year, I envision myself around the table with friends and family, a big turkey in the middle surrounded by all my other holiday favorites. In my nursing career, I have spent many Thanksgiving meals away from my family, experiencing it alongside my work family instead. I’ve had turkey from the hospital cafeteria and spent my day with my patients and their families. So, I am grateful that this year, I will be with my own family to celebrate. 

Whether it’s eating turkey at my kitchen table or from the hospital cafeteria, I remind myself that this holiday is not about the food but about remembering what I am grateful for. The purpose of Thanksgiving is to look back and be thankful for what you have in your life. Personally, I have a lot to be grateful for, but why only consider this once a year? Thinking about what you are grateful for daily may benefit your health, so why limit it to only one day? Instead, we should learn to give thanks all year round.

Some people intentionally think about what they are grateful for daily. Doing this is called a gratitude practice, and it has been shown to improve the health and wellness of the individuals who do it. This raises another question: what is gratitude, and what does it mean to be grateful?

What is gratitude?

Gratitude occurs when you recognize you have received a positive outcome from an external source. In other words, it is when you notice something good has happened and are thankful for it. The health benefit of this practice comes from being able to recognize when a good thing happens. It sounds super easy, but in a tough career like nursing or other high-stress environments, it can be challenging to find the good moments. 

Our biology is also working against us to achieve gratefulness. The brain is wired to identify negative emotions over positive emotions. We use this survival instinct to see and learn from bad or dangerous experiences to ensure our survival. As a result, we often focus on the bad. It takes practice to identify the good things happening in our lives, but if our brains are naturally wired this way, then why even focus on the positive?

Why focus on the good?

Even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention endorses the practice of gratitude to improve physical and emotional well-being, but how does it work? Looking at the positive side of a situation makes you feel better and can change the brain’s way of thinking through the process of neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is the rewiring of the brain or how the brain reorganizes thoughts and events. Practicing gratitude can change negative thoughts about an event into positive ones. Studies show doing this on a regular basis can reduce stress and improve your overall health in three ways.

  1. Mental Health. People who focused on what they were thankful for daily reported less depression and were more satisfied with their life. Anxiety and depression are associated with negative thinking. Therefore focusing on the positive things in life may improve symptoms of anxiety and depression.
  1. Relationships. All forms of relationships are complicated and can lead to negative emotions. Taking the time to look at the positive parts of each relationship can help us engage more fully in each relationship and build stronger foundations. When you are angry with your significant other, instead of focusing on what you are upset about, focus on the good things about your partner and how you can come together to find a solution to your issues.
  1. Physical Health. The act of being grateful has been linked to decreased heart rate and switches the body from a stressful state to a more relaxed state. This can improve the immune system and heart function, improving overall health. Why does this work? When we are in survival mode, our body will release the fight or flight hormones, like adrenaline. Over time, the continuous release of this hormone can cause increased heart rate, blood pressure, and inflammation. Moving ourselves out of a fight or flight state and into a more restful state may reduce stress and lower our blood pressure and heart rate.

How to have gratitude even when you don’t feel grateful

There are days when it seems like nothing good happens. You lose your keys, you are late to work, or your workday does not go as planned. Believe it or not, the best time to practice gratitude is when you don’t feel grateful. When you are having a bad day or when you get into an argument with a loved one, taking a bad situation and looking at the positive side can help you change your perspective. FInding the silver lining may even change your negative feelings into positive ones. When you sit down and think about what things are good and right in your world, your body shifts from a fight or flight mode to a rest mode, even if the good thing is minor.

For example, maybe you had a patient who started declining on your shift. It is a negative thing when your patients get sicker, but you can be grateful you identified their decline and took steps to help them. Even if you have a patient who does not make it, you can be thankful for your teammates who helped you through that difficult situation. If you are unsure how to pull yourself out of your negative mindset and look at things in a more positive light, gratitude journals or guided meditations might help you start.

