The healing power of gratitude
This past year has taken a toll on frontline caregivers. The unprecedented delta surge strained our system beyond its capacity and claimed more lives in two months than some of us have seen in our entire careers. The vaccination mandate, while necessary to keep our patients safe, has led to the departures of some of our cherished friends and co-workers. We are physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted.
More than 20 months into this pandemic, the last thing we may feel is grateful. Yet as the holidays near, gratitude may be the best gift we can give ourselves.
A growing body of research has found that gratitude — that recognition of what’s good in life despite the hardships — has literal healing benefits.
Gratitude has been shown to improve sleep, increase our cardiovascular health, motivate us to be active, improve medication adherence, boost our mood and make us more optimistic. It also helps reduce substance abuse, fat intake, stress hormones, blood pressure and inflammation. Gratitude is also associated with easing depression and suicidal thoughts.
One controlled study split people who were receiving counseling for depression or anxiety into three groups. Group 1 was asked to write a letter of gratitude to another person every week for three weeks. Group 2 was asked to write about their deepest thoughts and feelings about stressful experiences. Group 3 was given no assignment. The study found that Group 1 reported significantly better mental health than the other groups.
Similarly, a study of patients with Stage B heart failure were separated into two groups with one group asked to keep a daily gratitude journal. After two months of monitoring, the journaling group showed less inflammation and lower risk of future heart failure than the other study participants. They also had healthier resting heart rates while journaling in the lab.
Finally, research on improving the mental health of health care providers found that those who wrote down the things they were grateful for twice a week saw a decline in perceived stress and depression.
While embracing gratitude has benefits beyond individual well-being, including in personal relationships and even workplace dynamics, the best place to start is within ourselves.
All who have endured the events of the past several months deserve the healing that gratitude can bring. As the pandemic raged, you showed up for your shift, sometimes wearing PPE for hours on end. You cared for our patients and took on extra work to help out your team. You have demonstrated tremendous dedication and personal sacrifice. For all you have done, we are forever grateful.
Many thanks to ARRMC’s Andrea Goodboe, Carrie Coffman, Desiree Feyerharm and Sarah Bowdin for gathering the material for this column.
10 WAYS TO PRACTICE DAILY GRATITUDE
- Keep a daily gratitude journal to remind yourself of the gifts, grace, benefits and good things you enjoy.
- Remember the bad times — this contrast is fertile grounds for gratefulness.
- Ask yourself three questions: “What have I received from ___?” “What have I given to ___?” and “What troubles and difficulty have I caused?”
- Share your gratitude with others.
- Be aware of your senses — sight, smell, touch, taste and hearing — to gain an appreciation of what it is to be alive.
- Use visual reminders to trigger thoughts of gratitude. These can be photographs, mementos or anything meaningful.
- Make a vow to practice gratitude. Research has found that a simple oath increases the likelihood that you will follow through on your daily practice.
- Watch your language. Gratitude has its own linguistic style that reinforces gifts, giving, blessings, fortune and abundance.
- Go through the motions of smiling, saying thank you and writing letters of gratitude. Even if you’re not feeling inspired, the motions help trigger authentic gratitude.
- Find creative ways to practice gratitude by looking for the gift in new situations and circumstances.
Adapted from “How to Practice Gratitude,” mindful.org.
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