The Importance of Gratitude After Trauma

The Importance of Gratitude After Trauma

 

The COVID-19 pandemic is a source of collective trauma. What is trauma? Trauma is two-fold. First, it is an event that includes physical or psychological harm or the threat of such harm. Second, it is the individual’s experience of this precipitating event. A particular event may be experienced as traumatic for one individual and not for another. Whether an event is experienced as traumatic depends on how an individual labels and assigns meaning to the event, as well as how disruptive the event is for that particular individual.

A collective trauma when this traumatic experience impacts all of society. The pandemic has harmed many of us in tangible and intangible ways. Many of us may process the pandemic as a traumatic event, especially for those who have lost friends or family to the virus.

Trauma can lead us to experience adverse symptoms, including a psychological phenomenon called learned helplessness. Helplessness is a major part of trauma. Many of us may feel helpless in the face of a virus that even experts are struggling to understand. We do not yet have a cure or vaccine. We may not be able to navigate our everyday lives if we lack access to the protective resources we need. We may feel anxious because there can be no set date for this pandemic to end. All these factors contribute to a feeling that we are no longer in control of our lives and that we can do nothing to remedy the situation.

But we are not helpless. There are many ways to combat the negative effects of trauma. The key is exploring different methods and learning what works best for you. For some, getting physically active may help reduce anxiety. For others, connecting with their support systems, seeking a therapist or professional help, or refocusing on physical health (such as healthy eating, regular sleep schedules, reduced drinking, etc.) can make a difference.

Practicing gratitude is a method that is both easily accessible as well as proven effective for many. A 2006 study found that Vietnam War Veterans with higher levels of gratitude experienced lower rates of PTSD. Gratitude has also been shown to lead to positive outcomes following traumatic events such as campus shootings or destructive earthquakes, as well as following negative life experiences such as substance misuse.

So how do we practice gratitude? Here are some exercises:

  1. Identify three things that you feel grateful for and appreciate about your life. Be specific!
  2. Identify three things that you take for granted at work but are actually very thankful for. For example, what are you getting at your current job that you could not get at another job?
  3. Identify three things that you appreciate about yourself.
  4. Identify three people who had a significant and positive experience on your life.
    1. Create a thank you message to one of those individuals and give it to them the next day.

These practices can act as a grounding technique when a person becomes overwhelmed. It calms the nervous system and forces the individual to consider other thoughts and ideas. Gratitude also facilitates improved mood and combats maladaptive behaviors learned during trauma. Below are some other ways that gratitude can positively impact your life:

  • Gratitude produces higher levels of positive emotions such as joy, enthusiasm, and optimism, and lower levels of the destructive impulses of envy, resentment, greed, and bitterness.
  • In one study, people keeping a gratitude journal slept on average 30 minutes more per night, woke up feeling more refreshed, and had an easier time staying awake during the day compared to those who didn’t practice gratitude.
    • Those who slept more experienced increased positive emotions.
  • Gratitude promotes innovative thinking, flexibility, openness, curiosity, and love of learning.
  • Grateful people have an interest in learning new information and skills, and they seek opportunities to learn and develop.
  • Gratitude has been shown to reduce levels of depression and increase resiliency.

“Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude.”

― A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

 

During these challenging times, it may be helpful to remind ourselves of things that we are grateful for. Experts are continuing to learn more about how COVID-19 operates each day, growing closer and closer to coming up with a vaccine. We have guidance in what precautionary measures we can take to keep ourselves and our loves ones as safe as possible. Local community organizations, like GLS, are here to help provide services and guide us towards safety.

 

Resources:

How childhood trauma affects health across a lifetime | Nadine Burke Harris

Why we should teach gratitude in school | Corrina Thurston | TEDxStowe

The 5 People You Need To Be Happy | Stacey Flowers | TEDxUNO

 

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