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Gratitude Helps Recovery, During the Holidays (And Every Day!)


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Many people in substance abuse recovery are familiar with the idea of “Making a gratitude list.” In fact, some may even chuckle over it—thinking of times when a sponsor, trusted friend, therapist, or confidant offered the suggestion in good faith. Why the laughter? Because many times the recommendation, as non-assuming (and helpful) as it sounds, is given when a person in recovery is feeling…less than grateful. Often, the person receiving the advice is frustrated, angry, sad, in self-pity, or even feeling the draw to drink or use again. 

Why, then, would someone in recovery find making a gratitude list humorous? Because, despite uncomfortable feelings, many sober people write a gratitude list anyway (even begrudgingly at times), and the laughter comes when they realize that thankfulness outweighs their feelings of resentment. They soon see the irony in being “annoyed,” at the suggestion of all they are grateful for. And, it’s not uncommon for people in recovery to connect that the things they are grateful for, are largely if not totally, a direct result of being sober. 

Gratitude is not a new concept in helping promote both positive substance use disorder (SUD) recovery and as a strategy for aiding and managing mental illnesses. 

But, it’s only more recently that scientific studies have emerged showing the impact gratitude has on the brain. One study, in fact, revealed that when participants experienced a state of gratitude, brain activity was clearly different than when they felt guilt. And, even more intriguing, the MRIs of participants who were tasked with writing “gratitude letters,” demonstrated “greater activation in the medial prefrontal cortex” of the brain—simply thinking about the grateful sentiments they had written down—months earlier! As the study concluded, this could be an indication of the lasting effects gratitude has upon mental health. And, why not recovery too? 

Another study specific to the relationship between gratitude, abstinence, and alcohol revealed that “abstinent individuals with high gratitude were abstinent six months later.”

These studies and others are helping to reinforce the place of gratitude in lasting addiction recovery, helping to bolster positive emotions, attitudes, healthy interpersonal relationships, helpful coping mechanisms, and more. 

As we discuss more about gratitude as it relates to recovery from SUDs, it’s important to note that for those early in sobriety, gratitude may be more difficult to embrace. And, with a year like 2020 and being in the “thick” of the holidays, this time can feel challenging. It is normal and common for people who are newly sober to have a range of emotions that feel contradictory to gratitude (which is only compounded by pressures surrounding the holidays). In time, however, most people in recovery find that grateful thinking and actions surrounding gratitude are essential to their recovery. 

If you or a loved one has been struggling with substance abuse, Futures Recovery Healthcare wants you to know, you’re not alone. We are here to help you, offering personalized recovery pathways to meet your specific needs. 

Continue reading to learn more about how gratitude can help you in recovery and how to practice it on a regular basis. 

A Closer Look at Gratitude as a Valuable Recovery Tool

With the winter season in full swing, many people new to recovery for SUD or even those who have been sober for a while may find that they are feeling more vulnerable and stressed than usual. With an already tumultuous 2020 feeling as if it’s slowly approaching an end (too slow), it’s a difficult time for many people in addiction recovery. Practicing gratitude, however, can be a useful and cherished approach to help hold onto your sobriety. Before we explore different ways to actively focus on gratitude, let’s take a look at what it means in terms of our mental health and wellbeing. 

In a broad sense, gratitude is defined as the “appreciation of what is valuable and meaningful to oneself.” Digging deeper, research—such as what we briefly shared already—shows that gratitude as a state of thankfulness or appreciation promotes a feeling of wellbeing. This positivity, in turn, can be used as a strategy for staying sober. When a person in recovery has an “attitude of gratitude,” it often enables him/her to face challenges more effectively and with a positive outlook. But, you may be thinking how?

Typically, when a person is in a state of gratitude, it’s difficult to simultaneously reside in a selfish and negative place. For example, let’s say, Jack, who has been sober for three months is angry with a family member for not inviting him to an upcoming holiday party. His 12-Step program sponsor has just suggested to Jack, that he write the infamous “gratitude list.” He has been tasked with providing at least three things he’s grateful for. 

After a few choice words (in his head) toward his sponsor, upon reflecting, Jack lists:

  1. I’m grateful to be sober (last year I was in treatment during Christmas)
  2. I’m grateful for my new sober friends
  3. I’m grateful for my cat “Sneakers”

In creating his gratitude list, Jack remembers how lonely and miserable he was the year before in treatment. This causes him to write down No.2, which reminds him that his sober-friend group invited him to a snack-and-game party. He then realizes that the recovery party is much more desirable than the one being hosted by his family member (who is providing a free cash bar with free-flowing alcohol). 

And, as silly as No.3 might seem, for Jack, having Sneakers is a reminder that prior to getting sober, he wasn’t responsible enough to care for a pet—a good example that no matter how goofy or insignificant an item might initially seem on a gratitude list (especially for an onlooker), there is usually something powerful and grounding underneath. 

And, just think—Jack was only asked to write down three examples of things he was grateful for. Imagine a list of five, or ten? The more things on the list, the better. Often, as reinforced from Jack’s gratitude list, typically, one if not all the things we’re typically grateful for—friends, family, pets, jobs, homes, health—are directly related to staying sober. 

