Why Gratitude Lists Can Be Hard and What to Do About It

As we spend the day of thanksgiving in the United States many people are talking about gratitude. Gratitude is a big buzz these days with people touting the benefits of gratitude lists and journals all over the place. Gratitude has been touted to heal all sorts of things from the psychological to the physical and is advertised as the skill you must have if you are going to be successful. However, there are many people who struggle to complete this task or who feel worse after attempting to craft a gratitude list for the day. Here is why gratitude practices might be hard for you and what to do about it.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock, Photographer: Isabella Rose 444’s portfolio

Are you someone who balks at the idea of doing a gratitude practice? Does it make you angry, or sad, or afraid to count your blessings or receive help from others? Then read on, many of us struggle to enjoy the good things in life and feel grateful for them. There may be some valid reasons for your dislike of gratitude and all the hype around it. Here are 4 things that may be getting in your way and some things you can do to help yourself begin to move past them. This way you can heal your past and embrace your future while paying attention to what is working in your life.

When I Don’t Deserve Good Things

For those of us who grew up in households where our needs were not met it can be hard to believe that we deserve good things. We may struggle to put ourselves in situations where we have good things happening to us or cannot recognize when good things are happening to us. We may not trust the motives of the person giving us something (a compliment, time, attention, money, food, or other form of nurturing), or we might feel uncomfortable or even threatened by gestures of goodwill from others. 

When Good Things Were Conditional

In order to feel grateful one must be able to recognize the good things happening around them or how someone is helping to care for them in one way or another. When a person has grown up in a household where people did not care for each other or that care was conditional it can be difficult to accept helpful people now. 

According to Algoe and Way (2014) there is a genetic and environmental driver for feeling good about giving and receiving gratitudes. In a study involving 128 adults the researchers explored how expressing gratitude to their long term partner impacted sense of relationship satisfaction and sense of loving. They took saliva samples for genotyping to determine if those who were better at expressing gratitude and felt more bonded to their partner and had a particular gene expression related to higher levels of oxytocin secretion (CD38). Oxytocin is the hormone known as the love hormone or the one that socially bonds us. They hypothesized that couples who expressed more gratitude to and for each other would have stronger social bonds and the would be evident through their genetic make up. They found significant results to help explain how gratitude works in the human relationship, “Regardless, in so far as CD38 gene expression affects oxytocin signaling, our results implicate the oxytocin system in the psychological reactions to expressions of gratitude which serve to reward the person for remaining in the relationship”, (p.1860). 

If a person grew up in a home where family members where not expressing gratitude toward each other, had low levels of perceived positive relationships interactions, or felt threatened (relationally or physically) it is possible that the expression of this system was not operating well or at all. As a result of lack of experience around receiving and feeling grateful, one may have a hard time understanding or experiencing it now. 

It can also feel threatening. The person may feel the gesture of goodwill means they will owe something to the other or that the other is trying to get something from them. This can lead to hyper-vigilance in the nervous system. This sense of hyper arousal means threat is near and the body is in overdrive trying to place the source of danger. This makes it hard to recognize the good in what is being presented, causes physical health damage, and hijacks the attention and connection trying to be made. 

When Life is Really Really Hard 

For some, they look around their lives and see a big pile of shit. Everywhere. Sometimes our lives are really really hard. We look around and find ourselves in tough spots everywhere. Although many would say there is something positive to find, and I believe this to be true, it can be very very hard to find that silver lining. 

For many years I have run therapy groups. In these groups we always make people note one positive thing that happened to them since our last meeting. Over the years I have watched people struggle to find those pieces of positive. It can be very hard to find the sliver of good when so much in life is going wrong. I will say that over time, those participants did report being made to find something positive helped “train the brain” to look for the good and it did help change perspective (time and again) in those difficult lives. 

This change of perspective helped create hope and offer light at the end of some very dark tunnels. However, in the beginning, it was really hard, and being told to find 3 things every day to be grateful felt like an overwhelming task that set them up for failure. 

