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By: Rick Fannin
Finding an attitude of gratitude is a critical skill in recovery from drug or alcohol addiction. Many of us come into recovery beat down, broken, and grieving the loss caused by the unmanageability of our drinking or drug abuse. Much like being trapped in addiction, we often begin recovery trapped in shame, self-anger, and resentment.
From such a position, it is hard to find anything for which we are grateful. However, many find immense gratitude for the life transformation, which occurs while learning to overcome the struggles with drugs or alcohol. This transformation causes us to look at everything through a new pair of glasses. Our entire outlook on life has changed. This sense of gratitude can help us avoid a relapse, improve our resolve and resiliency, give us peace, and ultimately enjoy the sober life we have worked so hard to build.
Pain and Hardship is a Pathway to Peace
God blesses each of us in different ways. Some of us are athletic, some artistic, and others are blessed by being musically talented. For me, the greatest blessing that God ever gave me is that I am an alcoholic and an addict. That may sound like I am completely off my rocker, but it is true. You see, if it weren’t for the blessing of being an alcoholic and an addict, I would never have had so many beautiful blessings in my life. It was my path through addiction that allowed me to find and experience true peace for the first time. It allowed me to connect with God, with others, and with the authentic version of myself. And it was my painful path through addiction that led me to the blessing of finding my true passion and purpose in life, which is helping others overcome the struggles in their lives.
For many, labels such as addiction, addict, alcoholic, drug addict, or “junkie” create extreme shame, stigma, and pain. I can now wear these labels as a badge of honor, and I am able to hold my head high. For when I found extreme gratitude in recovery, I stopped, looked behind me, and I could see how goodness and mercy have followed me all the days of my life. And just beyond them, I was able to connect the dots of all of the painful mistakes that I had made and the mistakes that others made that affected me. All of these led to this place of peace, serenity, joy, and gratitude. It is impossible to feel grateful for where you are and, at the same time, have shame, anger, or resentment for the dots that lead you to this grateful spot. For me, the long version of the serenity prayer is accurate, and pain and hardship were a pathway to peace in my life. In the book, As Bill Sees It, Bill Wilson stated,
“I try hard to hold fast to the truth that a full and thankful heart cannot entertain great conceits. When brimming with gratitude, one’s heartbeat must surely result in outgoing love, the finest emotions that we can ever know.”
Benefits of Being Grateful
Gratitude is a positive emotion experienced in response to a situation or response to something received (2). Gratitude is both a temporary feeling and a dispositional trait. The temporary feeling of gratitude is experienced after obtaining a positive outcome. A dispositional trait, or “attitude of gratitude,” is the recognition that there is an external “Higher Power” source for the goodness of life and a general tendency toward “noticing and appreciating the positive in life.” Brain scans have shown that certain areas of the brain are associated with experiencing and expressing gratitude, and the regular practice of gratitude creates lasting changes in the prefrontal cortex that heighten sensitivity to future experiences of gratitude.
Research studies have found the positive bio-psycho-social phenomena of gratitude correlate with significant aspects of well-being, better emotional regulation, improved life satisfaction, vitality, optimism, hope, improved resiliency, lower depression, improved sleep, improved physical health (5), less stress, post-traumatic growth, improved social support. These research studies also found significant benefits for those recovering from drug or alcohol abuse. They found that people in recovery that are more grateful were more successful at sustained abstinence from drugs or alcohol and reported greater satisfaction with life.
The stress-coping model of addiction proposes that drugs or alcohol are used as a coping response to stress or in order to avoid the emotions associated with painful life challenges. For those who struggle with addiction, we used drugs or alcohol to numb out the pain and avoid the stress of dealing with life. However, we cannot deny the reality that the unmanageability caused by our drug or alcohol use has created a more stressful and painful life than the one from which we were attempting to escape. With this reality, many of us finally step out of denial and into treatment and recovery.
