Practicing Gratitude in Sobriety

The human brain has a natural tendency to focus on negativity. It’s so second nature to us that there’s even a name for it, negativity bias. It can affect everything from our anxiety levels to our relationships. Negative thought patterns are not helpful or hopeful for anyone. Still, for someone in recovery, it may leave your sobriety vulnerable to a setback. 

One way to cope with negativity bias is through gratitude. Now, before you roll your eyes and move on to an article with some real, un-clichéd advice, I promise not to make you keep a daily gratitude journal that you forgot to write in until five minutes after you’ve tucked yourself into bed—unless you want to. That definitely works for some! 

Research from the University of California (UC) scientifically proves that gratitude reduces lifetime risk for substance abuse disorders among several other behavioral health issues. Professor at UC and a leading scientific expert on the science of gratitude, Robert A. Emmons concludes that gratitude works “‘because it allows individuals to celebrate the present and be an active participant in their own lives. By valuing and appreciating friends, oneself, situations and circumstances, it focuses the mind on what an individual already has rather than something that’s absent and is needed,’ he said.”

The mindset of gratitude is meant to be grounding. It counters thoughts about your past or worries about the future, allowing you to see the moment you’re in and honor the journey that brought you here. It doesn’t matter what the moment of gratitude looks like or how long it takes—you can take a couple of minutes to breathe every day or journal for an hour every week. Acknowledging the big and little things of life that you cherish helps you stay out of that negative headspace and focused on moving forward with your life.   

But you said I don’t have to journal?   

If you didn’t hear me before, let me say it to you again: You don’t have to journal to be grateful. If keeping a gratitude journal works for you, that’s wonderful! Keep doing that! If you’re stuck for ideas that don’t involve journaling, here are a few that can help you get started. 

  • Make Gratitude a Real Snooze(Button)-Fest

Let me paint a picture for you: It’s 6 a.m. on Monday morning, and you are tired, groggy and definitely not ready to get out of bed just yet. Your alarm clock is yelling at you to get going, and you know it’s right, but why does it have to be so rude about it? What if, after smashing the snooze button, you used those blissful nine minutes to think of the things you are grateful for? 

What’s great about this approach is that it’s a low-pressure situation. You just woke up, so let go of any expectations of poignant thoughts and keep it simple. You can be thankful for the sleep you just got, the new day before you or that first cup of coffee you’re about to drink. It doesn’t matter what you take the time to appreciate, but starting your day with a grateful mindset is sure to set an excellent tone for the rest of the day. 

  • Keep Your World Tidy, Inspired and Taken Care Of

This may seem like I’m trying to trick you into cleaning your house, but I promise that’s just a perk of this practice. Showing your spaces love, respect and appreciation is an act of love, respect and appreciation of yourself. Clear off your desk every day after work, or clean a dish after you’ve used it. It’s a small act, but it makes a huge impact. You don’t have to go overboard with it or give every surface a white-glove test. It’s not about becoming a neatnik; it’s about being intentional with your environment. 

Wherever you can, create an atmosphere that reminds you to notice and appreciate the things you are grateful for. Choose colors that uplift you, pictures or items that remind you of people or places you love, or quotes that inspire you and set them all around so you can’t help but notice all that you are grateful for. 

  • Let Your Pictures Do the Talking

A picture really is worth a thousand words when you think of the emotions they can conjure up in you. If you can’t seem to find the words for the gratitude you feel for someone or something, take a photo! Use your smartphone to create a gratitude album, get an album printed, or post a photo to social media with a unique hashtag that you can refer back to when you want to remind yourself of the things you love about your life.

  • Just…Say It

Here’s a novel idea: if you appreciate something, someone, a service, kindness or courtesy, say “thank you” out loud. It’s simple, but it takes a little resolve to pay attention to the small interactions throughout your day. Create a daily or weekly moment to recount who and what you’re thankful for with your friends or family at the dinner table. Write a thank-you note to someone for the ways you appreciate them. Or leave a positive review for a business or service you’ve enjoyed. 

The benefits of showing your gratitude are multiplied when you say it out loud. Not only does it ground you at the moment you’re in, but acknowledging others spreads the attitude of gratitude to others. 

You’re not going to do it perfectly. That’s OK.

Like recovery, finding gratitude in everyday life is a journey. Some days finding ways to be thankful is more challenging than others, but on those hard days, remind yourself that persistence outweighs consistency. Set your intention for gratitude, and always keep trying. You’ll get a lot further than if you give up. 

Your journey of gratitude and recovery is going to be full of bumps, curves and pit stops. However, you’re still going to be covering ground, so keep at it. Try something from this list or try something else. And remember that journaling is always an option! There are many ways to practice gratitude in your life, find what works best for you, and just keep going.

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