Cultivating a Gratitude Practice
This is a story I share with the women I work with in therapy, that I think perfectly exemplifies how gratitude can help when it feels like everything is falling apart. Between Veteran’s Day and Thanksgiving November is the perfect month to visit gratitude as a mental wellness skill for women. Last October, my partner and I set out for a 3 day backpacking trip in the White Mountains. The Pemi Loop is about 30 miles of mountain top bliss but also quite a strenuous trek. This turned out to be one of those adventures that proves Murphy’s Law to be true. Everything that could go wrong went wrong.
To start, my partner cut himself badly with an axe the first night and spent the whole trip fumbling around with a giant bandage on his thumb. A fluke snowstorm blew in and we were wildly underdressed. I half fell into a river leaving my entire lower left leg and boot frozen. Unbeknownst to me when I sat on my pack to wring out my wet clothes, I caused my water bladder to leak in my pack soaking much of my warm layers. We then realized we left half of our food and fuel in the car. And at the top of one of the mountains, nearing our campsite for the night, in the blowing freezing snow, I fell hard into a broken branch seriously bruising my right thigh, making walking quite painful. Despite that all this, I made a point to mentally note the beauty around me. The color of the mountainsides, how pretty the snow looked on the trees, the fall foliage against the snow and other little details. I also acknowledged even though I’d rather have been warm in my bed at home than out there in the elements I was grateful that that wilderness existed and that both my partner and I are healthy enough to do things like a 3 day wilderness trek.
That night we shivered while the wind howled and smacked at the side of our tent and went through our daily practice we call Three Good Things. Three Good Things is reviewing the day and picking at least three good things that happened, even on the worst days. Especially on the worst days. My three good things were quality time spent together, the beauty of the snow, and how awe-inspiring the wilderness is. I felt alive. Being cold and wet told me I was alive. At no point was the seriousness of the weather or the risk of being in the backcountry negated. Just the facts were acknowledged. The next morning, cold, with one frozen shoe and limping and a bandaged thumb, we watched the sunrise and drank steaming coffee.
Despite the moments of actual pain, real danger, and serious discomfort, we made every effort to find the good moments.
What Gratitude is not:
First, a few things that are not gratitude. Gratitude is not looking on the bright side. It is not looking for the “silver lining”. Gratitude is not invalidating pain or hardship and simply thinking positive and saying everything is sunshine and freaking rainbows when your world is on fire. Gratitude must be balanced with acknowledgment of the hard parts, the pain and suffering, and very real contributing factors to a difficult situation.
Gratitude is focusing on the facts.
It’s naming and acknowledging what is actually true and soaking up every ounce of joy and beauty in those pieces. Think facts. What would an objective observer see? If you opened a closet and objectively described what you saw you might note the red sweater, the blue shoes, not the ugly red sweater that was given to me by my aunt I don’t like. The subjective comes in when acknowledging the positive in identifying the things we feel good about. Or, as stated before, acknowledging and naming the hard parts. On our hike, the real discomforts were acknowledged but so were the real beautiful pieces.
The second part of gratitude is really soaking up every part of the positive thing. The next morning I drank in every shade of red in that sunrise. I noticed how the light looked on the mountains and on the trees. I felt the warmth on my exposed skin. I was still cold and in pain, but it was beautiful. I savored the flavor of the coffee and felt it’s warmth.
The benefits of gratitude range from a decrease in negative emotional experiences to improved relationships and longer life span. For more about the benefits check this article out.
Practice makes perfect
It takes time. Like going to the gym, you don’t see muscles after one sweaty session. Consistent input begets results. Gratitude is a skill to be cultivated and this requires time.
I share as many tools as possible with the women I work within my private therapy practice in Portland Maine. Every woman’s personal needs and path to healing and wellness are different. Not to mention what works for us in one moment might not work in the next. So having multiple tools in the toolbox to call upon in a moment of need as well as a regular wellness practice is a good way to ensure that we have what we need in a moment of distress. Gratitude is a practice that is science-backed and there is evidence of its effects visible on brain scans (my clients know how much I nerd out for neuroscience), anecdotally my clients report the positive benefits of a gratitude practice, and I personally practice gratitude regularly and notice the benefits. Gratitude is not a substitute for therapy. If you are thinking about therapy and would like to know more, contact Nikki today.
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