In recovery, we learn to stop avoiding our problems. By learning and applying new coping skills, we begin to solve these problems, if they are solvable, and accept and heal from the issues we cannot solve. Research studies have found that as our gratitude improves, so does our ability to cope. This positive emotion broadens our thought-action cognitive processes, improves behavioral activities, and facilitates adjustment to daily challenges. This research found that individuals with higher levels of gratitude are more likely to utilize coping strategies that target problems and are less likely to emotionally or physically disengage and deny or avoid the problem.
Gratitude for Sober Support
One of the difficult challenges to overcome in recovery is to learn to ask for help. And why wouldn’t it be difficult to trust others, given that many with addiction have a history of trauma or sexual abuse or grew up in dysfunctional families, both of which contribute to attachment insecurities, mental health issues, and substance abuse? Learning to overcome distrust in others is a significant obstacle that makes it difficult to ask for help when we need it out of fear of rejection or fear that others will not be there for us when we need them. The counseling relationship’s safety and security and the acceptance and support found in group counseling for substance abuse can become a cornerstone of learning to trust and ask for help. A recovery coach is another type of helping professional that, similar to a counselor has specific training in addition recovery, but also has personal lived experience of recovering from drug or alcohol addiction.
Being of service to others is a core principle of 12-step recovery, and the Ninth-Step Promise, states, “No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others.” While participating in group counseling and within the rooms of a 12-step support group, members learn that we can help our problems by being of service and providing empathy and support to others in the group. In doing so, the hopeless begin to feel hope, and they are so grateful for the love, empathy, support, and encouragement they receive from others. Gratitude acts as a motivator for people to reciprocate assistance received from others and creates an upward spiral of mutually responsive behavior between the helper and the person being helped.
But this mutual gratitude does more than feel good. It also helps recovery by expanding the size of sober, supportive relationships and improving our ability to cope. The gratitude towards these new supportive relationships reminds us of existing relationships and motivates us to make amends to the ones we have damaged from addiction. The gratitude helps us bond with new and old friendships, thus increasing the support network’s size available to help us recover. Research studies on gratitude have found that higher levels of gratitude correlate with a higher likelihood of utilizing instrumental and emotional social support. More directly stated, grateful people are more likely to ask for and receive help from others. Individuals with higher levels of gratitude were more likely to utilize emotion-focused coping, including positive reframing, acceptance, humor, and religious coping.
When a recovering individual no longer avoids problems and rather receives the love, encouragement, and support of an ever-expanding support network, they have the confidence to begin to change the things they can. These individuals utilize problem-focused coping skills such as planning and active coping as strategies to directly change life situations that are creating stress while in recovery. With each problem resolved, the emotional burden is lifted. With the encouragement and support that we now have and our new coping skills, we now have the confidence and motivation to change the things we can. The hopelessness that we felt upon entering recovery is now replaced with hope, resiliency, and positive emotions such as joy, optimism, peace, and serenity. We now have the confidence to be able to achieve things that we once believed were impossible. We discover so many things for which we are grateful.
Gratitude for a New Way of Living Life
If you have ever driven around Columbus on I-270 in the winter, you are likely to have hit some huge potholes that caused your car to get out of alignment. Driving a car out of alignment creates a lot of stress, and if you take your hand off the wheel, you are likely to end up in the ditch. Similarly, as we have driven along the road of our life, we have hit some painful potholes along the way. And like the car, we have gotten out of alignment with our core moral values. Early recovery is stressful if we continue to live life out of alignment with our core moral values. If we take our hands off the wheel as we drive down the road to recovery and out of alignment with our core moral values, we are likely to end up in a relapse ditch.
