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Gratitude in Recovery

In the holiday’s spirit, it only feels appropriate to discuss the importance of gratitude in recovery. Throughout life many people struggle with cultivating the “attitude of gratitude” towards life’s circumstances, especially for those who struggle with addiction. Many people who struggle with addiction also grapple with depression, which becomes more intense during the holiday season. This 2020 holiday season brings another level of stress noting that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many families are forced to stay apart. So, what is there to be grateful for and why is it so important in recovery?

Gratitude has a significant impact on one’s health and well-being, beginning in the brain. The University of California at Los Angeles conducted a research experiment that measured brain activity using MRI. Gifts were given to subjects to induce the feeling of gratitude. The regions of the brain that showed increased activity where the areas responsible for moral and social cognition, reward, empathy, and judgement. Researchers concluded gratitude supports a positive attitude toward others. The regions of the brain associated with gratitude control basic emotion regulation, heart rate and arousal. When one practices thankfulness and feels connected with others, bodily systems shift to a relaxed state and allows the body to relieve stress. So yes, gratitude acts as a natural stress reliever!

So how do we help the young men at Spearhead Lodge shift their mindset from the toxic emotions of shame, disconnection, and guilt that tend to come with earlier recovery, and are heightened by the holiday? It is important to note that the benefits of this mindset do not emerge immediately, but gradually accrues over time. We introduce gratitude by facilitating community led “gratefuls” every evening during dinner. Each community member is given the opportunity to express to his community what he is grateful for that day. Items identified range from family, friends, specific community members, and even pets! Community members also engage in gratitude letters, similar to those written by research volunteers for a study published in the Psychotherapy Research journal, volume 28, 2018-Issue 2. Counselors facilitate a group where each participant is asked to write a letter of gratitude for another member in the community. These letters are written anonymously. Dr. Emmons of the University of California at Davis and Dr. McCullough of the University of Miami wrote, “…a simple gratitude writing intervention was associated with significantly greater and lasting neural sensitivity to gratitude–subjects who took part in gratitude letter writing showed both behavioral increases in gratitude and significantly greater neural modulation by gratitude in the medial prefrontal cortex three months later.” The hope is that over the 90-day period, young men who engage in the program at Spearhead Lodge will adopt a new “attitude of gratitude” which will support healthy well-being and a sense of connection to others.

Consistent and honest reflection upon the gifts in life that we value, heightens conscious gratitude of them and inhibits the propensity to take things for granted. So in this time of celebration, I urge you to practice gratitude. Rather, you invite those around you to share things they are grateful for or you write a letter to an important person, remember the importance of thanks in connection. Happy Holidays!

Written by: Brittney Lollis Tolar, LCSW, LCDC, CDWF-C for BRC Recovery