Thanksgiving Day… says the meaning right in the name, right? It’s a day where we are supposed to focus on what we’re thankful for in our lives… But for those of us in recovery, the holiday can be a little difficult; visiting extended family or attending parties can present triggers and/or high levels of stress. That’s why using the holiday as an opportunity for reflection and self-care is necessary! Gratitude—one of the reasons for this particular season—can be a tool for strengthening recovery. 

Practicing gratitude helps manage negative thinking. 

Recognizing and dealing with negative thinking is an important part of recovery. Negative thoughts or patterns of thinking can be triggers for a recurrence of use, or they can set one up for a self-fulfilling prophecy of failing. Unfortunately, during substance use, we de-stabilize our brain chemistry, so in early recovery, our brains are “set up” for negative thoughts; substances essentially take over the brain’s reward system, preventing it from rewarding healthy activities. Emotional problems, mood disorders, or just plain negativity can result from the brain’s shortage of these feel-good chemical rewards. This is where gratitude can be a powerful tool for helping guide the brain back to a healthier way of functioning. Think about practicing gratitude in recovery as a kind of exercise routine for the brain. Even if we’re not feeling extremely positive or thankful for the circumstances, we find ourselves in, recognizing things to be grateful for can redirect an unhealthy state of mind toward a more productive one. 

Practicing gratitude helps motivate. 

Practicing gratitude helps one keep a clear eye on the long-term scope of recovery. Practicing gratitude often involves looking at where we’ve been, where we are now, and where we hope to be in the future. This perspective is crucial for staying motivated and committed to recovery. It helps us refocus our minds on our specific recovery goals, recognize the values we hold important and the progress we’ve already made toward a healthier life. It also points toward a future in recovery in which the list of things to be thankful for can grow in length and significance. 

Practicing gratitude in recovery: It takes practice! 

OK, so maybe practicing gratitude is easier said than done. But the emphasis should always be on practicing. We don’t expect someone in recovery to have mastered the art of gratitude. Making conscious efforts at practicing gratitude is a good way to get the benefits of this principle of recovery. And the more we practice, the more natural it might become. Remember, we’re training our brains to avoid the negative thinking patterns developed during active use, while learning healthier coping skills to refrain from returning to use. 

Three strategies for practicing gratitude: 

Make a Gratitude List 

To emphasize the practice of using gratitude, it’s important to devote some time to activities that get us thinking about our gratitude. One good way is making a gratitude list. Get a pen and paper (or favorite note-taking app) and make a list of five things in life that you’re thankful for. Maybe it’s the names of people who have been supportive or have helped you find your path to recovery. Or personal beliefs that have been important when you’ve persevered through times of hardship. Or even hopes, dreams, or goals for the future—after all, hope helps us meet each day with the future in mind. But really, anything can go on your gratitude list. The point is to give some thoughtful consideration to the bright spots in your life. 

Write a Gratitude Letter 

In making a gratitude list, some people might write down the name of someone who was crucial to their recovery from substance use. Or for those who are just starting on that path, maybe there was a person who was there for them when no one else was. This is a good opportunity for practicing gratitude in another way, by writing a gratitude letter to someone of personal significance to your journey. There’s no one way to write a letter of gratitude to someone special. It can be as long or as short as you like. This can be an opportunity not only to practice gratitude in recovery, but also to start working on rebuilding relationships that might have been worn down by past behavior. By acknowledging your thankfulness to someone who has supported you in the past, you might also find that they’re willing to keep supporting you in the present and your future of recovery. 

Create a Weekly Gratitude Routine 

Even better than these one-time exercises, is finding a way to incorporate practicing gratitude into your regular lifestyle. Make this happen by scheduling a weekly gratitude exercise – doing this at the same time every week is a good way to get into a routine. Take 15 minutes one day a week to do some self-reflection about what you’re feeling grateful for. Try to isolate yourself from distractions to get the most out of this activity.  

Now that the holiday season is here, there’s good reason to start practicing gratitude in recovery. The holidays can be sources of joy and stress—both of which, incidentally, can be triggers for recurrence of substance use. Getting into a habit of practicing gratitude is one way to help moderate the highs and lows of the holiday season. In addition to helping manage negative thinking and re-focusing on recovery goals, practicing gratitude can also help smooth family relationships. (It might even be infectious.) So go ahead, bring some intentional gratitude with you as you enjoy the holidays. 

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