"I am sorry; your mother has passed away"
"We have a diagnosis and can confirm that your child has Autism"
"Your baby was deprived of oxygen during his birth. He will have many disabilities."
Life. It's unpredictable and full of surprises. You seem to have it all planned out, and then suddenly, and without warning, something happens to remind you that there are no guarantees about anything.
Sometimes it's good news and you are pleasantly surprised. Other times, you have the kind of experience that turns your world upside down and you're not sure what to do next. It comes on so quickly and you can't think straight. You didn't prepare for it, nor did you predict it would ever happen.
Emotions like fear, anger, disbelief, and confusion can quickly take control of your entire being. You may feel depressed, alone and uncertain. Overcome with strong negative emotions, you may not recognize the support from others and you may blame them for not doing enough.
Amidst the chaos and confusion, there is one thing that can help you to feel more positive and hopeful. That one thing is gratitude. Simply, being thankful. It doesn't cost money, it doesn't take a lot of time and it is accessible each and every day, yet it is one of the most under used tools that we have available to us.
The principle of being thankful and appreciative for what we have has been around for many years and is gaining momentum as an emerging science. From psychologists and mental health experts to Oprah, gratitude is rapidly becoming recognized as a key ingredient for overcoming trauma and grief.
Deepak Chopra, M.D. and alternative medicine advocate, believes that, "by practicing gratitude, our well-being is automatically oriented toward greater health and balance." Writer Amy Morin discovered that a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (2003) found that gratitude was a major contributor to resilience following the terrorist attacks on September 11. Recognizing all you have to be thankful for - even during the worst times of your life - fosters resilience.
There is no denying that when you are going through a difficult time, you are angry, frustrated and sad. Feeling thankful isn't on your mind.
How can you practice gratitude when you are heartbroken or stressed?
Here are some things that I have discovered through my own experience and from others I have met along the way.
Discover Purpose and Meaning
Instead of looking at the negative, gratitude can empower you to see the opportunities in your life. While you are going through a challenge, gratitude helps you to think about all of the things you are learning. You appreciate the possibilities rather than the obstacles and you are able to find purpose and meaning in your circumstances.
When I was asked to become a committee member for our local children's services planning group, I remember feeling very thankful. From the first meeting I attended, I realized that I had something to offer. As a parent of a child with multiple disabilities, I was exhausted and under a lot of stress however sharing what I had learned and knowing that it would make a difference for other families, was a step toward understanding a broader purpose in my personal situation.
Value Your Physical and Mental Health
According to many experts, approaching each day with gratitude can change our mindset, your perspective, and even your body chemistry.
Adam Anderson, a neuroscientist at Cornell University explains that "positive emotions activate neural circuits related to novel, creative thought processes." They allow you to take on new perspectives." His findings also describe that feeling grateful has a compounding effect. The more times we express our thanks; the more positive memories we build up.
In her article from Maclean's magazine in August 2015, author Cathy Gulli refers to a recent study published in the journal Spirituality in Clinical Practice. "The results of the study found that people who scored high on a gratitude assessment test experienced better mood and sleep, more confidence in their ability to maintain their cardiac health, less fatigue and most stunning of all: blood analysis of the patients revealed gratitude was associated with lower inflammation in the body."
I was always so thankful for the one hour each day when I would go for a run or a long walk. It was my time to unwind and do something that was important to me. Whether it be exercise, joining a club or having coffee with a friend, do something regularly that is important to you.
Foster Healthy Relationships
It's no secret that maintaining healthy relationships takes commitment and dedication. The stress of the daily grind can certainly put a strain on sound partnerships and alliances. It's easy to see the faults of others, especially with the added pressure of a challenging situation. Tension within the relationship is bound to increase. If you approach your relationships with gratitude, you will be able to recognize all of the positive qualities in your partner, family member or friend. By simply expressing thanks to another person you bridge the gap between the two of you. If there are broken relationships, gratitude may be the first step toward erasing old grievances and forgiving petty differences you may have been holding onto.
Furthermore, open and honest communication is extremely important during stressful times. Too often people protect their feelings by not communicating, for fear of rejection or having their emotions exposed. Dr. Chopra believes, "gratitude helps to reduce feelings of insecurity, vulnerability and fear."
You may believe that sharing your feelings with your partner may create additional stress for them. Talk openly and honestly and don't be afraid to express your emotions. This will help to strengthen trust, foster growth and increase empathy.
"I need more help!" is frequently expressed by people going through a traumatic situation. "There isn't enough nurses." "My child needs a better teacher." "Where is my family when I need them?"
Inadequacy, shortage, isolation and deficiency. These words represent scarcity and speak to what is lacking in your life. Instead try to pay attention to what you have in your life. My parents helped a lot. Quite frankly, we coped so well because of their unconditional love and assistance. My sister-in-law and her family would visit every weekend. My closest friend called me every day. My brother-in-law held our son and sang to him while he was an infant in the hospital. The director of my son's preschool initiated a move to help us get more in home support. At the hospital, there were some great nurses and some not so great. Some teachers were better at classroom inclusion than others. For the situations that were not very supportive, I would let them know. It is your responsibility to let them understand your point of view so that they can make a change for the better.
Gratitude helps us to feel abundance. The more grateful you are, the more your life is supported because you recognize the generosity in others. Instead of feeling alone and unsupported, you notice what your friends and family are doing for you, rather than what they are not doing. You recognize the knowledge, support and guidance offered by professionals rather than their inability to change your situation
Uncover Peace and Acceptance
After enduring a plethora of emotional ups and downs, there will be a time when you realize that you cannot change or "fix" your situation. With gratitude, you will discover the determination and the strength to make it a positive experience. Through your acceptance, you can help others in a similar situation and help them to feel more optimistic and encouraged.
Dr. Amy Morin, psychotherapist and author, sums it up nicely. "As our self expands through gratitude, our concerns, anxieties, and insecurities become small and insignificant, while our experience of joy, freedom, beauty, and compassion continues to grow. Simply take a few moments to focus on all that you have - rather than complain about things you think you deserve."
The power to discover the things in your life that you are thankful for, lies with you. Start a daily gratitude journal. Look around and list the things and people for which you are thankful to have in your life. Carry it with you and be aware of each moment when something happens that makes you feel grateful and write it down. This will help you to realize that despite the difficulties, there is a lot of love, support and positive energy around you.