As the holiday seasons approach many people are filled with expectations of festive joyful times with friends and family. They look forward to planning the meals, shopping for decorations, and preparing to have guests. In all the hustle and bustle, we can forget that many others are silently overwhelmed by anxiety, depression, or loneliness around this time of the year.
Life isn’t a one size fits all formula. There are people all around who may be dealing with a major mental health disorder or less frequent situational/seasonal struggles. Whether it’s you or someone you know, help is available. There are long-term coping mechanisms such as counseling, medication, and Emotional Support Animals or Psychiatric Service Dogs that are all beneficial. In the immediate, however, there is a helpful tool built right into the Thanksgiving holiday. Research has shown that a bit of thankfulness can help lift the spirits and bring a new perspective!
From a technical perspective, the word gratitude comes from the Latin word gratus. It means “thankful, gracious, or pleasing.” Gratitude is a deep appreciation for what we receive, whether those things are tangible or intangible. Gratitude is one way we acknowledge the goodness in our lives and the world around us. Harvard Health tells us that, “Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.” It is proven to be strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness.
From a personal standpoint, it looks like ending each of my days with a list of thanks. I make a point of writing out everything that comes to mind when I evaluate my blessings. Nothing is too extreme or seemingly too insignificant to add to my list. I know that each of us comes from a different place with unique experiences. Some of us get by a day at a time, and that’s ok! No matter your situation, simply writing out (or speaking out) genuine nuggets of gratitude can help reshape negative mindsets into positive ones. Again, research has shown this practice to be hugely valuable. If you’re anything like me, being overly logical can quickly try to squash your attempts at gratitude. I would encourage you to keep at it! Why put in the effort? Let’s explore some more eye-opening details to find out.
Scientifically, enacting gratefulness can have real, long-lasting effects on our working brain function. Our medial prefrontal cortex is the area of our brain responsible for repeat emotional responses, decision making, and long-term memory. A study published by Greater Good Magazine showed that even tiny expressions of gratitude dramatically increased activity in this area of the brain.
Many studies have shown cohesive results to prove that regular gratitude can develop into better sleep, less stress, lower anxiety and depression, and a greater level of daily functioning for those suffering from mental health disorders. How is this possible? Great question! The act of identifying things to be grateful for increases the production of serotonin (the hormone which regulates good mood and overall well-being). It also stimulates dopamine (a chemical released during times of enjoyment) and encourages your brain to recreate those good feelings. Essentially, a regular routine of showing gratitude can help positively rewire your brain!
Due to the new Department of Transportation (DOT) policy, Emotional Support Animals are NO longer allowed to fly in airplane cabins for free. However, Psychiatric Service Dogs are eligible.
Now that we know the science of gratitude can have significant beneficial effects on mental health, let’s explore how to integrate it into our lives. Gratitude sounds like a great idea, but it’s not always as easy as it sounds. It’s not difficult to have feelings of thankfulness when our circumstances are looking up. However, we all know that life is full of highs and lows. How can we continue to manifest gratitude no matter what our external conditions look like?
The most effective way to make gratitude a habit is to pay attention. Like I mentioned earlier, start identifying even the smallest of things that you might unknowingly take for granted. Then, take a minute to be intentionally thankful for them. Audibly verbalize that thanks (even if it’s just to yourself!). Some of my favorite little things to express thankfulness for are my warm cozy bed on a cold night, the smell of coffee brewing in the morning, the sound of my toddler laughing, or hot water to shower in! This list may seem commonplace in today’s suburbia, but these items ARE privileges for many families in America and across the globe. The older I get, the more I relish the opportunity to give thanks for all the little things that bless me daily.
Arguably the most powerful gratitude tool is to share your thankfulness for someone else. It has been studied and proven true that writing an email, text message, or good old-fashioned letter to a person you are particularly grateful for can do wonders. You should be as specific as you can when writing. Call to mind each wonderful quality that makes this individual unique and share with them how they have affected your life for the better. You can write to a family member, a friend, or even a complete stranger who impacted your life in passing. Another plus? You don’t even have to send it! Going through the activity of writing out your gratitude can open your eyes in surprising ways. Of course, it always blesses others to be loved and appreciated so I would recommend following through if you’re able.
Mason jars make excellent gratitude storage but any container you have laying around will do. Start by using your creative juices to decorate the jar (or container) in a way that makes you smile. Some ideas are painting it your favorite color, gluing on a bit of sparkle, or wrapping it in colorful ribbons. Whatever you choose to do, make it personal and meaningful. At the end of each day for the next month, write down one thing you are grateful for on a strip of paper. Hold that paper, reflect on your note, fold it in half, then plop it into your jar (or container)! When the month ends, it will be full of all the reasons you’re thankful for the life you live. Anytime you are feeling especially down, take a few notes out of the jar to read aloud and reflect on once more.
If the gratitude jar/container seems a bit too complex for where you’re at, journaling with prompts may be an easier task. Sometimes we are completely drained by life and need a little jumpstart. It happens. Be gentle with yourself. There is only one instruction here: fill in the blank! Writing prompts provide uncomplicated ways to begin journaling when we don’t have the bandwidth to think about much.
Some prompt ideas are:
There are an infinite number of prompts to get you started. You can go here for a helpful list of examples!
This idea only requires two things: your desire for rising gratitude and the wonders of the great outdoors. The goal of a gratitude walk is to get your endorphins flowing and to observe your surroundings as you reflect on a sense of gratefulness. Taking in nature (such as noticing the shapes of trees, feeling the flow of fresh air through your lungs, and listening to the songs of the birds flying by) can shift your mind into a tranquil state. Try paying attention to how the ground feels beneath your feet, how your heart feels beating in your chest, or how the sun feels resting on your skin. Exercise alone improves mental health, but it’s even more advantageous when paired with an intentional honoring of nature and our involuntary senses.
If the celebratory Fall and Winter months are a challenge for you, remember that you are not alone. Not everybody is immediately thankful on Thanksgiving or jolly at Christmas time. We each have a backstory and a specific journey. Be kind to yourself and remember that you are worth the extra effort of conscious gratitude practices.
I have plenty of days when I don’t feel like trying, but I am always glad when I decide to anyway. Today, for example, I put a gratitude note in my jar giving thanks for my emotional support dog. Over the years, my amazing pup has helped me manage chronic anxiety and some bouts of intense depression. Sometimes all else seems to fail, and my disability convinces me that I’m alone. My ESA is reassuringly right by my side. He offers me invaluable assistance, and thanks to American Service Pets I don’t have to worry about losing that.
The benefits of an Emotional Support Animal certification and a Psychiatric Service Dog certification are drastically different. Fortunately for you, American Service Pets’ network of active board certified doctors can help you find the right path to certification. To find out whether you need an ESA or PSD letter, take our easy, three-step Pet Owner Survey!
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