Working as a nurse is stressful, and we literally go into fight-or-flight every time a patient declines or another call light goes off. Intentionally finding time during your shift to look for positive moments may help decrease your stress level. If you can’t find time on your during work, try doing this on your way home or even on the way to your shift.

How to start your daily practice

Starting could be as easy as thinking of three things each day that you are grateful for, but for a beginner this can be difficult or overwhelming. Follow these steps to get started.

Choose a Time. The first step might be to just choose a time of day when you can sit down uninterrupted and think about what you are grateful for. If you have a busy home life, this could be on your drive home from work or in the shower. Even if you only find five minutes a day, start there.

Find a Method. If you would like to go beyond just thinking positively,  guided journals and meditations can help.

  • Gratitude Journals are usually full of journal prompts or questions to help you think about what to write about. Sometimes the prompts can push you to think about your negative situation in a different way. Finding time to sit down and write might be difficult, but to help overcome that barrier, you can get a small notebook to carry around with you and write in it when you are waiting in a line or during your break. Instead of grabbing your phone to check your social media, use your notes app to type out three things you are grateful for.
  • Gratitude Meditations are another great way to start a practice. You could follow your own meditation or find a meditation app that focuses on gratitude. Meditation apps usually have a pre-recorded person walking you through how to meditate and what to focus on while you are listening. This would be a good option if you do this on your drive home. You could also use these while taking a walk or right before bed.

Many prompts ask you to identify at least three things to be grateful for, but on a bad day, if you cannot think of three, then just write down one thing. Once you find a process that works for you, it will get easier to do this daily, and it will be easier to find more positive things in your day.

Practicing gratitude is NOT ignoring your emotions

It is vital to understand that practicing gratitude does not mean you ignore all your negative emotions. Gratitude practice has many benefits, but it may not fix everything. It is important to know when gratitude is not enough. We are human, and we are supposed to feel both happy and sad at times. 

It is even possible to be sad and grateful at the same time. A few years ago, my dog passed away unexpectedly. For anyone who has experienced this type of loss, it can be devastating to lose a beloved pet. If you have experienced difficult time like this it is important to process all your emotions. It can be harmful to bottle up these negative feelings. As you work your way through the sad emotions, you can be grateful for all the wonderful times you had with your pet while still going through the grieving process. Do not mask your negative emotions by focusing on only the positive but look for glimmers of good times while you work through the sad. 

Gratitude alone may not be enough. There are times you may find yourself not just in a negative mood but in a major depression or anxiety episode. In these moments practicing gratitude alone may not be enough. If you have anxiety, depression, or thoughts of suicide, you should seek the help of a mental health professional. Seeking help from a mental health professional along with a gratitude practice may be beneficial. Just know you do not have to do this alone. 

Do not talk yourself into staying in an unhealthy situation. Practicing gratitude does not mean talking yourself into staying in a hostile work environment or an abusive relationship. There are situations where you may need to change your life situation to improve your health and well-being. Practicing gratitude may help you heal from your traumatic experiences, but it is not designed to keep you in an unhealthy situation. If you are finding it harder and harder to find the good in your current work situation or relationship, that may be a sign it’s time for you to make a change.

Wrapping up

Practicing gratitude is a great tool to help you focus on the good and right things in your life. It can help you appreciate what you already have instead of focusing on what you don’t. Doing this on a daily basis- not just on Thanksgiving- may improve your mental health, relationships, and overall physical health. 

If you are suffering from a serious mental health condition such as anxiety, or depression, or have thoughts of suicide, practicing gratitude may not be enough. You should seek the advice of a mental health professional. Being grateful does not mean ignoring all your negative emotions or staying in an unhealthy situation. Instead, it is designed to help you calm and relax your mind and body when you are stressed. Once you move out of fight or flight you are able to see the good things already in your life. So, when Thanksgiving comes and goes this year, don’t just practice gratitude on this one holiday, but start to incorporate it into your daily life.

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