Resources for Recovering Resilience: Cultivating Gratitude to Wire In New Patterns

In over one hundred studies to date, researchers have found that people who have a daily gratitude practice consistently experience more positive emotions; they are more likely to accomplish personal goals (thus demonstrating resilience)’ they reel more alert, energetic, enthused, alive; they sleep better; they have lower blood pressure; and they live an average of seven to nine years longer.

Gratitude practice helps block toxic emotions like envy, resentment, regret, and hostility; it diverts attention away from stress and worry; it brings closure to unresolved traumatic memories; it strengthens social ties, letting people feel more connected to others, les lonely and isolated; and it improves a sense of self-worth.

A year ago, my sister-in-law phoned to tell me that my sixty-year-old brother had been rushed to the hospital with shortness of breath and pain in his chest. He was diagnosed with a blood clot in his right lung and several clots in both legs. When Mary handed the phone to Barry, I dove right into telling him how much I loved him, how glad I was that he was still alive. And then, in the midst of all the uncertainty and dreadful possibilities, I began to feel my own gratitude for our connections: although we were two thousand miles apart, he was still present in my life. With his life depending on an intravenous drip of blood thinner, it occurred to me to suggest he try a gratitude practice. (I’m a nerd immersed in the science of gratitude, I know, but I’m a quick-thinking nerd.)

Barry is a standoffish kind of guy, not inclined toward self-awareness practices of any kind. To my surprise, he started in, right there on the phone, grateful that May was there by his side, that the doctors clearly cared and seemed to know what they were doing, that he beloved poodles were safe at home, that the nurse brought him a drink of water as soon as he asked for it. It was a five-minute litany of everything he was grateful for, even as he hovered at death’s door.

Barry didn’t die, though the doctors insisted that he could have. The clots cleared two days later. My brother later told me he noticed a “disturbance in the force field” from so many of my friends sending prayers and blessings for his recovery. When he returned home, he became far more compliant with his doctor’s suggestions regarding sleep, diet, and exercise. Whether or not Barry’s gratitude practice actually saved his life, it certainly contributed to the conditioning of more resilient behaviors in his brain.

Exercise: Cultivating Gratitude to Wire In New Patterns

At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by the spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.– Albert Schweitzer

  1. Take five or ten minutes to think of people who have helped you keep your life going: someone who helped you find your reading glasses when you were hurried and distracted; a friend who sent a supportive email when your nephew crumpled a fender on your car; the grocery clerk who promptly swept up the jelly jars your exuberant three-year-old knocked off the shelf; a co-worker who took over your duties when a nasty flu simply would not let you get out of bed.
  2. Focus on any feelings of gratitude these memories evoke. Notice where you feel the sensations of gratitude as you let them resonate in your body.
  3. Expand the circle of your awareness to gratitude for the people in the larger community who also help keep your life going: for example, those staffing your local hospital right now ready to care for you if you slip in the bathroom and have to be rushed to the emergency room. You might include people staffing airports, pharmacies, fire stations, and gas stations, and those testing water quality at your municipal reservoir. (For years, my brother, Barry, was on call in his hometown to drive the snowplow at 3am so folds could get to work at 7am. I know how deeply he appreciated being appreciated for that humble service.) Practice gratitude for the people growing your food and recycling your garbage, for the entire web of life.
  4. Reflect on your experience of practicing gratitude and the feelings your practice evokes. Notice any changes in your own emotions or thoughts about yourself as you focus on experiencing gratitude.

You can set the intention to do a three-minute gratitude practice every day for thirty days, focusing your attention on the people, circumstances, and resources that sustain your well-being every day. Over time, this practice will lead you to experience other positive emotions more often as well, and it will expand your choices of actions to be more positive, more resilient.

(Excerpted from Bouncing Back: Rewiring Your Brain for Maximum Resilience and Well-Being, Chapter 14: How Positive Emotions Build Resilience, by Linda Graham, MFT. New World Library, 2013.)