The Positive Psychology of Gratitude and Trauma

The Positive Psychology of Gratitude and Trauma

When you’ve gone through something as harrowing as Narcissist abuse, gratitude might seem like the last thing on your mind. More likely, you might find yourself feeling fear, anger, or even regret. But giving thanks has scientifically proven benefits, and it can play a big role in healing when we’ve been through trauma.

If you’re looking to move beyond regret and toward more positive emotions, here is what we know about gratitude—a proactive coping strategy that can help you flourish once more.

What is Gratitude?

In short, it’s a positive emotion—one of the valuable ‘states of being’ that we can create in our lives to thrive and find happiness (Frederickson, 2001). Clinically, it’s:

“the appreciation of what is valuable and meaningful to oneself…a general state of thankfulness” (Sansone & Sansone, 2010:18)

It goes beyond polite, often cursory “thank yous”, therefore, to encompass something much bigger—in fact, positive psychologists believe it has two stages (Emmons, 2003).

First, it involves recognizing what’s valuable in our lives: what really means something to us. Whether it’s friends, kind gestures, or just natural beauty around us, experts believe gratitude is attribution-dependent (Peterson & Seligman, 2004; Emmons, 2003). In other words, stage one is as simple as realizing (and accepting) what has brought about a positive outcome.

Then, gratitude is about allowing or encouraging ourselves to feel positive about these ‘good elements’ in our lives. The key for trauma survivors lies in realizing that there are good elements externally in the world, above and beyond what we’ve been through. Rather than focus on what has impacted our emotions negatively in the past, we take proactive steps to reshape our perspectives (Vernon et al., 2009).

So, we ask ourselves “What’s good?”

Letting Go of Fear

Narcissist abuse is one example of a negative life event which leaves us fearful. It means that distress and anxiety are common responses in the wake of such trauma, and they can often guide our behavior if we let them (think avoidance or withdrawal). Yet some people manage these reactive responses much better than others, and practicing positive emotions—like gratitude—has been shown to help (Vernon et al., 2009).

Studies have looked at Post-traumatic Stress Disorder survivors to understand how and why positive emotions play a role in healing and recovery from trauma. And the results are promising for the beneficial role of gratitude in particular.

Veterans with higher levels of gratitude after serving in the Vietnam War were found to have lower PTSD rates, for one, and a study of 9-11 survivors revealed that it helped to improve resilience (Fredrickson et al., 2003; Kashdan et al., 2006). In Indonesian earthquake victims, it was discovered that gratitude had a positive impact on their health and PTSD symptoms, suggesting it aids our recovery from traumatic experiences (Lies et al., 2014). And in Israeli teenagers who had lived through heavy missile attacks, it played a pivotal role in helping them reframe their difficult contexts, viewing their situations in a positive way despite the odds (Israel-Cohen et al., 2014).

Changing Perspective

As well as being fascinating, the evidence suggests that gratitude can help us change how we see ourselves, in more than one way.

Perhaps the most compelling is that it can encourage what Tedeschi and Calhoun (2004) term posttrauma growth experiences. It helps us reappraise the way we see ourselves, and we view ourselves as ‘proactive copers’ with strengths to draw on and goodness around us.

We learn to view what might otherwise seem stressful (and therefore fear-inducing) as challenges rather than a threat to our well-being (Vernon et al., 2009). And as such, we stop letting our fears guide our behaviors. We focus instead on the value and meaning that we can actively appreciate, improving our satisfaction with life.

How Do I Practice Gratitude?

Getting proactive about gratitude is one of the key parts of harnessing it to overcome trauma. The rest is up to you, and there are myriad of gratitude exercises that might suit your lifestyle. Most positive psychology interventions use gratitude journaling to measure active practice—these can be as simple as writing down three things a day that you’re thankful for. Other activities include gift-giving, letter-writing, or gratitude meditation, which blends positive affirmations with thankfulness.

But don’t expect instant results—the one thing we know from research is that gratitude takes time to work when we’re overcoming trauma. For Lies and colleagues’ earthquake survivors, PTSD improvements took around 8 months to have an effect. But when the impacts were felt, it enabled trauma sufferers to grow in spite of their experiences and it helped them to focus on the good, rather than the bad.

If this sounds like something that might benefit you, why not give it a try?

Thank you Catherine Moore for sharing this great article!

About the Author
Catherine Moore is a writer for the Positive Psychology Program and has a BSc in Psychology from the University of Melbourne. She enjoys researching and using her HR knowledge to write about Positive and Organizational psychology. When she isn’t getting super ‘psyched’ about her favorite topics of creativity, motivation, engagement, learning, and happiness, she loves to travel. Visit the Positive Psychology Programs website

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