When good things got taken away

Are you someone who fears the good things, because to have something good means it can be taken away? Did you grow up around people who enjoyed stealing the joy from you? Or would put down your dreams, excitement, or continually remind you bad things were just around the corner, no matter how good things were going in the moment?

These negative folks can leave a mark. We get used to looking for the other shoe to drop and stop getting excited about the good things surrounding us, no matter how small. We do not want to experience the pain of losing the good. This attachment to wanting to feel good, not wanting to feel or deal with disappointment, and fear of the unknown catches us in a cycle of negative thought patterns. In turn, we start looking at the world with a cynical and critical eye.

Sounding Familiar?

If you are in any of the above camps working on a gratitude practice can be painful. It can stir up all sorts of feelings about past trauma, fear, and loss. It can feel like we are being complacent in approving of “bad things” or “ignoring what is not working”. We can feel like an accomplice to bad things in the world or feel like we are not being honest about what is not working.

Here’s What You Can Do

First, recognize that you do deserve good things. No matter what you have done in your past or what you are doing in your current life, you deserve good things. Then recognize that gratitude is called a practice for a reason. We have to train ourselves to locate and notice the positive things going on around us. We are biologically wired to find the things that will harm or hurt so we continue to survive as a species. It can be hard to find the positives when you are being bombarded by the negatives. It can help to remember that we are not ignoring the bad stuff, just shifting our attention toward the positives that are also present in the moment, no matter how small.

This does not mean you do not have attend to the negative consequences for your poor behavior or blatant disregard/respect for others, societal laws, or your commitments. In order for society to work, we must work on participating in pro-social behaviors and helping one another. The level you choose to engage in these things is up to you, however the more anti-social your behaviors or the more disregard and disrespect you carry with you the less positive interactions you will have and the more fearful you will feel over time. 

This may lead to mood or anxiety disorders or could lead to violent situations. If you feel like you are so bad that you do not deserve good things (or that someone else is so bad they do not deserve good things) you are setting yourself up for a life of feeling judged and judging. This leads to misery in the end and a lack of focus and attention on what you want to accomplish and creating the life you love. Instead of focusing more on what you want, you end up with a life full of other people’s expectations and rules and focusing on what they are not doing that meets your value structure. 

Second, work on understanding conditions and let go of expectations. Many of us grew up in conditional households and are always carrying around the burden of tit for tat score keeping. 

Begin to see your life as something you engage in because you want to, not because you will get something out of it. Work on doing things because you feel good about doing them, not because someone else wants you to do something. 

Many things in life are trade-offs however if you are always feeling like others are only doing something for you because they want something from you, or you are only doing nice things for others because you want something from them, it will lead to a less than fulfilling life. The Dali Lama says that doing good things for others is about making ourselves happy. 

Fox, Kaplan, Damasio, and Damasio (2015) hypothesized that receiving help from others and feeling gratitude for it would be experienced through circuitry in our brains related to moral cognition, value judgement, and theory of mind explaining how humans interact with the good will of others. To explore this hypothesis they placed twenty-six participants in a functional magnetic resonance machine and watched how their brains responded to imagined experiences of receiving help from others and feeling grateful for that help. They found that the circuits related to moral cognition and positive emotion were involved in considering the feeling of being grateful for help from another.

When we do things that uplift others we get a boost of dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin (the feel good chemicals in our bodies). When we smile at others we get the feel good chemicals and so do they – even if they do not smile back. In an essay discussing the neurological underpinnings to why we participate in prosocial behavior, Zak and Barraza (2013) outline a “neurologically-informed mathematical model of collective action that reveals the role for empathy and distress in motivating costly helping behaviors” (p. 1). By recognizing that we are getting something good out of doing good for others, we do not have to worry about what we will get out of it from them. They are going to do what they are going to do, and we cannot control those reactions. What we can control is what we do, why we do it, and how we feel after our action. We control our reactions. 

