Practicing gratitude helps improve mental health
No other time of year seems to move our personal interests in self-improvement more than the dawn of a new year. It’s the time for new dreams and new goals for the future. While we may have muddled our way through the holidays, worrying about the demands of work or family, or grieving losses and strained relationships, a fresh year provides unlimited possibilities.
Reducing stress and improving your mental health might be one of the items on your list. One easy, effective way to do this is by practicing gratitude. Taking a pause to reflect can allow you to receive long-lasting mental health benefits.
The importance of practicing gratitude
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic continues to cause emotional and mental burnout for many of us. Clinical research conducted by J. Bryan Sexton, PhD, director of the Duke Center for Healthcare Safety and Quality, found that writing down three good things every day for 15 days can result in less burnout and exhaustion for up to an entire year.
Matthew Carey, MD
In July 2020, LMH Health introduced Three Good Things as a tool to help manage stress. Staff reported seeing a big difference in their lives and mental well-being after trying the technique. Dr. Matthew Carey, psychiatrist with the Internal Medicine Group at LMH Health, has also “prescribed” this technique to his patients to improve mood and daily performance.
“By practicing gratitude, it consciously and subconsciously causes us to seek out the things that make us happy,” said Dr. Carey. “When a person has consistent negative thoughts, such as in the case of depression, changing our thought patterns to focus more on the positive can help improve our mood, and you can do that with daily affirmations of gratitude.”
Many people use a journal to record their daily gratitude, but you can also find apps to log gratitude, such as the Three Good Things app. Dr. Ashley Bloom, a primary care physician at East Heights Family Care, also recommends visiting PositivePsychology.com. The site has downloadable exercises that you can practice on your own and share with friends, family and colleagues.
“Gratitude is like a muscle: the more that you practice using it, the more you start using it without thinking,” said Dr. Bloom.
Strained family relationships
Family dynamics, especially those that are strained, can also wreak havoc on your mental health. With recent political and social upheaval, it can sometimes feel like you’re walking on egg shells around family members with differing opinions. The pandemic can also make physical gatherings extra stressful with the inherent risk of spreading the virus.
If family conversations seem to be heading in the wrong direction, Dr. Carey recommends you politely and assertively suggest a different subject, such as what everyone is grateful for.
“Differences in social, political and religious beliefs are not going to be solved in one sitting. It is better just to avoid these topics and focus on something more positive,” said Dr. Carey.
Dr. Carey also shared that it is important to avoid drinking alcohol to cope with these situations, as it can negatively influence behavior and increase risk of alcohol-related accidents. If a situation does escalate, Dr. Carey says that you should casually separate yourself from the situation and return when things have cooled off.
Ashley Bloom, MD
Dr. Bloom states that it is ok to set a loving and kind boundary with family if there is potential physical or emotional risk when gathering for any occasion. It is important to be honest and put your mental and emotional well-being first. If you know someone who has strained familial relationships, Dr. Bloom suggests providing support and understanding, as this can be a challenging time.
Spending time with those who love and support you, whether they be friends, neighbors or coworkers, also helps to improve mental well-being. It’s important to remember that family doesn’t have to be biological: you can create your own family with those you love. The new year can also provide an opportunity for forgiveness or new beginnings.
Grieving the loss of a loved one can be one of the most challenging times in life. Their absence may be more keenly felt at the start of a new year and around important dates in your life. Dr. Bloom urges her patients not to ignore their grief but to be honest and open with others.
“Just because they passed doesn’t mean they are gone from our hearts. It is ok to cry or talk about it,” she said.
Joining a support group or just talking with friends can help one cope with their grief. Remembering a loved one by baking their favorite cookies, visiting a favorite place or making a donation in their honor can help keep them their memory alive. But if you find yourself struggling, reach out to your primary care doctor for additional support. There are many resources available, and your physician can help find what is best for you.
“Primary care is a great place to start. From grief to mental health, we encourage you to reach out and get the help you need,” said Dr. Bloom.
Get the care you need today
You can schedule an “Establish Care” appointment through any LMH Health clinic if you do not already have a primary care physician. At this appointment, your physician will learn about you and your health history to make a plan on how to best work forward.
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Isabel Ashley is an intern with LMH Health Marketing & Communications.