Thanksgiving Day gives us a timely opportunity to think about practicing gratitude in recovery. Many people use the holiday to think about what they’re thankful for in their lives. Of course, sometimes that goal is lost in the bustle of family get-togethers. People settle back into the familiar rhythms of their family relationships or end up stressing out about the Thanksgiving dinner spread.
For those in recovery, the holiday can be a little difficult. Visiting with extended family or attending parties can present triggers or high levels of stress for the recovering drinker or drug user. That’s why using the holiday as an opportunity for reflection and self-care is vital! Gratitude—one of the reasons for this particular season—can be a tool for strengthening your recovery from drugs or alcohol. Let’s talk about why.
Practicing Gratitude in Recovery Helps Manage Negative Thinking
Recognizing and dealing with negative thinking is an important aspect of recovery. Negative thoughts or ways of thinking can be triggers for relapse, or they can set one up for self-fulfilling prophecies of failing. Rehab programs often focus on understanding why negative thinking is a trigger and what you can do to prevent or manage negative thoughts.
If you know a little bit about why addiction is a brain disease, you might know that the brain chemistry of someone with an addiction or recently sober is set up for negative thoughts. Addictive substances essentially take over the brain’s reward system, preventing it from rewarding healthy activities. Emotional problems, mood disorders, or just plain negativity can result from the brain’s shortage of feel-good chemical rewards.
This is where gratitude can be a powerful tool for helping guide the brain back to a healthier way of functioning. Think about practicing gratitude in recovery as a kind of exercise routine for your brain. Even when you’re not feeling extremely positive or thankful for the circumstances you find yourself in, recognizing things to be grateful for can redirect a relapse-prone state of mind toward a more productive one.
In addition to helping retrain the addicted brain, practicing gratitude can help one keep a clear eye on the long-term scope of recovery. Practicing gratitude often involves taking a look at where you’ve been, where you are now, and where you hope to be in the future. For those in recovery, this perspective is crucial for staying motivated and committed to sobriety. In this way, practicing gratitude in recovery can refocus the mind on one’s particular recovery goals. It can help people recognize the values they hold important and the progress they’ve already made toward a healthier life. It also points toward a future in recovery in which the list of things to be thankful for can grow in length and significance.
Practicing Gratitude in Recovery: It Takes Practice!
OK, so maybe practicing gratitude is easier said than done. But the emphasis should always be on practicing. We don’t expect someone in recovery to have mastered the art of gratitude. Making conscious efforts at practicing gratitude is a good way to get the benefits of this principle of recovery. And the more you practice, the more natural it might become. Remember, you’re training your brain to avoid the negative thinking patterns developed during active addiction to drugs or alcohol.
Try these three strategies for practicing gratitude in recovery:
Make a Gratitude List
To emphasize the practice aspect of using gratitude in recovery, it’s important to devote some time to activities that get you thinking about reasons for gratitude. One good start is making a gratitude list. Get a pen and paper (or your favorite note-taking app) and make a list of five things in your life that you’re thankful for.
You could write down the names of people who have been supportive or have helped you see the path to recovery. You could write down personal beliefs that have been important to your perseverance in times of hardship. You could even write down hopes, dreams, or goals for the future—after all, hope helps us meet each day with the future in mind. But really, anything can go on your gratitude list. The point is to give some thoughtful consideration to the bright spots in your life.
Write a Gratitude Letter
In making a gratitude list, some people might write down the name of someone who was crucial to their recovery from substance use. Or for those who are just starting on that path, maybe there was a person who was there for them when no one else was. This is a good opportunity for practicing gratitude in another way, by writing a gratitude letter to someone of personal significance to your journey.
There’s no one way to write a letter of gratitude to someone special. It can be as long or as short as you like. This can be an opportunity not only to practice gratitude in recovery, but also to start working on rebuilding relationships that might have been worn down by addictive behavior in the past. By acknowledging your thankfulness to someone who has supported you in the past, you might also find that they’re willing to keep supporting you in the present and your future of recovery.
Have a Weekly Gratitude Exercise
Even better than these these one-time exercises in gratitude is finding a way to incorporate practicing gratitude in recovery into your regular lifestyle. Make this happen by scheduling a weekly gratitude exercise. Doing this at the same time every week is a good way to get into a routine. Take 15 minutes one day a week to do some self-reflection about what you’re feeling grateful for. Try to isolate yourself from distractions to get the most out of this activity. If you’re really feeling motivated, use one of these “exercise sessions” to do one of the other two activities mentioned above.
Practicing Gratitude Over the Holidays
Now that the holiday season is here, there’s good reason to start practicing gratitude in recovery. The holidays can be sources of joy and stress—both of which, incidentally, can be relapse triggers. Getting into a habit of practicing gratitude is one way to help moderate the highs and lows of the holiday season. In addition to helping manage negative thinking and focus on recovery goals, practicing gratitude can also help smooth family relationships. (It might even be infectious.) So go ahead, bring some intentional gratitude with you as you weather the holidays.