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Gratitude as a Coping Mechanism: Harnessing the Power of Thankfulness


Grateful Sign


“Be grateful”. That's what your parents tell you over a phone call after you just spilled your guts out about some of your life challenges. It's become the world's favorite mantra and yet it seems to be overused. You hear it all the time on the news, from other people, etc. You can never be grateful enough. You've become so used to hearing it that maybe it's even lost its credibility and you're just tired of looking for a silver lining when all you can see is a gray cloud.

 

It seems like people only say it to you as a way to invalidate your feelings. It's almost as if they're telling you that your problems aren't worth the world's time and you should just focus on how others will always have it worse than you. One thing's for sure, you're probably not saying thank you every time someone points out that you should just be grateful.

 

Clarifying gratitude

Let's start with the basics.

 

First, gratitude is a good thing. No matter who you are or your situation, gratitude can always go a long way for your own benefit. It's more than just listing out the material things you own, but also acknowledging those non-materialistic treasures that we tend to overlook such as good health, weather, relationships, etc.

 

Gratitude has multiple benefits, both in and out. The Mayo Clinic recently shared some of the benefits that you receive from expressing gratitude through a recent study that was conducted (1). Those benefits included both mental and physical aspects which are:

 

  • Improving sleep, mood, and immune system

  • Decreasing depression and anxiety symptoms

  • Helping with difficulties of chronic pain

  • Decreasing the risk of disease

 

These sound like great benefits and I don't know a single person that wouldn’t want to have them. Yet, being told to just, "be grateful" is still annoying, so what's the catch?

 

Well, let's clarify that gratitude is not toxic positivity. Toxic positivity is best explained by therapist, Whitney Goodman, in her book titled Toxic Positivity:

 

"Healthy positivity means making space for both reality and hope. Toxic positivity denies an emotion and forces us to suppress it. When we use toxic positivity, we are telling ourselves and others that this emotion shouldn’t exist, it’s wrong, and if we try just a little bit harder, we can eliminate it entirely.” (2)

 

Does that seem familiar? Have you ever been told to be grateful almost as a way to just get you to stop talking about your negative experiences and to invalidate any sort of emotion that might result from them?

 

If this is something that you've dealt with, then you've noticed that people have been trying to mask this toxic positivity through the use of gratitude. It might be unintentional, and more often than not, this phrase could be coming from people who do sincerely care about you. Yet, if the intention is to just get you to shut up and move on, then it could cause more harm than good.


That being said, gratitude can be used as a coping skill. It’s a universal skill and attribute that many people can learn to develop on a regular basis. We’ve already seen how gratitude can help people, but what if you are struggling with mental illness? If you were depressed, the last thing you would want to do is probably list out things that you’re grateful for. 


Well, in a study conducted by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, they found that people practicing gratitude skills along with mental health counseling were found to have better mental health (a decrease in symptoms) months after those who just received counseling (3). Gratitude can be used in a variety of circumstances, and although it may prove to be difficult in certain situations, it can still lead to long-lasting benefits. 


Practicing gratitude with journaling

How can gratitude be a coping mechanism?

There are various ways to practice gratitude as a coping mechanism. This means that you might have to try out a few methods and then just stick with what works best for you. Remember, this is something that is meant to be practiced regularly, simply writing a list one time or saying thank you to a random person won’t lead to immediate effects. 


For example, in the study conducted at Berkeley mentioned above, those who were asked to practice gratitude were asked to write a letter of gratitude to a different person for only 3 weeks (3). This means they only wrote 3 letters in total! 


Another example from a study found that practicing gratitude for 15 minutes a day, for 5 days a week, for a total of 6 weeks led to a boost in mental well-being. The exercises they used were focused mainly on writing exercises that expressed gratitude for possessions and internal attributes, and gratitude towards other people (4). 


From both of these studies, we see that it needs to be done deliberately and consistently. It takes time to see results, but it will always be worth it. Here are a couple of ideas that you could try out: 


  • Writing a letter of gratitude to someone. The cool thing about this one is you don’t even have to send it. You could write a letter of gratitude to someone who may have passed away or even to someone at work. 


  • Making a list of things you’re grateful for from that day. You’ll find that the more you practice this, the more you’ll be able to see things that you’re grateful for. You can keep a journal of some sorts or even a list on your notes app. 


  • Calling someone and expressing gratitude towards someone. This will be a lot more intimate, but sometimes this is all that people need to hear. You can challenge yourself and call someone who you wouldn’t usually express gratitude towards, or you could even call a close friend and/or parent. 



Expressing gratitude towards someone


Talk to a therapist

If you would like to learn how to practice gratitude as a coping mechanism, consider reaching out for a therapist. They can help you in learning how to practice gratitude in your daily life. If you’re already meeting with one, consider asking them about some gratitude exercises you could be assigned as a therapy assignment. 


In conclusion, remember this quote from Sonja Lyubomirsky from her book The How of Happiness:


“Gratitude is an antidote to negative emotions, a neutralizer of envy, hostility, worry, and irritation. It is savoring; it is not taking things for granted; it is present oriented.” (5)


Gratitude, when practiced well, can only help improve your life. 

 

Sources


This blog was written by Alessandro Gemio, edited by Izzy Maire, and reviewed/approved by Taylor Madsen, LMFT, and Hailey Maire, LCSW. 



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