The Power of Gratitude in Addiction Recovery

The Power Of Gratitude In Addiction Recovery
February 3, 2020

Recovery from addiction isn’t only a matter of abstaining from drugs and alcohol; it’s about feeling good about your life without drugs and alcohol. Recovery is a holistic process that involves mind, body, and spirit. Psychotherapy plays a major role in recovery, as do healthy lifestyle changes such as getting plenty of quality sleep, eating a healthy whole-food diet, and exercising regularly. 

The spiritual aspect of recovery is a little harder to pin down. The 12 steps emphasize the importance of a searching moral inventory, as well as making amends, finding social connection, and volunteering. There are are also more personal practices, such as journaling and meditation that can help you heal spiritually. An especially powerful spiritual practice is gratitude. This is a practice that has roots in every major spiritual tradition and it’s also one that modern research shows to be good for your mental and physical health. If you are recovering from a substance use disorder, here’s what gratitude can do for you.

Why Gratitude is Good for You

There has been a lot of research on gratitude in recent years, mainly owing to the positive psychology movement. Positive psychology is the idea that psychology can be used to make people happier, not just to relieve the suffering associated with mental health issues. One of the clearest results of positive psychology so far has been that more feelings of gratitude are associated with more feelings of wellbeing, happiness, and positivity. Perhaps surprisingly, the benefits don’t stop there.

Gratitude improves your mental health.

Perhaps the greatest impact gratitude can have on your life and your recovery is by improving your mental health. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than half of adults and more than 60 percent of adolescents with substance use issues also have co-occurring mental health issues.  These typically include issues like major depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, ADHD, PTSD, personality disorders, autism spectrum disorders, and schizophrenia. These co-occurring issues interact with addiction in complex ways. Typically, each makes the other worse so treating the co-occurring mental health issue is a crucial element in disrupting this destructive cycle. 

Gratitude can be a major asset in overcoming mental health issues, especially depression and anxiety disorders, which are by far the most common. A number of studies have found that gratitude both increases the number of positive emotions people feel as well as reducing the number of negative emotions. For example, one study of new college students found that participants who scored higher in dispositional gratitude had higher levels of perceived social support and lower levels of stress and depression. What’s more, this study also found that gratitude led to these positive results independently of personality, which is to say that even if you are prone to negative emotions, you can still benefit from feelings of gratitude. 

Another study looked at the effects of gratitude in a group of nearly 300 participants, mostly college students, who were seeking counseling for various issues, mostly related to depression and anxiety. In addition to receiving regular counseling, the participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups. One group wrote gratitude letters–which are discussed below–one group wrote about their thoughts and feelings, and the last group didn’t write anything. The group that wrote gratitude letters reported better mental health at four weeks and 12 weeks after the writing assignment ended, compared to the other two groups. This suggests that a gratitude practice can be a valuable addition to your treatment plan.

Gratitude improves your physical health.

While it might not be a total shock to learn that feeling more grateful can make you happier, you may be surprised to learn that several studies have linked gratitude to better physical health as well. Studies have identified a number of health benefits associated with gratitude but perhaps the most important for those recovering from substance use disorders is the effect of gratitude on heart health. Several substances, particularly heavy alcohol use, cocaine and other stimulants, and IV drug use can damage the heart and cardiovascular system. 

There is emerging research showing that gratitude can help limit the damage. One study looked at 186 men and women who had already been diagnosed with asymptomatic heart failure. The researchers found that patients who scored higher on gratitude had better mood, better quality sleep, and a greater sense of self-efficacy, or the belief that they have control over what happens to them. Perhaps most importantly, from a medical perspective, they also had lower levels of inflammation markers. Inflammation is a major risk factor in the progression of heart disease and keeping it low is crucial for heart health as well as other dimensions of physical and mental health.

While the research on gratitude and physical health is still relatively new, the consensus seems to be that the health benefits of gratitude are mediated by its tendency to reduce stress and improve sleep. 

Gratitude helps you sleep better.

Insomnia and disturbed sleep are common withdrawal symptoms and they may last well beyond the detox phase of recovery. Some people continue to experience insomnia for the first several months after getting sober. This is a problem because poor and inadequate sleep has been linked to a number of mental health issues, including major depression and anxiety disorders. For example, one longitudinal study of 1000 adults between the ages of 21 and 30 found that participants who reported insomnia at the beginning of the study were four times more likely to be diagnosed with major depression by the end of the study, three years later. That’s clearly not a complication you want while recovering from a substance use disorder, or really at any time. 

There are a number of ways to improve the quality and quantity of your sleep, including keeping a regular sleep schedule and practicing good sleep hygiene. If sleep problems persist, it’s worth discussing with your doctor or therapist. However, one way of improving the quality of your sleep is to practice gratitude. One study of more than 400 people between the ages of 18 and 68 found that people who felt more gratitude experienced better sleep quality and they slept longer. The results suggest that the primary reason for this is that more grateful people tend to experience more positive thoughts and fewer negative thoughts prior to sleep. This creates a virtuous cycle, since a well rested brain is more resilient and better at regulating emotions.

Gratitude improves your relationships.

Feeling socially connected is one of the single most important aspects of a strong recovery from addiction. Much of the depression and anxiety that puts you at risk for depression in the first place stems from feelings of alienation, loneliness, disconnection, and perhaps even shame. We are a social species and somewhere deep down in our DNA we know that to be alone is to be vulnerable. On the other hand, feeling connected to others makes you more resilient. It reduces stress because you can share your feelings with sober people and you have more resources for solving problems, even if you never have to actually ask for help. Having a sober network also increases your accountability. No one wants to tell their family or 12-step group they slipped up and have to start over. Often, that peer pressure is the nudge you need to stay on course. 

