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Gratitude when you’re in pain? You’ve got to be kidding!

Posted Jan 10 2012 4:57pm

Or – introducing the “parent of all virtues” (Wood, Joseph & Linley, 2007).

For some time now I’ve been exploring the contribution of positive psychology on wellbeing in people with chronic pain.  Positive psychology is the ” scientific study of the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive”. (Seligman, ND). It strikes me that in chronic pain management, we’ve responded to the issues raised by people who don’t “live well” with their pain, leaving the group of people who do cope well largely ignored. We have much to learn, I believe, from those who have faced their situation and either been stoic – or in a surprising number, grown from their experiences.  Some excellent resources in the field of positive psychology in general can be found at The Positive Psychology Center and Authentic Happiness , and for Kiwi’s, the New Zealand Association of Positive Psychology .

Gratitude is an emotion that most people feel frequently and strongly (McCullough et al., 2002).  Most people say that feeling grateful makes them feel happy. And oddly enough, gratitude seems to emerge despite difficult circumstances – with some research suggesting that it is in times of intense personal challenge that gratitude is most prominent (Peterson & Seligman, 2003). Immediately after the earthquakes in Christchurch nearly a year ago, people frequently expressed gratitude for one another, for the workers who kept the city running, and for the simple things in life like water, shelter and social support.

The question then arises – is experiencing gratitude empirically related to psychological wellbeing? And the answer is, not unexpectedly, yes! One study showed that gratitude was associated with wellbeing more than the “big five” personality model (Wood, Joseph and Maltby, 2009). It appears that gratitude influences wellbeing in two ways: “directly, as a causal agent of well-being; and indirectly, as a means of buffering against negative states and emotions.” (Nelson, 2009).

The next question is – can we influence wellbeing by increasing gratitude? And so far, research seems to support it.  For instance, in Catherine Nelson’s 2009 review of gratitude interventions, she cites studies in which one group of participants were asked to write down five things they were grateful for each week over 10 weeks, while two other groups were asked to carry this out daily either for two weeks or three weeks. At the completion of the study, it was found that positive affect was increased, and that there appeared to be a dose-response effect. In other words, the more often gratitude was expressed, and the longer this was carried out, the more positively people felt (Emmons & McCullough,
2003).

Interestingly, although we think of gratitude as having an effect on emotion, expressing gratitude can have a direct influence on “physiological coherence”.  This is “increased synchronization between the two branches of the ANS, a shift in autonomic balance toward increased parasympathetic activity, increased heart-brain synchronization, increased vascular resonance, and entrainment between diverse physiological oscillatory systems. The coherent mode is reflected by a smooth, sine wave-like pattern in the heart rhythms (heart rhythm coherence) and a narrow-band, high-amplitude peak in the low frequency range of the HRV power spectrum, at a frequency of about 0.1 hertz.”(McCraty & Atkinson, 2003). What this means is that by expressing gratitude, we may be improving our physiological response to life events.

How do we introduce the idea of expressing gratitude when life is difficult? – for this part of my post today, I’m using my approach, because I haven’t yet found research that identifies “the best way” to do it!

My way is to begin with some mindfulness. Sitting with the person and asking them to be present with what is happening right now. This can be done through focusing the mind on breathing, really experiencing the sensations that occur while breathing – the rise and fall of the abdomen, the cool air in the nostrils when breathing in, the warmer air when breathing out, the heart beat, the weight of the body pressing against the surface of the chair or support, the warmth of hands on lap.

I then ask the person to think of something that they appreciate right then and there. I might say “What comes to mind when you think of something you’re grateful for right now.” If they seem stumped, I might suggest that they express appreciation for being able to breathe; or being able to hear – and I might guide them to sounds of nature; or having a chair to sit on – and I might guide them to experience the sensation of being supported by the chair.

I try to guide the person to identify at least four or five things they appreciate then and there, so they can experience what it feels like to mindfully notice the good that is around them, and to notice the emotions that arise from doing so.

Ongoing practice I then give people is to write down three things they appreciate or are grateful for at the end of each day just before going to sleep.  Research has shown that doing this can influence sleep quality (Wood, Joseph, Lloyd & Atkins, 2009).

So, here’s a thought: what about trying this strategy out for yourself? It’s easy, quick and has some surprising results. Let me know how it works for you.

Emmons, R.A. & McCullough, M.E. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: An experimental investigation of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84(2), 377–389.

McCraty, R. & Atkinson, M. (2003). Psychophysiological coherence. Boulder Creek, CA: HeartMath Research Center, Institude of HeartMath, Publication No. 03-016.

Nelson, C. (2009). Appreciating gratitude: Can gratitude be used as a psychological intervention to improve individual well-being? Counselling Psychology Review, 24(3-4), 38-50.

Wood, A., Joseph, S., & Linley, A. (2007). Gratitude – Parent of all virtues. The Psychologist, 20(1), 18-21.

Wood, A. M., Joseph, S., Lloyd, J., & Atkins, S. (2009). Gratitude influences sleep through the mechanism of pre-sleep cognitions. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 66(1), 43-48.

Wood, A. M., Joseph, S., & Maltby, J. (2009). Gratitude predicts psychological well-being above the Big Five facets. Personality and Individual Differences, 46(4), 443-447.
A Wood,, S Joseph, & A. Linley (2007). Gratitude – Parent of all virtues The Psychologist, 20 (1), 18-21


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