Accessing the Power of Gratitude

Journaling and practicing gratitude has been my daily practice since my 20’s.

While focusing on gratitude had previously added positivity to my day, I had no idea how much it could actually change my life until I was diagnosed with MS. Then, practicing gratitude became a lifeline and absolutely shifted my experience from being fraught with fear and despair to enjoying days full of hope.

Honestly, when I was first diagnosed with MS, gratitude was the furthest thing from my mind. I was told there was no cure, that I would eventually lose the use of my legs, experience permanent loss of vision and the list went on and on. Shocked, angry and confused, my hopes and dreams were swept into an abyss of hopelessness. I remember sitting in my car in the parking garage alone, crying, feeling utterly hopeless and scared, pounding the steering wheel, yelling at God “WHY!? How is this possible?” I was at the peak of my career, an accomplished martial artist, deeply involved with charities and just weeks away from marrying the love of my life. “This isn’t fair!”

Sound familiar?

For several months, my journal pages were filled with unfiltered fear, anger, confusion, disbelief and denial. But, I continued to write through the darkness, and things began to shift. I found myself writing things like, “This can’t possibly be true. MS is not who ‘I Am’. But, if this is to be a part of my future, then I’m going to enjoy every single day as if it is the only one I have.”

While there were many times when all I could muster to be grateful for was a hot shower at day’s end, I also found myself unexpectedly saying ‘Thank You’ everyday I could walk or (on a good day) run with my dogs in the park or watch the sunset with my fiancé. I began to slow down and appreciated all the different shades of green in the trees surrounding me on those walks. During my IV treatments and daily injections, I would visualize my body healing.

Scientists have been reporting on the benefits of gratitude for decades. Long-term studies support gratitude’s effectiveness, suggesting that a positive, appreciative attitude contributes to greater success in work, greater health, peak performance in sports and business, an increased sense of well-being and a faster rate of recovery from surgery and illness. In 2011, the TV show Good Morning America featured a segment on gratitude entitled, “Thankfulness Linked to Positive Changes in Brain and Body.” Dr. P. Murali Doraiswamy, head of the division of biologic psychology at Duke University Medical Center, was the featured guest.

“If [thankfulness] were a drug, it would be the world’s best-selling product with a health maintenance indication for every major organ system,” he explained to a national audience. “While the act of being thankful is not a substitute for a proper medical diagnosis and treatment, it’s certainly a strategy that can be used to enhance wellness. Studies have shown measurable effects on multiple body and brain systems. Those include mood neurotransmitters (serotonin, norepinephrine), reproductive hormones (testosterone), social bonding hormones (oxytocin), cognitive and pleasure related neurotransmitters (dopamine), inflammatory and immune systems (cytokines), stress hormones (cortisol), cardiac and EEG rhythms, blood pressure, and blood sugar.”

Even though we may acknowledge gratitude’s many benefits, it still can be difficult to sustain. So many of us are trained to notice what is broken, undone or lacking in our lives, especially when we are challenged with a chronic illness like MS. Exercising gratitude on a daily basis has tremendous healing potential in our lives. But, it needs to become more than just a Thanksgiving word. We have to learn a new way of looking at things to develop a new habit. That’s why practicing gratitude makes so much sense. When we practice giving thanks for all we have, instead of complaining about what we lack, we give ourselves the chance to see all of life as an opportunity and a blessing.

Gratitude isn’t a blindly optimistic approach in which the bad things in life are whitewashed or ignored. Choosing to see through grateful eyes shifts our focus and attention. Pain and injustice still exist in this world, but when we take notice of the gifts of life, we gain a feeling of well-being. Gratitude balances us and gives us hope and propagates healing from the inside out.

Take the time to sit in quietude and reflect. There are so many things to be grateful for: colorful autumn leaves, legs that work (even partially), friends and family who listen and really hear, chocolate, fresh eggs, food on the table, the sound of birds singing outside my bedroom window, the ability to read, fragrant roses, our health, butterflies.

Some Ways to Practice Gratitude

  • Keep a gratitude journal in which you list things for which you are thankful. You can make daily, weekly or monthly lists. Greater frequency is better for creating a new habit, but just keeping that journal where you can see it will remind you to think in a grateful way.
  • Make a gratitude collage by drawing or pasting pictures.
  • Practice sharing the things your grateful for while sitting around the dinner table or make it part of your nighttime routine.
  • Make a game of finding the hidden blessing in a challenging situation.
  • When you feel like complaining, make a gratitude list instead. You may be amazed by how much better you feel.
  • Keep a gratitude jar on your desk next to photos that make you happy. When you’re feeling blue, look at those photos to inspire gratitude. Write down what you’re grateful for and drop it in the jar. Before you know it, that jar will be overflowing with gratitude! Then, when you have doubts, just reach in for a little reminder.
  • Notice how gratitude is impacting your life. Write about it, sing about it, and express thanks for gratitude.

Living with a condition for which there is no ‘known medical cure’ has taught me to be grateful for every day I can walk, dance, cycle and see the various shades of green in all the trees around me. My first gratitude entry in my journal everyday since 1995 has been, “I Am Grateful for my Health,” even when I’m not feeling so great.

What’s on your list?

“Today I choose to live with gratitude for the love that fills my heart, 
The peace that rests within my spirit
And the voice of Hope that says…
All things are Possible”

In Gratitude,

This post originally appreared on Sónia’s blog.

Click here to read more about “Thankfulness Linked to Positive Changes in Brain and Body”