Why is Gratitude a Helpful Tool for Loved Ones?

I’ve pretty much given up on my annual resolution to lose 10 pounds, but back in January I resolved to keep a gratitude journal. Given that only 8% of those who make New Year’s resolutions are successful, I’m proud that at half-way through 2016, I’ve maintained the momentum.

Those of us whose loved ones suffer from substance abuse suffer as well. Depending on the circumstance, we experience a wide-range of negative emotions such as, anger, resentment, fear, guilt, self-pity, depression, grief, isolation, and worry. You name it and we’ve experienced it at one time or another. And in times of crises and/or relapses we drown in a tsunami of damaging thoughts and feelings.

We need help to counteract destructive emotions to manage our many challenging situations. Some of us participate in twelve-step programs, such as Al-Anon or less spiritually oriented loved ones groups. Others seek help from professional therapists or members of the clergy. Some share with trusted friends. Those whose faith is strong pray or meditate.

Gratitude aids my recovery. It helps counteract my frustration and fear when my adult son fails to take responsibility for his behavior. It helps lessen my feelings of guilt when I ruminate about the past or beat myself up for enabling. (“What did I do or not do?” “What could I have done differently?” “Why can’t I stop trying to fix him?”) And it helps offset self-hatred when I wallow in self-pity. (“Why me?’ “What have I done to deserve this?” “Why can’t my family be healthy and normal?)

Much research has been conducted on the benefits of gratitude. Dr. Robert Emmons, Professor of Psychology at UC Davis writes, "Gratitude is linked to a host of psychological, physical, and social benefits: stronger immune systems, lower blood pressure, more feelings of joy, and a greater sense of social connection, among many others." Before his death from cancer at the age of 81, neurologist, Oliver Sacks, published a slim volume of essays titled Gratitude. He wrote, “I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude…Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.” Roshi John Daido Loori suggests that gratitude can be transformative. He writes, "Expressing gratitude can, indeed, change our way of seeing ourselves and the world.”

I’m not suggesting that expressing gratitude is a panacea for the turmoil we experience. Addiction is enormously damaging and painful. But gratitude can serve as a tool to help cope with challenges by shifting our perspective from negative to positive, even if only for a short time. Taking a few minutes to jot down being thankful for the bright red cardinal at the bird outside my kitchen window forces me to focus on nature’s beauty. (For tips on keeping a journal of gratitude see http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/tips_for_keeping_a_gratitude_journal.)


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