The Power of Gratitude In Your Recovery
Gratitude is a feeling and an action. The active, regular practice of gratitude increases happiness, quality of life, and other positive emotions. It even benefits physical health. For people in recovery from addiction, gratitude practices can be powerful ways to strengthen sobriety and reduce relapse risk. The act of gratitude can be as simple as making a list of good things that happen and thanking people for what they do to support recovery. These and other activities benefit recovery in powerful ways.
Researchers consistently find that a practice of gratitude leads to greater levels of happiness and other positive emotions, improved mental and physical health, and stronger interpersonal relationships. The benefits are for everyone, but for individuals in recovery it they are especially powerful. Gratitude strengthens sobriety, reduces relapses, and provides generally better outcomes after treatment.
Gratitude is synonymous with thankfulness, but it’s more than that too. Gratitude is a feeling, but it is also an expression of thankfulness for what you have and what you appreciate in your life. It can be a spontaneous emotion, but it can also be an act and a practice that you cultivate.
Practicing gratitude means recognizing the good in your life and paying it back. It’s more than just noticing the good but identifying the external sources of goodness. Whether it is other people or a spiritual higher power, goodness in your life comes from the outside.
It is the active practice of gratitude that benefits recovery. By being intentional and making it a habit to appreciate your life, your accomplishments, and your sobriety, you can strengthen recovery, enjoy a greater quality of life, and potentially even reduce the risk of relapse.
The Many Benefits of Gratitude
Gratitude is for everyone, not just people who are rich, successful, or free of past traumas or addictions. Anyone, including people in recovery, benefit from practicing gratitude in several ways:
- Gratitude makes you feel happier and more satisfied with your life as it is. It increases pleasure, optimism, and joy.
- It also reduces negative feelings, including anxiety and depression.
- Gratitude is good for physical health too. It strengthens the immune system, improves sleep, and lowers blood pressure.
- Gratitude practice makes you more likely to exercise and make other healthy lifestyle choices.
- People who practice gratitude are more resilient and can recover better from trauma.
- Gratitude is good for relationships. It strengthens bonds and helps you feel closer to the people in your life.
Being Grateful Supports Sobriety and Recovery
Recovery from addiction is a great achievement, but it is not an end point. If you have struggled with addiction, relapse is always a risk. Anything you can do to reduce the risk of using again supports and strengthens your recovery.
All of the above benefits support recovery by improving your mental health, physical health, relationships, and quality of life. In addition to these general benefits, researchers have begun to look at the effects of gratitude in people working through recovery from addiction.
Many studies support the use of gratitude to improve outcomes for people in recovery from drug or alcohol use disorder. In one study, the researcher evaluated a group of treatment participants and some staff members for psychological traits, coping skills, gratitude, and other factors.
They found that people with a grateful disposition were less likely to relapse and had a better emotional outlook. They saw that actively practicing gratitude could provide a healthier coping strategy and a substitute for drinking as a way to cope.
Another study looked at participants in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), all in recovery. Those who practiced more gratitude were more likely to participate in AA, to make the AA promises, and to have good social support. They were also less likely to experience stress and other negative health symptoms.
Gratitude Changes the Brain
The positive benefits of gratitude for everyone, including individuals in recovery, has long been noted. Only more recently have researchers started to pick apart the reasons it can be so helpful and beneficial. One study of 300 people in mental health treatment, who benefitted from gratitude exercises, found interesting potential reasons it works.
For example, they found that practicing gratitude takes the focus away from negative emotions and places it on positive feelings. They also found that the practice may actually make lasting, positive changes in the brain.
The researchers measured brain activity in participants while they engaged in a task to pay kindness forward to someone else. They saw that those who reported paying it forward out of gratitude had different brain activity than those who did it out of guilt or obligation.
The grateful participants had more activity in a part of the brain known as the prefrontal cortex, where decision-making and learning happens. The people who participated in gratitude activities showed these active brain changes even three months after the study ceased. It suggests that gratitude practice trains the brain, which over time can truly improve mental health.
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Gratitude Exercises for Recovery
Most people feel gratitude spontaneously. To really get the benefits of gratitude, it’s important to practice it regularly and consciously. These are some simple exercises you can use in recovery to cultivate gratitude and support your sobriety:
- Make a gratitude list. This is a simple but powerful way to express thanks daily, weekly, or at whatever frequency works for you. Simply write out a list of what you’re thankful for. Even if the only thing you can come up with on a particular day is waking up and being alive, it’s a start. The more you do it, the more you’ll find.
- Keep a gratitude journal. A journal is similar to a list, but it takes it to another level. Go beyond lists and reflect on the good things in your life by writing about them. You can do this daily, weekly, or with any frequency that works for you.
- Write thank you cards. People are often at the center of our gratitude. To be actively grateful for those in your life who support you, write them a note. It doesn’t have to be long or wordy. Just tell them thanks and why you appreciate them.
- Try the “Three Good Things”exercise. Write down three good things that happened to you in the last day. Describe what happened and what caused or led to it. A study of this exercise found that daily practice in people in recovery from alcohol use disorder led to a greater sense of peace and calm. It also reduced negative feelings. Some reported that they found it challenging to complete every day. Most found it got easier as time went on and the practice became a habit.
- Reflect on positive events. Try this exercise to reflect on a past occurrence you’re grateful for. Think back to something good that happened to you or that you achieved. Think about the circumstances and how they led to the event. Imagine your life if it hadn’t happened and how your life is better for it.
- Take a nature walk. Get out for a walk in the woods or a local park to appreciate the nature around you. As you walk, focus all your attention on your senses. Hear the wind and animals. Smell water or grass. Feel the wind on your skin. Notice and appreciate the beauty in everything you sense as you walk.
- Volunteer. Gratitude is more than simply recognizing the good. To fully practice gratitude, you also need to pay it forward. This can be as simple as thanking the people in your life, but you can take it farther by helping others. Try finding a volunteer position in something you feel passionate about, such as an animal shelter or food bank. This will help you feel even more grateful for what you have.
Gratitude truly is for everyone, but it is so powerful for those struggling through recovery. Even if you feel strong in recovery, try these exercises to make gratitude a habit. This will help you in times when your will falters or something bad happens and you need to be resilient. Practice gratitude now for a better future.