The Importance of Gratitude When You Have to Face Trauma Today

This gratitude practice does more than uplift. It is a mental health tool to help us hold and process emotions that may follow trauma.

Gratitude

You might be standing in a room with hundred-dollar bills blowing everywhere, but if you can’t catch any, or even notice them, you won’t have any extra money in your pocket. Gratitude works the same way.

If you don’t even notice the opportunity to feel gratitude or know how to catch it, then you can’t hold much appreciation for it and your life won’t be altered in any positive way.

We all need something positive to hang onto, to build hope and motivation moving forward. That’s why I want to talk about gratitude. Not only do we have to face the daily insecurity and trauma of COVID. Our world is also rife with racial injustice, destructive fires and storms, political upheaval, and other hardships. Let’s look at how to actually find and feel whatever gratitude might be available to you right now.

Gratitude and mental health

Are you sick of posts about gratitude right now? Gratitude is more than a way to ‘look on the bright side.’ That shallow approach is missing the most important part: What we appreciate and how we hold gratitude can help us manage mental health.

Gratitude helps us build emotional support in times of trauma. Though it might sound like a cliché, there is almost always something to be grateful for.

Everybody is experiencing some kind of trauma with COVID-19. The pandemic is by definition a source of trauma—a perceived threat to safety and stability. Life may feel especially difficult to cope with right now.

Yet even as the virus has many negative effects on our current reality, we can find positive impacts – silver linings – that can give us hope and strength to hold onto.

Recognizing real things to appreciate

We may not expect to see any benefits from a pandemic. But many of my clients and I have seen some positive changes in response to COVID. We are all working to recognize and hold experiences we feel good about, including:

  • More quality in-person time and deeper connections with the people you live with.
  • Virtual re-connection with people you may not regularly get to see in person. Meeting online or by phone has become the new norm for today.
  • Slowing down our fast-paced lives and packed calendars, with fewer places to be and fewer demands on our time.
  • Less bullying and social pressure for kids at school.
  • Lower social anxiety for people who feel social anxiety because stressful social situations are fewer.
  • Less FOMO (fear of missing out) because we’re all missing out on the life we knew before COVID.
  • More self-confidence from spending less time dressed up for the office, and more time being casual, and feeling more natural and comfortable this way.
  • Gratitude for the good things that remain, whether it’s a job, your health, a roof over your head, family, friends, pets, a good book, the sunshine, the birds—whatever may be applicable to you.
  • Self-compassion, peace and acceptance that come from acknowledging that you’re doing the best you can right now under the circumstances.
  • Being more fully present to savor what we have, because things are rapidly changing.
  • Learning to have a voice to express boundaries and ensure your safety, because saying what makes you comfortable and uncomfortable isn’t optional anymore. Speaking up has become necessary during a pandemic. This has helped people find their voices.
  • Greater selectiveness when we think about the things we truly value, and then prioritizing them.
  • Wider windows of tolerance for stress without sacrificing self-care or safety. Trauma survivors already have superpowers because they have found ways to survive through chaos, fear and danger. (In fact, you can be proud to own the title of trauma survivor!) This has been an opportunity for many to further expand those windows and ultimately to feel more able to tolerate the emotions in everyday life.

Are there things that feel good or enrich your life right now? Are there things you can be grateful for during these trying times?

Objectively, you might be able to pinpoint things you can be grateful for.

But is that as far as you’re taking it?

How to practice gratitude

We need to do more than ‘look at the bright side’ to find strength in a gratitude practice.

Being grateful and looking at the bright side are just hollow concepts unless you can truly feel aware of the sources of goodness in your life. Just knowing the silver lining is real — there are things to be grateful for, things that make a positive difference in your life — is a start.

The next step is actually feeling grateful for them. Holding those feelings and noticing what they bring to your life. But this doesn’t necessarily come naturally or easily.

A gratitude exercise

It’s impossible to really experience the benefits of a gratitude practice without being able to hold gratitude.

