Attitude of Gratitude
January 7, 2019
Let’s talk about gratitude. Are you groaning? I get it. I know when someone tells you to be grateful while you’re suffering, you just want to throw something at them. I did, too. But I’ve learned gratitude is an essential key to healing.
Imagine your attention is a flashlight beam and then imagine where it would be best to shine that beam in your life. Is it helpful to shine it on the pain? Thoughts about the things you can’t do? The way you wish your life were different? I think we can agree it’s not. (I’m not saying ignore your feelings. Let yourself feel the anger at your situation, grieve for the things you can’t do anymore, don’t hold all those toxic emotions in.)
But what if, in between, you take that beam and shine it on things you can be grateful for? They don’t have to be big things. A few minutes of silence, a cup of tea, a rainfall, having enough energy that day to walk to the mailbox, someone smiling at you. Start a gratitude journal or make a game out of seeing how many things a day you can be grateful for. Not giving your symptoms attention will make you feel better mentally and also decrease the physical symptoms themselves.
The mind-body connection is real. Not only does our body react to our thoughts (ex: thinking you’re going to crash will trigger your nervous system and release fight or flight chemicals) but our brains also react to the state of our bodies. If you’re holding yourself in a tense posture, for example, your nervous system is going to react like there’s a threat and again, release fight or flight chemicals. (Cortisol and adrenaline are detrimental to healing nervous system disorders like fibro, CFS and POTS.)
Gratitude also opens our injured, contracted selves back up to the world. It creates space to hold opposing thoughts and feelings. Fear and grief are an inevitable part of the human experience. Gratitude expands our capacity to experience these hard emotions without losing hope. Think of it as expanding your attention into a spotlight instead of a contracted flashlight beam.
Four months ago, we lost our mastiff, Atlas, to bone cancer. Each time I’d come back from the hospital over the past four years, he was there, tail wagging, never leaving my side, comforting me with the weight of his body and attention. So, to say I was shattered when we lost him would be an understatement.
But because I’d been practicing feeling grateful (yes, it is a practice) for everything from still being alive to a morning visit from a dragonfly, because of this mindset–as we went through amputating his leg, chemo appointments and the devastation in the end that none of our efforts had mattered because it was spreading too quickly–I was okay. I didn’t fall into depression (which I’ve struggled with for 30 years), my nervous system didn’t dysregulate and undo all the progress I had made.
Of course, we grieved and spoiled him for nine weeks before we had to say goodbye, and it was truly one of the most heartbreaking times of my life. Yet, between the tears, between the moments of breath-stealing grief, I was aware of this overwhelming feeling of gratitude. Gratitude for the time we did have with him, that we got to be his people. I was grateful for the memories we made, the moments he made us laugh with his goofy personality. I didn’t have to wait for time to heal the pain before I could smile. I could smile while experiencing the pain.
And that’s gratitude’s biggest gift of all.