Do good things because they make you feel good and you’ll stop second guessing others’ motives. Even if they are conditional, you will stop feeling the need to engage in the tit for tat score keeping. Maybe you respond with something nice for them, but it will be because you want to. If you do not want to, you will not feel the need to complete the task they are trying to push upon you. This may mean that you look for the positive reason you may want to complete it – like making dinner for my household. I may not want to in the moment, but in the overall picture it is important for me to feed my family healthy food and have a set time to be together in the evening. Making the dinner makes the larger goal happen, plus recognizing the larger picture helps me orient toward what is good about the task I do not like and get it done. If those positive aspects are not there, it is a good reason to stop and reevaluate why I might be engaged in the activity. 

Finally, when you are going through hard things in life it can feel like there is no way out and nothing will get better. Remember that things always change. You may not feel like you have a lot of choices in your life so look for the small ones you do have. A shift in perspective is a big deal and can make all the difference when things around falling apart around you. What you find does not have to be big or profound, it can be simple and small, but it will make a difference to shift your attention from what is not working to what is working. 

In addition, it is important to understand that acceptance of what is happening in your life right now does not mean you like it, approve of it, want it – it just means it is happening. When you can accept what is truly going on in your life right now in its full honesty and truth, you can start to find solutions to your problems. Without acceptance it is very hard to change the negative thought patterns circling round and round in your brain. 

If you are struggling with any of the above and feel like you cannot find the good items located in your life, it is time to seek help. If you are struggling with a situation, such as living in a violent or traumatic environment, dealing with great loss, addiction, or were never taught how to shift your perspective, it is time to seek help. 

Seek out a qualified psychotherapist who can help you gain insight and reflect on your experiences. In the end you never have to complete a gratitude journal or nightly list. Those may be exercises that do not work for you, or you may find that getting creative and making it your own (drawing, dancing, photography, lexicons, art, etc) is more important to help you find your voice, stay on your personal path, and enjoy your life as it is in this moment. 

References:

Algoe, S. B., & Way, B. M. (2014). Evidence for a role of the oxytocin system, indexed by genetic variation in CD38, in the social bonding effects of expressed gratitude. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 9(12), 1855-1861.  https://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nst182 

Fox, G. R., Kaplan, J., Damasio, H., & Damasio, A. (2015). Neural correlates of gratitude. Frontiers in Psychology, 6(1491),1-11. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01491 

Zak, P. J., & Barraza, J. A. (2013). The neurobiology of collective action. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 7(211), p. 1-9. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2013.00211 

Plyo-Dumbbell Total Body Shred

To plan your workouts think about doing something focused 3-6 times a week and taking 1-3 days of what’s called active rest (clean house, walk the golf course, go for a hike, take the dog for a long walk, do squats throughout the day – link it to every time you go to the bathroom for example.

This movement is important for recovery and allows your body to do something active for fun, wellness, blood flow to the sore spots from your focused workout, etc. This keeps the body oriented toward energy flow and movement.

Making sure to get a weekend workout in is a great way to make sure your active rest days are not consecutive. Consecutive days off can make it harder to return to your focused workouts on Monday.

Workout Basics and Warm Up

Make sure to warm up. Spend 5-10minutes doing easy movement, stretching, and allow the muscles you are going to work to “wake up”. Work to include all the big joints and major muscle groups. It’s a great time to get your music right, your shoes tightened or loosened, or make sure you hair is out of your way. By fixing these things now, you are more likely to stay focused on the work portion.

When you complete the round, give yourself a pat on the back, a fist pump, something that celebrates your accomplishment. This is a big deal for helping habits stick, and helps you be realistic about all the hard work you are doing.

If you are unclear about a movement, look it up (Check out my YouTube Tutorials Here). There are lots of resources online that allow you to make sure you have good form. Always work up to adding weight or making a movement less stable. Good form comes first.

The Workout

The first portion of the workout consists of a metoblic fat burning time set. Do each movement for 1 minute as many/hard as you can, then rest for 30 seconds. Move the next exercise. Do this whole set 2x through.