So to start, I would ask you to focus on one thing you might be able to be grateful for—let’s say it’s your pet who you adore. Focus on your pet, and all the joy they bring you. Then ask yourself:

  • What do you notice?
  • How does that feel inside? Do you notice that somewhere on your body?
  • What sensations do you notice?
  • What do those sensations tell you?

You might feel lightness and joy and a smile come over your face. If so, that is great!

Practice holding that feeling and just lingering there for a minute. It will help you build that muscle memory to come back to—that feeling of joy to have a pet who brings you so many smiles.

What if it feels otherwise? It might feel like fear or sadness at first. It might feel like a lump in your throat or a pit in your stomach. It might even bring tears to your eyes. What if you immediately notice only that fear or sadness?

What if even fear or sadness could eventually also bring an awareness of what you have in your life, even gratitude? What if those were signs of how meaningful your pet is to you? What if you have to hold both—the feelings of joy and fear? What if it might lead to a feeling of lightness and full-heartedness? What if it leads to the awareness that you can hold two feelings at once and be in the window of emotional tolerance, staying emotionally regulated? What if…?

(For those of you who have access, I recommend the Pixar film Inside Out, which gives incredible insight about how negative and positive emotions work together.)

Gratitude may open other feelings

Gratitude isn’t always straightforward. You may experience it differently than others, in your own personal way. But no matter how you experience it, a practice of gratitude is worthwhile.

The extra benefit of holding gratitude is the chance to notice the other feelings that show up, too. It opens a safe space to notice the anxiety, depression, pain and fear that many of us are also feeling right now.

Sitting with these feelings, and holding them, is what helps you move past the hollowness of “knowing” there’s a lot to be grateful for, and instead, feeling it. Being able to sit with your feelings comes back to expanding your window of tolerance and learning you can handle and manage your internal emotions.

In hard times, our circumstances aren’t usually only black and white. We’ll find gray areas with mixed feelings. There might be things to be grateful for, even while there’s trauma happening. There may be some overlap. When it comes to having a window of tolerance of emotions, it’s not only possible to hold more than one feeling at once. It’s necessary!

The truth is, every feeling is an opportunity. Even the negative feelings help us learn to have self-compassion, be more vulnerable, be more present and help us heal from trauma. They are all part of the healing process. (Learn more in Feelings: The Other F-Word for Trauma Survivors).

I invite you to take a moment now to find something you are grateful for. Hold it, think about it, and spend some time feeling it. What does that gratitude feel like? See if you can hold that feeling without a but coming in. Try replacing the but with an and, being able to hold both, even for a second.

Some situations demand more than gratitude

Unfortunately some people find themselves in places where they don’t have — or cannot access — things to be grateful for right now.

Some people are in dangerous, unsafe, abusive environments. They are not surrounded by people they trust or feel safe with.

It’s true that we are seeing increases in domestic and interpersonal violence, alcoholism and substance abuse. We can understand why – people are feeling badly! There is loneliness and isolation, financial stress, and mental health struggles including, suicidal thoughts. There is also an overall lack of definition and boundaries (a topic for another post).

Thank you

During this time, I can say I am so grateful for everyone’s patience as we’ve navigated the challenges that COVID posed to our way of doing business.

I’m grateful for work that allows me to help and support others, which allows me to stay in connection. I’m grateful for the virtual counseling that supports people while personal interaction isn’t possible, and for this blog, which allows me to write about what I hold dear and in turn, helps to reach people far and wide. I’m also grateful for the virtual town halls and interviews which have helped to spread the messages of connection, self-compassion, hope and healing. And I’m incredibly grateful to all the helpers out there! Thank you!

Need support?

If gratitude can’t get you out of a bad place, please ask for help.

Working with a trauma-informed therapist can provide support and resources you didn’t know were there. If you’re a potential new client, please contact or email me for care.

On our website, we also list additional links to resources for a range of specific concerns.

Resources

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