When I tell clients that gratitude practice can build resilience that protects us from the effects of stress, I am sure that sounds a little hollow sometimes. Inflation has been chipping away at our resources for months. Job losses and weird weather have knocked many off-balance, while natural disasters have caused pain on a scale that is hard to contemplate.
And the past several years have been a lot. We shuttered public life amid immense loss and then struggled to regain footing in a changed world. However, thinking about hard times can be a basis for the intentional practice of gratitude.
Refocus on your strength
Robert Emmons advocates for remembering the bad to reframe your experience. Recalling a loss or past sorrows can remind you how you made it through the hardship to the other side. While you may be feeling lost, you have come through hard times before.
In your pandemic experience, for example, you may have used creativity to see new ways to connect to the ones you love. Perhaps you got through loss or disappointment through sheer fortitude. You have not only experienced difficulty, but you used your unique strengths to take yourself forward. Give yourself a moment to appreciate that. Remind yourself that strengths do not expire.
One practice suggested by Greater Good is to mentally subtract positive events. Just as you have experienced hard times, you have also lived through good developments. Pick one, and focus on that memory. Think about all the luck, effort, and timing that caused it to happen, then consider all the subsequent blessings that would not have been possible without the event. Finally, feel gratitude for it and for your fortunate circumstances.
For instance, I have a job that allows me to practice with supportive clinicians and works around my unusual schedule. Getting to this point required me to run across the job listing after getting the needed degree. Both of those occurrences required luck and timing. What if I had not seen the job listing? What if the interview had gone badly? At several points, my path could have taken a different turn. Mental subtraction can highlight the good that was not guaranteed.
Face reality- all of it
Feeling gratitude can be a sustaining practice, but it can negatively impact your mental health if it invalidates your feelings or lived experience. You can be thankful and be sad, anxious or frustrated. One emotion does not discredit the other.
An indicator that your gratitude may be toxic is when you notice yourself saying “should,” as in: “I shouldn’t feel this way, I have so much to be thankful for.” Our emotions give us information, and negative emotions are as important to experience and process as more enjoyable feelings. Amanda Gregory, LCPC, recommends processing your feelings first if you feel tempted to push them down using a gratitude practice.
Theodore Roosevelt said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” It can make gratitude toxic, as well, when we look to others and compare our respective attitudes. Individuals will each have their own perspective on an event, and the information we have about another’s life will always be incomplete. Staying grounded and focused on yourself can help you be thankful on your terms and in your time.
There is good to be seen even in tough times, and a thoughtful gratitude practice can shift our awareness to the whole picture. Gratitude practice during hardship has psychological benefits that will carry you through to brighter days.
Stephanie Barca is a therapist at Benjamin Holmes Counseling. She is grateful for Theodore Roosevelt’s “The Man in the Arena.”
 Emmons, R. (2013). How Gratitude Can Help You Through Hard Times. Greater Good. How Gratitude Can Help You Through Hard Times (berkeley.edu)  Greater Good provides a step-by-step guide for the practice here: Mental Subtraction of Positive Events | Practice | Greater Good in Action (berkeley.edu)  Gregory, A. (2022). How Gratitude Can Harm Mental Health – And Ways Around It. Psychology Today. How Gratitude Can Harm Mental Health—and Ways Around It | Psychology Today  Social media exacerbates this issue, and a social media break may be a good way to avoid comparisons. Find more here about moving into Spring with intention: Spring Ahead (But Look First) (benjaminholmescounseling.com)