Last week I talked with my classes and private clients about cultivating gratitude even when we don’t feel like it. Gratitude is a tool we can use to help lift us up when we’re feeling low. Studies on gratitude practice have shown it improves our sense of well-being, feeling of connection to others, and increases optimism. People in these studies also reported benefits like improved sleep and reduced pain symptoms.
I was feeling good about my plans for talking about gratitude practice this month, then along came a week that pulled the emotional rug out from beneath me. November kicks off several painful anniversaries, including my Mother’s death, coming up on 3 years ago, on November 24th. My biological Father died in 2001 on November 9th. My Dad, my step-father, died in early December 2000. Needless to say, this isn’t the easiest time of year for me. The darker, longer days and the autumn time change don’t help either, but these significant losses all crowded together have overshadowed winter for me for a a few years now.
My Mother’s death came as I was just beginning my training in Integrated Movement Therapy. This is really the first year I’ve not had the distraction of homework and meetings with my mentor to distract me from the grief and depression that comes up for me. At the very beginning of the month I’d felt like I was doing just fine, then I had an unsettling dream about my Mother and this week’s seen my energy level slide down low.
My yoga practice has helped me to be much more aware of the dramatic energy shifts that accompany my anxiety and my depression, both of which arise from CPTSD. I’ve been watching this week’s low and mindfully choosing self-kindness, which is challenging. When my energy sinks, either due to depression or having a physical illness, I tend to fall into harsh self-judgement. It takes effort to focus on what I’m doing well when my energy is low. These are exactly the times when gratitude practice really counts.
I have been establishing a regular, written gratitude practice. However, when my energy sinks I’m often left feeling unmotivated to write, really unmotivated to do much of anything, which is why this weekly post arrives at the end of the week. Despite my apathy about writing this week, I’ve taken time to create pages in my artist’s journal. I’ve also been including gratitude practice as part of my daily meditation, I pick one thing (person) I’m feeling grateful for and really focus on it for a few minutes, going over all the reasons I feel grateful. I’m also mindfully stopping myself throughout each day and just noting what I’m grateful for in any given moment.
As I’ve stuck with including gratitude practice in my daily life I’ve found really in every situation there’s something I can feel grateful for. Even in a situation where my anxiety is very high, something I experienced on Wednesday this week. Using gratitude I was still able to stay present despite my heart pounding and feeling deeply uncomfortable. I combined it with the suggestion from my therapist to notice what things help me feel safe; I’d take those things that helped me and then reflect upon my gratitude for them.
Gratitude practice can look like a lot of different things. I like to concentrate on a single thing I’m grateful for and really focus on all the details about why I’m grateful for that item or person. Dr. Robert Emmons, who has studied gratitude practices at the UC Davis, has noted that reflecting on details adds a lot of value. His studies also found we tend to get an even greater benefit from reflecting upon times we are surprised by something we’re grateful for.
A gratitude practice I like to use with students is to focus on a frustration, focus it on your hand and close up your fist up around this thing that is unsettling us. Then, one finger at a time, open your hand as you count off five things you feel grateful for. We release then tension of our hand through reflecting upon gratitude.
You might simply enough literally count your blessings by making a gratitude list on whatever paper comes to hand, or just make your list in your mind. I often begin my day reflecting upon all the blessings I have: I awake in a warm, comfortable bed, in a home with hot & cold running water, with food to break my fast. I sometimes find that on days when I wake up with low, depressed energy this simple pause to reflect on these blessings lifts my spirits and helps me get my day going.