  • Compass Jumps
  • Plank Spider Walks
  • Rocket Girls
  • Bear Crawl
  • High Skip Traveling Jumps
  • Plank Rockers

The next portion includes a dumbbell matrix. With each DB move use the abdominals to rotate while lifting. It is important to have good form here. Go slower and lighter on the weight until you feel strong enough to hold good form. You’ll do one DB exercise followed by a 30-second plank hold in between each DB movement. Do the whole group 2x through.

  • Rotate and overhead press
  • Rotating bicep curl with alternating leg backward lunge
  • Alternating uppercuts with isometric plié squat
  • Narrow squats with Y overhead press
  • Frontal to lateral should raise
  • T-Burpees

The third portion of the workout is all about balancing out your core strength. Do these exercises 2x through then congratulate yourself and stretch!

  • Bicycle curls
  • Supermans with cactus arm pull-downs
  • Upper to lower body curls
  • Quadruped opposite elbow to knee curls and extensions

Finish Strong

YOU DID IT!! Now that you have finished the “work” portion, it is time for flexibility training. Spend some time stretching all the muscles you worked – in this workout, it’s full body so give all your major muscles a good stretch. Then grab a good post workout snack. Together these get your muscles ready for tomorrow’s movement and make sure you are ready to meet your goals.

Words of Caution …

Please make sure to follow your body. Do not push through pain. Discomfort/Challenge are different than pain. We want to challenge ourselves we do not want to hurt ourselves. Find the level that is right for you and move at that level. Make sure to choose weight and stances that support your body style – if you have to use the wall to do your push ups do that, if you need a chair or a bench use those. Make sure you are doing what you need to do for your body type and current personal level of fitness.

Easy Red Cabbage & Carrot Coleslaw

This is a great side dish and goes with all sorts of main dish dinners. It is hearty enough to stand as a main dish for lunches or a small dinner. It’s easy, quick, and tasty.

I am not a great cook, I’m good when I want to be, but honestly my mind is usually somewhere else and following recipes is really, really hard for me. Any distraction – 3 kids, the dog, a friend, a flower – and boom, we are having “blackened” food again … usually without the Cajan part. So I started making my food simple. Really simple. I wanted healthy and easy.

Ingredients:

  • Red cabbage – green would work just fine too
  • Carrots – shredded or sliced
  • Thai fish sauce enough to coat the cabbage and carrots (or you can skip and just use the tahini)
  • Toasted Sesame seeds with Olive Oil for toasting – you can also use tahini, and skip roasting
  • 1 lime for juice
  • Salt and pepper

The Cooking Part …

  • Heat olive oil (just enough for your sesame seeds)
  • Drop-in sesame seeds and stir to coat, allow to roast on stovetop
  • Chop or shred carrots and cabbage, toss in a large bowl
  • Pour in fish sauce and stir
  • Add the roasted sesame seeds and olive oil
  • Slice lime in half and squeeze juice over the mixture
  • Salt and pepper to taste – less is more here because it will sit and intensify as the flavors blend in the dish. You can always add more to serve. 

What to serve with …

You can add rice vinegar to this recipe if you would like a tangy flavor. It is a great side dish for any Asian BBQ, soup, or dumpling. It’s also great with tacos, sandwiches, or hamburgers. Serve warm to add another dynamic alongside a fish dinner or pork chops. I served with Fish as a main course. AND it’s great as a solo dish, too. Make a batch and eat off it all week. 

Seasonal Mood Shifts: 3 Ways to Stay Grounded This Fall

For many the season of autumn is difficult. Depending on where you live, it’s full of things dying, leaves falling, colder weather, darker days, and a general sense of ending. In addition, to the messiness of leaves and seeds flying around, it gets blustery which can be hard on our nervous systems.

According to Esienberg et al. (2010), the changing of seasons and sunlight decreases shifts the dopamine systems. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that helps us feel pleasure. When the seasonal changes shift our ability to feel pleasure we have to make sure to find ways to bring pleasure into our lives.

The change in seasons can be tough on our physical systems and impact our mental health. Here are some ways to make sure you are staying on track as we move through fall and into the chilly, crisp winter season. 