In addition to serving as a reminder of reasons to continue in recovery, gratitude:

  • Encourages healthy relationships as a natural byproduct of showing others you are thankful for them and their actions. Typically, this form of gratitude is reciprocated positivity and can help build a healthy foundation for lasting relationships.
  • Improves physical health including helping create a stronger immune system, reducing the feeling of aches and pains, lowering blood pressure, and helping to obtain more restful sleep. 
  • Strengthens psychological health including the reduction of toxic emotions and promoting joy, happiness, energy, and an overall sense of optimism. 
  • Bolsters self-esteem by being grateful for what one has instead of being envious of what others have.  
  • Fosters social skills through the practice of compassionate, generous, and forgiving behaviors and interactions.

Remember, the list above is by no means complete. Gratitude can enhance our lives in numerous ways, with lasting impacts—which is why it is so important to integrate as a facet of sober living. 

Practicing Gratitude in Action

When most people think about gratitude, they typically connect it with a “feeling,” rather than as an “action.” Of course, it can be both! But, for people recovering from substance abuse, who find “action steps”—such as going to recovery-based meetings and groups, inpatient or outpatient therapy, engaging in physical activities like walking, running, and yoga, and journaling—find that gratitude as a practice is helpful. 

And, the good news is that there are many ways to practice gratitude in recovery. Take a look at the following activities and prompts to help you try your hand in practicing gratitude:

1. Start a Gratitude Journal
Keeping a running tab of times and scenarios in which you have felt or expressed gratitude is a wonderful resource for times of both smooth sailing and rough patches. Recoding things you’re grateful for will help provide you with a sense of satisfaction and joy. Re-reading your moments of gratitude can help provide hope and reinforce the benefits received as a result of remaining sober. 

And, there are many different types of journals—blank paged, bulleted, and themed, from which to choose. Try more than one until you find a version or method that best suits you. 

2. Write a Letter
Remember that study we mentioned earlier, in which participants who underwent an MRI after writing letters of gratitude showed positive impacts on brain activity? Some of the study participants sent their letters of gratitude, and you can too. 

Has someone helped you in your recovery journey so far—a family member, friend, sponsor, spiritual advisor? If so, consider writing them a letter to express your thankfulness for how they have helped you. 

Even if you feel unsure about hitting send on an email or putting a stamp on the letter, that’s okay! Those who wrote a letter (in the study) but didn’t end up sending it felt just as grateful compared to those who did.

3. Volunteer and give back
The best way to “get out of oneself” is to give to others. Doing something small—calling or texting another person in recovery to see how they are doing or picking up a piece of trash on your neighbor’s lawn—helps you focus on something or someone other than yourself. In doing so, it can help you snap out of self-pity and get into gratitude. 

When time and energy allow for it, transition into greater acts of volunteerism or giving back. Some people who regularly attend 12-Step meetings or spiritual gatherings step up to make the coffee, empty the trash, or greet newcomers. But, you can also do things like grocery shopping for the elderly, or mowing a sick neighbors lawn. 

In addition to giving you a good dose of gratitude, these acts of volunteering build up your self-esteem and show you that you can try new, healthy things that are out of your comfort zone.

4. Meditate
Although meditating may seem like a more passive way to get grateful, you are still taking action by being intentional about stopping whatever you were doing to focus on gratitude. If you have trouble quieting your mind, consider doing a guided meditation specifically centered on “gratitude.” Start with three minutes, and work up to five, ten, and so on. 

5. Make a Gratitude List
You knew this one had to be included! But, now, hopefully, you see why it works so well. If you have trouble getting started, think about using these prompts:

    • Write five things you are grateful for as a direct result of your sobriety
    • Write three things in your home you are grateful for
    • Write four things you are grateful for about your friendships
    • Write two things you’re grateful for period
    • Write one thing you are grateful for this holiday season and why

Like many things in sobriety, practicing gratitude can take time, as well as the benefits of doing so. Be patient with yourself. Start slow. If one of these gratitude exercises makes you more irritable than grateful, try something else. It may feel foreign at first, but in time, you may observe that you are naturally more grateful and optimistic. 

For many people in long-term recovery, gratitude does become almost second nature. This is not to say that sobriety never comes with difficulties. Rather, gratitude helps people in recovery walk through difficulties and challenges with a greater sense of solution and hope. 

What if I’m Still Struggling with Substance Abuse?

What if you aren’t in recovery yet? That’s okay too. Many people struggle with sobriety or are unsure of how to even get sober. If you can relate to this, you’re not alone. Millions of people across the nation struggle with substance abuse. But, there is hope. 

If you or a loved one needs support for substance abuse, Futures is here to help. We offer multiple pathways of addiction treatment and wellness programming. This includes inpatient detoxification and residential treatment, and outpatient services by qualified, experienced professionals in substance abuse and mental health disorders.  

Many people suffering from addiction go on to live fulfilling, joyful, and grateful lives. Start your journey today.Contact us confidentially online or by phone at 866-804-2098.


Our team is here to guide you through your path to recovery.

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