“Thanksgiving will sure be different this year!”
How many times have you heard that already? COVID-19 has affected Thanksgiving plans in ways no other event ever has. Holiday traditions of travel and crowded dining tables are now being questioned, examined, and second-guessed by many families. No matter what decisions families ultimately make, the holiday traditionally associated with warmth and gratitude (even in families with traditional squabbles) is now shadowed by anxiety, frustration, and an undercurrent of loss.
So, how to celebrate a COVID Thanksgiving?
Express gratitude anyway!
Not out of “niceness” or denial of painful and challenging realities, but because it roots us in a larger reality, brings us strength, and actually changes our brains in positive ways.
There’s a growing body of science behind this advice.
In 2017, UC Berkeley published results of a study (“How Gratitude Changes You and Your Brain”) by Joshua Brown Ph.D., and Joel Wong, Ph.D. Focusing on subjects engaged in therapy for depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues, they assigned one group to write gratitude letters for three weeks, another group to write out their thoughts and feelings about their negative experiences, and a third group to do no writing at all. In follow up 4 weeks and 12 weeks after the end of the writing assignment, the group that had written gratitude letters (whether or not they were actually sent) showed significantly more improvement in their mental health than either of the other two groups. They used fewer or no negative emotion words, suggesting that putting gratitude into words helps break the hold of a toxic negative focus (and the benefits were just as strong for those who chose not to mail the letters). And the improvement in mental health and mood persisted many weeks after the exercise itself was done.
Other studies have had similar results and have also shown that the practice of expressing gratitude lowers cortisol, the stress hormone; and it increases the production of serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin, our feel-good chemicals. One study concluded that the mere act of looking for something to be grateful for, even if the resulting list is short, provides these benefits. Not surprisingly, when our brains change in these ways, we sleep better, enjoy stronger relationships, and become more optimistic and resilient.
So, no matter what your situation this Thanksgiving, consider starting a regular practice of gratitude, whether saying thank you to the people in your life, writing thank you notes, keeping a gratitude journal, or offering prayers of thanks. And don’t forget to be grateful for a brain that can calm itself through such a simple practice!
-Beverly J. Burch, LCPC