  1. Get Your Schedule Figured Out: 

If you are like a lot of people you’ll probably feel a little off your routines as we transition from the lazy long days of summer in the northern hemisphere to the short, cooler, darker days of fall and winter. This is a time of returning to schedules and getting “recommitted” after the fun of summer. Make sure you spend some time each day planning. This skill gets missed by many but is very important if you want to reach your goals. You must spend time planning. Not planning is planning to fail at your goal. 

Not only do you need dedicated time each day to plan your day/end your day and prepare for tomorrow, you also need time each week to review the week and set the next week up for success. 

Prioritize this simple step and watch your world shift from frazzled and chaotic to structured and manageable. The trick here is to make sure you are setting aside some dedicated time. Get out your calendar of choice (I love my Commit30 planner and journal) and write in 10 minutes at the start and end of each day for daily review and 30 minutes to an hour for weekly review. This is must have time, so make sure you are picking times you can commit to. 

During this time your job is to review your schedule, make shifts, and take things off that do not need to be done after all. It is also a time for you to rate your day. I like using a 1-10 scale. At the end of each day, I pick a number between 1 – it sucked and 10 – it was amazing. At the end of each week I average the daily numbers to get a weekly rating. This allows me to see if I am living my priorities and feeling effective. Just like my children’s report card, I’m looking for a B or better (8/10 or 80%). Anything lower than that means I need to make some adjustments. Maybe I just had an off day or maybe the review shows I am focused on things that do not bring me enough joy to sustain my day. This simple scale allows me to quickly adjust my life to make sure my focus is aligned with what I want to be doing. 

Note: The daily rating is a gut check. Do not overthink it or you’ll justify what is not working. It is a quick check-in and the first number that pops up is it. Sometimes I make a note regarding the number – why is it high or low to help me in my weekly review. 

2) Watch Your Consumption Habits and Mind Your Reactions: 

I feel like I talk about this sort of thing all the time … what you put into your system is what you will get out. I work with so many people in my office who are feeling low energy or angry and do not see the connection to the things they are eating, how they are sleeping, or what they are watching on TV. So many are disconnected from the direct effects our consumption has on us. 

It is a great skill of the body … the ability to adapt and conserve energy to be effective … or just survive. The body gets good at figuring out what you are consuming and then adapting. This fall pay attention to what you are eating, listening to, watching, and who you allow in your space. Notice how you feel after you engage with these things. Do they uplift you, inspire you, or deplete you? If it is depleted you feel, it is time for a detox. Take a break from the news, turn off the angry or discriminatory music, unhealthy/unsupportive food choices, and get away from the toxic person in the office as quickly as possible. 

Make sure you are getting enough healthy food. Typically this time of year we begin to crave heavier, richer foods to help us “warm” from the inside out. Notice if you begin to overeat or are turning to sugary foods for additional fuel. These are signs that you are distracted from your body and need to pay attention to the shift in personal needs.

As we begin to crave the heavier, rich foods it is important to pay attention to amounts. We can eat a whole big plate of lettuce in the summer’s need for cooler foods, but try a whole big plate of pasta and cheese and watch yourself grow – in the wrong directions. Follow the seasonal foods. Opt for organic and local when you can and make sure you are using enough fats, proteins, and carbohydrates for your individuality. Need healthy choices for the upcoming holidays? Read more here.

Then make sure you are present and mindful while you eat. Eating mindfully helps us return to listening to our bodies and avoid overconsumption. These tips will help you feel reconnected to basic nurturing for yourself. Taking care of ourselves is important in feeling grounded and self-regulated (able to handle stressful situations). 

Although we cannot always control what we are exposed to, we are always in control of how we respond to it. It is your responsibility to manage your reactions to your environment. As we begin to notice what is going on around us, we will begin to see that what is happening outside is also happening inside. What I am internally experiencing will be reflected in my outer world. This is a powerful realization. The more you work with how you respond to things the more you will be able to shift your mood back toward the positive quickly and the less you will even have to deal with negativity. It just will not be showing up in your world.

