The cultivation of gratitude can be potent and transformative part of a person’s journey through both early and long-term recovery from drug or alcohol addiction and other mental health issues. Here’s why.
How Does Gratitude Affect Me and My Recovery?
Let’s take a step back for a second, forget about recovery and simply reflect on what it means to be grateful. If you’ve ever sat around a thanksgiving table before and had each of your family members say what they are thankful for, then you probably have a good baseline of the idea. In its simplest form, gratitude is one’s conscious recognition of being thankful.
On its surface, people may be indifferent to the notion of gratitude. But make no mistake, gratitude actually has profound and powerful effects. When someone takes time to acknowledge the positive things in one’s life, a few things happen.
First and foremost, gratitude brings happiness. The act of acknowledging the little or big things that happen in life helps to slowly change a person’s perspective. This introduces positive emotions into one’s life, which creates feelings of euphoria or happiness.
If you are interested in practicing gratitude, psychologists suggest keeping a gratitude journal. Everyday you should record whatever things you feel grateful for that day. When you record and review your journal entries, it will likely increase your feeling of pleasure and contentment in your life.
An empirical study released by the NCBI in 2010 provides a strong connection between gratitude and one’s overall mental and physical wellbeing. The two are undeniably linked.
The second benefit that comes from practicing gratitude is improved interpersonal relationships. Over the last several decades, there have been many studies on the connection between gratitude and marital relationships as well as adolescent relationships to parents. In both of these realms, researchers suggest a strong correlation between expressing one’s gratitude for their spouse and the overall strength of the couples relationship.
The simple act of expressing your gratitude for your partner’s actions can have profound effects on the longevity of your relationship. Similarly, expressing gratitude in the workplace is a proactive approach that builds strong interpersonal relationships, stimulates feelings of closeness and an overall bond to your fellow workers. From an organizational context, gratitude is thought to be of paramount importance for creating a productive professional ecosystem.
A recent study from 2017 found that gratitude creates a prosocial environment, strengthens relational bonds, increases efficiency and enhances overall success. When an organization is led by people who know how to express gratitude, other managing partners mimic the same behavior. This creates a cascade of effects that impact lower level employees and shows them compassion, empathy and consideration. The results are truly profound.
There are a ton of additional impacts gratefulness can have but rather than go into each piece, let’s explore how gratitude affects the brain.
The Neuroscience of Gratitude
In this next section, we’ll dive deeper into the various studies that support neuropsychological changes to the brain when someone engages in various gratitude practices. Several studies have demonstrated the neural components involved in feelings of gratefulness appear in the right anterior temporal cortex. When people practice gratitude, dopamine and serotonin are released primarily in this region. The combination of these neurotransmitters are best known for creating feelings of happiness.
After continued practice, the brain begins to rewire itself through a process called neuroplasticity. With repetition and practice, people will start to naturally express gratitude toward themself or others, which brings the release of dopamine and serotonin.
Moreover, it seems that some people appear to be more naturally grateful than others. Research suggests these individuals have more gray matter in their central nervous system than others. Fortunately, it doesn’t matter whether or not you are born feeling more or less grateful than others. Gratitude is an emotional practice that can be taught, studied and reinforced. Regardless of what you were born with, we can all learn this behavior and benefit from practicing gratitude.
Feeling Gratitude In Early Recovery
Researchers have documented the benefits of gratitude with individuals working a 12 step program during their recovery. In early and ongoing recovery, many addicts express their struggle with self loathing, feeling destitute and dissatisfied with their life.
At the moment, research is inconsistent on whether or not gratitude practices are recommended for people who struggle to remain abstinent from drugs and alcohol. Because these individuals are actively engaging in their substance of choice, their mindset might not be ready to embrace gratitude practices and can actually create a negative effect.
However, after individuals successfully complete residential treatment, research supports a strong correlation between sobriety and abstinence. For this reason, gratitude can be a powerful ally for individuals who have successfully graduated residential treatment, currently utilizing extended care or actively engaged in an outpatient program (IOP, PHP, OP). If you are interested in learning how we incorporate gratitude into our recovery program, contact our team today.