By working the 12-step, we learn to stop using our self-will as a hammer, and the 12 steps help to get us in alignment with the authentic version of ourselves, our core moral values, and God’s-Will for our life. In the book, Practice These Principles, author Ray A, a recovering alcoholic of 32 years, describes gratitude as “an emotional virtue that disposes of us morally to act right and emotionally to feel right, to do good as regards to others and to do well as regards to our own mental condition.” “The Spiritual life is not a theory; we have to live it” (9). We find that when we have learned to practice these principles in all of our affairs, we have transcended into living a world that we could never have dreamed existed. We discover a way of living for which we are eternally grateful.
Tips for Developing an Attitude of Gratitude
Below are some suggestions on fostering, developing, and growing your gratitude muscles so they can develop into an ongoing “attitude of gratitude.”
- Incorporate prayer daily recovery routine. Acknowledge and give thanks for your progress. Recognize but stop beating yourself up over the work that you still have to do. Give thanks for how far you have come and for the transformation you have found while in recovery. Acknowledging the good that you already have in your life is the foundation for abundance. Research has shown that being grateful changes the prefrontal cortex of the brain and other research studies have shown that prayer reduces cravings, reduces relapses, and prayer increases activation in several cortical areas of the brain. Simply stated, there are scientific and biological benefits of praying and giving thanks that can help with recovery.
- Record your feelings of gratitude daily in a gratitude journal. Commit to writing a list of five to ten things you are grateful for each day. You can write them in a notebook, a recovery journal, or put them in a journaling app or a gratitude app on your phone. Starting each day focused on the good in your life that you are grateful for helps you boost feelings of well-being by putting any negative aspects into perspective. If you find yourself struggling during the day, go back to your journal and remind yourself of all the things you are grateful for, and this can help you move past the difficulties you are currently facing in your day.
- Live your life mindfully and take the time to appreciate the little things that we experience each day. Mindful meditation is an activity that is highly encouraged by recovery experts. At its most basic level, meditation is about taking time out of your day to breathe deeply and be mindful. This helps to move you from being trapped in the negative thoughts racing through your head and allows you to notice the beauty and good that is right in front of you.
- Demonstrate gratitude in your interactions with others. Make gratitude an action and not just an emotion. Show others that you are grateful for them. If you are wrong, promptly admit it and don’t let the small things build up into large painful problems. You can also demonstrate your gratitude in interactions with others by being of service. This helps to get you out of your own head and distracts you from drinking or using. Spending time being of service to those less fortunate than yourself will help reframe your problems, allowing you to be thankful for what you have. “The deepest craving of human nature is the need to be appreciated”- William James. Being appreciated for being of service to others is a fantastic pain reliever for your life problems.
- Utilize Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and remove the ANTS from your thinking. These Automatic Negative Thoughts block us from seeing the positives, and our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors believe the Ten Types of Twisted Distorted Thoughts and block us from being the positives. By correcting our thinking, we can remove the negative filter on our minds, and we discover so many positives that have been right in front of us.
- Focus on gratitude. What we focus on amplifies. If we focus on pain or what we have lost, then see more pain and identify more that we have lost. If we flip the script and begin to focus on the gratitude for what we do have, we discover more for which we are grateful.
- Live each day, as best as you can, aligned with the authentic version of yourself, your core values, and your moral beliefs. Living an aligned and authentic life allows you to discover your purpose and passion in life. From the discovery of this purpose-driven life springs much gratitude.
When you find a place of extreme gratitude on your recovery journey, be sure to look behind you. Notice how goodness and mercy have been following you all the days of your life. Look beyond them and see how all of your life events (good and painfully bad) are all connected and lead you to this wonderful point of gratitude for where you are. From this perspective of gratitude, be sure to notice how you cannot be ashamed, angry, or resentful for the events that lead to this wonderful new world for which you are eternally grateful.
We are so grateful to have witnessed miraculous transformations in the lives of the clients we serve. Each of our Faith-Based Recovery Coach has overcome personal struggles with drugs or alcohol. We will not pretend that we know what addiction has been like for us, but we will never forget what it was like for us. Contact us today to begin your recovery journey and discover all that there is to be grateful for in recovery.