It’s a simple act, but taking time to jot down the things that you appreciate can boost your health and help you heal. May McCarthy, author of The Gratitude Formula, says it has to do with neural pathways in our brain.
“The ones that are deeply grooved are associated with the strong beliefs and behaviors we’ve created over a lifetime. Those old beliefs may stem from the lies your abuser has told you—that you’re no good, that you’re worthless, that you can’t make it on your own.”
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Practicing gratitude helps you create new beliefs, says McCarthy, a former board member of Northwest Family Life, a Seattle-based organization committed to ending domestic violence. And repetition of these new beliefs can help replace some of the old ones, building hope and faith that a better life is possible.
“You can start to believe, ‘I am worthy, I am capable of living a powerful and wonderful life’,” she says.
Not only that, says Allie Herbert, operations manager for Intelligent Change’s The Five-Minute Journal, practicing gratitude can also:
- Ease anxiety
- Help you sleep better
- Enable you to be more adaptable to changes in your life and environment
It’s Simple to Start
Even if you’re currently enduring abuse or healing from past abuse, it can be empowering to remind yourself of the things you do have that are good. “You might be grateful for the friend who checked in on you, or the person who offered you a place to seek refuge,” Herbert says.
Start by jotting down a few things each day that you notice and appreciate. The important thing is to make your gratitude journal a habit. Keeping your notebook or journal on your bedside table can help remind you to jot down your thoughts when you wake or before you go to sleep.
Though there are certainly a bevy of fancy journals available in stationary and bookstores, any blank paper or book will do. (You can find a few in our 2017 Gift Guide.) But some people do better with guidance, in which case, a journal specifically designed for gratitude, with questions to answer and quotes to ponder, might be helpful. Or, if a journal seems too cumbersome, you can download an app to track your thoughts. Pinterest also has a host of prompts and ideas.
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The Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley offers these tips for getting the most from your gratitude journal:
- Choose happiness. Decide that you will make the effort to be more grateful.
- Go deep. A short list of things you’re grateful for, along with details about why you’re grateful, is more powerful than a laundry list of everything you can think of.
- Appreciate people more than things.
- Use your imagination. What would your life be like without the things you are grateful for? Thinking about your life without them can help you appreciate them more.
- Pay attention to the unexpected. Things that surprise you may trigger more powerful feelings of gratitude.
McCarthy recommends spending five minutes in the morning reading something uplifting before you journal. That might be stories of other people who have been through a situation similar to yours, or people focused on helping domestic violence survivors.
It’s Not Always Easy
Keeping a gratitude journal can be a challenge, Herbert acknowledges. “It’s work. It’s easier not to open up your journal, not to be intentional. And even if you start it can be challenging to be present and mindful,” she says.
If you find yourself repeating the same items day after day (I’m grateful for my family, my health, my pets) delve deeper. What about those aspects of your life are you thankful for? Or, scale back your commitment. While Herbert and McCarthy promote daily gratitude journaling, studies have found benefits in journaling just once a week.
It’s OK If It’s Not for You
Practicing gratitude has many enthusiastic supporters, but that doesn’t mean it’s right for you. Some people find it counterproductive. Liz Brown tried it for 100 days and felt that the practice was pushing her to bury legitimate negative feelings like frustration, sadness and fear.
She writes, “I scoured my psyche for signs of change, and I saw one pretty quickly. I felt worse. I felt rage. I felt angrier and sadder and deeply ashamed. The choking feelings in my throat and the constant pressure in my chest got worse. Every time I looked at my lists, I said to myself: My life isn’t so bad. What’s wrong with me? Why do I still feel so awful?”
She opted to keep an “ingratitude list” instead, writing down the things that she was allowed to be angry about. Life’s unfair moments. It made her feel better.
Be it gratitude or ingratitude, what’s most important is that you take time each day for self-care. Check out these 52 ideas for a year dedicated to making your healing a priority.
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