Thanksgiving and Gratitude

Thanksgiving is upon us. Like any holiday, it can be painful and lonely rather than enjoyable for  trauma survivors or any who are socially isolated or disconnected from their families. With its intense focus on food, Thanksgiving can also be loaded for those struggling with eating disorders. Then there is the problematic history of the holiday itself.  For some, it is even a National Day of Mourning:

Many Native Americans do not celebrate the arrival of Pilgrims and other European settlers. To them, Thanksgiving Day is a reminder of the genocide of millions of their people, the theft of their lands, and the relentless assault on their culture. Participants in the National Day of Mourning honor Native ancestors and the struggles of Native people to survive today. It is a day of remembrance and spiritual connection as well as a protest of the racism and oppression which Native Americans continue to experience.

What I have been thinking about lately is a literal read of the name Thanksgiving. I’ve written before about how important tradition and ritual are for us humans. One thing I find meaningful at this time is reflecting upon the things I am thankful for, large and small.

I know how often things like positive thinking or gratitude are urged upon trauma survivors or those experiencing depression as if there is some simple tool like this to fix things. I know that can come across as insensitive and victim blaming. There is no quick fix. Yet research and my personal experience suggest there can be great value in focusing on even the smallest of things we are grateful for in our lives. It is just one more tool to consider using on your healing path.

For example,  Emmons & McCullough have written extensively on the subject of how gratitude can impact mental health. In their Research Project on Gratitude and Thankfulness they reported the following results:

  • In an experimental comparison, those who kept gratitude journals on a weekly basis exercised more regularly, reported fewer physical symptoms, felt better about their lives as a whole, and were more optimistic about the upcoming week compared to those who recorded hassles or neutral life events (Emmons & McCullough, 2003).
  • A related benefit was observed in the realm of personal goal attainment:  Participants who kept gratitude lists were more likely to have made progress toward important personal goals (academic, interpersonal and health-based) over a two-month period compared to subjects in the other experimental conditions.
  • A daily gratitude intervention (self-guided exercises) with young adults resulted in higher reported levels of the positive states of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, attentiveness and energy compared to a focus on hassles or a downward social comparison (ways in which participants thought they were better off than others).  There was no difference in levels of unpleasant emotions reported in the three groups.
  • Participants in the daily gratitude condition were more likely to report having helped someone with a personal problem or having offered emotional support to another, relative to the hassles or social comparison condition.
  • In a sample of adults with neuromuscular disease, a 21-day gratitude intervention resulted in greater amounts of high energy positive moods, a greater sense of feeling connected to others, more optimistic ratings of one’s life, and better sleep duration and sleep quality, relative to a control group.

How can you reap the benefits of gratitude?

What about creating a Thanksgiving tradition of sharing things you are thankful for with those sharing your meal?

Why limit it to one time of year? Many find benefit from a more regular practice of focusing on gratitude, perhaps in the form of a gratitude journal. Looking back on this when you are struggling can provide another mood boost.

Are you thankful for loved ones? Don’t forget to tell them! Make it specific. What do you value about each important person in your life? What ways have they enriched you? We value praise the most when it is individualized and specific. Not only will you reap the benefit of gratitude, you enhance your connection to others with this sort of sharing.

Don’t forget yourself. This can be especially challenging for many people in my practice. Start somewhere, no matter how small! Can you be thankful for your sense of humor? Your perseverance? Your very ability to survive?

Don’t forget the small things. Are you thankful for birds singing in the yard? The cute antics of a pet? A sunny day after a period of gloom? All these count.

This year I am reflecting on how grateful I am to have started blogging. It has enriched and broadened my life in countless ways. I am thankful for the new connections it has lead to and the opportunities it provides to keep learning from other trauma therapists, survivors and activists. So in other words, if you are reading this, I am thankful for you!

Wishing you peace, loving connections and meaningful celebrations.

Kathleen Young, Psy.D.

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6 Responses to Thanksgiving and Gratitude

  1. s. cohen says:

    came across ur blog. It meant a lot to me.I’ve been doing this for the last few years and it has helped me when things external or internal are difficult.
    Another thing I found helpful is to do something, big or small for someone every day, even if it’s just a smile or just some encouraging words to someone who seems to be feeling bad that I might meet

  2. thanks for reading and welcome :)

    that’s another great strategy. I hope you or others will continue to share what works for you!

  3. Writing a gratitude journal can be a wonderful gift to yourself. It changes so many of my attitudes when I write one.

  4. Erin Merryn says:

    Love the photo in this post!

  5. Pingback: Giving Thanks at Thanksgiving | Dr. Kathleen Young: Treating Trauma in Chicago

  6. Pingback: #TBT: Thanksgiving and Gratitude | Dr. Kathleen Young: Treating Trauma in Tucson

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