Does this mean you are living in Lala land? No, it means you are better at filtering out what you do not want to pay attention to. According to Rohan et al. (2011), in the winter and fall people who are sensitive to the changing seasons tended to ruminate, have more automatic thoughts, and more dysfunctional thoughts related to light and dark. Your attention goes where you put it, so be careful what you give it to.

3) Make sure you move:

As we move into colder months and darker days in the northern hemisphere, it is easy to stop moving and get sedentary. Instead of heading for the couch or pulling the covers back over your head, make a plan, dedicate time, and commit to yourself. Have your workout clothes ready to go and appropriate for the season so you can change quickly into gear that keeps you warm while your move (if needed). Just knowing it is ready to go can help you get out of bed or avoid the after-work couch that likes to call your name. 

I know this video is about spring … but she discusses some good ideas we can use for fall, too.

For many, physical movement needs change with the seasons. You might find that running outside is really not an option for you or that the shifts to your schedule as school starts back up become overwhelming as you fit in carpooling duties again.

Shift your workouts to match your body during the winter months. You may find your workouts are more about strength and power than endurance and speed as the season change and energy around you gets heavier with the shift in light and temperatures. Follow what feels good and make sure you are working within both your training zones and your nervous system needs.

As in number 1 above, set your schedule, prioritize dedicated time, and commit to yourself. Make these “appointments” in your calendar non-negotiable. You might say I need to have 5 workouts a week, however, if you do not schedule them, you will find yourself trying to fit them all in on days 6 and 7. Schedule them and even if you have to maneuver your day, keep them on the same day to get them done, feel successful, and stay on track. Want some ideas for winter workouts? Read more here. 

Make sure to treat yourself to grounding bodywork to round out your physical practices. Maybe you want a massage or restorative yoga class. A lovely practice you can do at home is called Abhyanga or self-massage of the body with warm sesame oil. I love this practice in the fall and spring. It is very grounding during the windy shifts in the seasonal changes. Not to mention, the luxury of rubbing the body with warm oil, soaking in the warm tub, and then enjoying the softness of my skin for days. This is such a delicious practice for so many reasons and very helpful to keep my energy calm and focused.

As we move through the cooler seasons work to ground yourself within your own experiences. Notice how you feel as you structure your schedule, notice how external items impact your internal experience, and how your body feels as you move and eat according to its changing needs this fall. 

References:

Eisenberg, D. P., Kohn, P. D, Baller, E. B., Bronstein, J. A., Masdeu, J. C., and Berman, K. F. (2010). Seasonal Effects on Human Striatal Presynaptic Dopamine Synthesis. Journal of Neuroscience, 30 (44). 14691-14694. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1953-10.2010

Rohan, K. J., Nillni, Y. I., Mohan, J. N., Roecklein, K. A., Sitnikov, L., Hagga, D. A. F. (2011). Cognitive vulnerability in moderate, mild, and low seasonality. [Abstract]. The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, (199)12. p 961–970. doi: 10.1097/NMD.0b013e3182392948. Retrieved from: https://tcsedsystem.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.tcsedsystem.idm.oclc.org/docview/917738676?accountid=34120


Stacy on the Relational Implicit​ Podcast

In this conversation on the relational implicit podcast, Serge and I talk about a blending of disciplines – – specifically, using exercise science to bridge understanding in somatic psychology interventions. The goal is to bring together the science of the physical body with the science of the emotional body to go beyond symptom reduction and reconnect the self and body.

Enjoy!

Interview with Stacy Reuille-Dupont and Serge Prengal: Using Exercise Science to Bridge Understanding in Therapy

See more conversations like this at Relational Implict. On his podcast, Serge explores somatic psychology, relational therapies, mindfulness and trauma therapies. Most of this exploration takes the form of conversations with psychotherapists, occasionally researchers. Stimulating ideas are discussed, as well as clinical examples. The style of the conversations is reflective, to slow down and deepen the process. Many of the conversations are available in video as well as audio.