Gratitude can also strengthen your relationships and your sense of social connection. We all like to feel appreciated and expressing your gratitude to the people closest to you makes them feel appreciated. A number of studies have investigated the role of gratitude in relationships in different situations. Three related studies found a strong correlation–and one study found evidence of causation–between frequent and regular expressions of gratitude and greater communal strength. Communal strength is how much responsibility you feel for a partner’s welfare. In these studies, a partner could be either a romantic partner or a close friend. Either way, the more you express gratitude to someone, the more connected you feel. 

Gratitude helps you stay positive.

Addiction recovery is a long road and everyone faces the challenge of staying positive and persevering in the face of setbacks. There isn’t just one solution to this problem. Creating a smart recovery plan, having a solid sober network, and making healthy lifestyle changes are all key elements that help you persevere in the face of challenges. Again, feeling grateful can can help you stay optimistic when things get tough. 

In one study, researchers divided participants into three groups. One group was asked to write about things they were grateful for that had occurred during the past week. The second group was asked to write about things that annoyed them that week. The third group was asked to write about important things that had happened that week but whether those things should be good or bad wasn’t specified. After 10 weeks of doing this practice just once a week, the group that had written about things they were grateful for reported feeling better about their lives and were more optimistic. As a bonus, they also reported exercising more and going to the doctor less than the participants who had written about things that annoyed them.

The way this works is simple. Our default mode is to look out for danger and try to anticipate what might go wrong. Our minds are far more sensitive to bad events than good ones. Say, for example, you get a new haircut. Ten people tell you it looks great and one person tells you it looks stupid. Which will you remember at the end of the day? Most of us will remember the one person who said it looked stupid. Practicing gratitude is a way of pushing against our natural tendency to dwell on the negative. Gratitude is a kind of emotional glue that helps positive things stick in your mind.

The benefits of gratitude are interconnected. 

You may have noticed that the benefits of gratitude described above are related in various ways. For example, gratitude reduces stress and helps you sleep, which improves your physical health. It also improves your relationships, which reduces your stress and increases your positive emotions. However you look at it, gratitude is an important node in a complex web of benefits.

How to Experience More Gratitude in Your Life

The benefits of gratitude might sound very nice but what if you don’t feel very grateful? People typically seek help for addiction at a low point in their lives. No one decides that life is going so great that they want to put everything on hold to get treatment for a substance use issue. It’s far more likely that life feels chaotic and broken. It might not seem like you have much to be grateful for. What’s more, many of the studies cited above measure trait gratitude, or the amount of gratitude you’re naturally inclined to feel without really thinking about it. The good news is that even if you aren’t brimming with gratitude right now, there are ways to increase your feelings of gratitude and reap the benefits. Therefore, you might consider adding one or several of the following gratitude practices to your recovery plan.

Keep a gratitude journal.

A gratitude journal is basically like the intervention used in the study above. Just write down three things you felt grateful for that day or that week. Focus on quality over quantity. Describe what it was and why you felt grateful. Describe them in as much detail as possible. The study above asked participants to write once a week for 10 weeks but you can probably speed things up by writing every day for the first couple of weeks. Doing this exercise right before bed can help put you in a positive frame of mind, which the study on gratitude and sleep cited above indicates can give you the added benefit of better quality sleep. After a couple of weeks, it may be a good idea to start doing this exercise once a week. You can get desensitized to gratitude like everything else and doing the practice once a week can keep it fresh. Pick one night, perhaps Sunday, and write in detail about three things that you were grateful for that week.

Write a letter of gratitude.

A gratitude letter is just what is sounds like: Think of a time someone did something for you that you sincerely appreciated but that you never properly thanked them for. Write down what they did and what it meant to you. Positive psychology pioneer Martin Seligman says this is the practice that has the most significant impact on people’s happiness. In his version of the exercise, you should deliver your gratitude letter in person. As the studies above on gratitude and relationships suggest, this can give you the added bonus of strengthening your relationship with the recipient. However, delivering the letter may not be necessary. The study that found gratitude reduced the symptoms of anxiety and depression gave participants the option whether or not to deliver their letters and most didn’t. Regardless, they had significant improvements in mood that lasted for months. In this particular intervention, participants wrote one letter a week for three weeks. However, in Seligman’s studies, participants wrote one letter and the effects lasted about a month so it might make sense to make your gratitude letter a monthly exercise. 

Express gratitude to others.

The gratitude journal and gratitude letter are excellent ways to make gratitude a regular part of your recovery plan but it’s also good to express gratitude to the people you care about. As the study cited above shows, this is key for increasing your commitment to a relationship and making the other person feel appreciated. How you express gratitude matters too. An offhand “thanks” is better than nothing but it’s not terribly meaningful. It’s much better to be sincere and specific, even when thanking someone for something relatively small. So, for example, if your partner makes you dinner, instead of “thanks,” try something like, “I know you had a long day and I really appreciate that you took the time to make us dinner.” Frequent, small expressions of gratitude add up quickly.

Recovery from addiction isn’t only about abstaining from drugs and alcohol; it’s about creating a healthy life full of connection and meaning. Feeling and expressing gratitude can help make you happier and more connected. At Steps Recovery Centers, we help people with drug and alcohol use issues get sober and stay sober using the time-tested 12 steps and by providing individualized care. To learn more about our program, call us today at 385-236-0931 or explore our website. 

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