January 13, 2020
“A grateful heart will never relapse.” This phrase and variations on it are commonly heard in 12-step programs and other recovery programs. They serve as a reminder that gratitude is an essential part of recovering from addiction.
Addicts and alcoholics in recovery are often told to develop a gratitude practice as part of their daily recovery program. They’re told that gratitude is an action, not just a feeling, and that practicing gratitude in recovery can help them stay sober.
Addiction is a disease of the mind, body, and spirit. It manifests as a physical and emotional dependence on a substance as well as a mental illness.
The mental illness portion of the disease of addiction includes an obsession with changing the way the addict feels through the use of substances. Changing feelings is at the core of addiction because the mental illness of addiction causes a plethora of uncomfortable feelings, including depression, anxiety, loneliness, and inferiority.
When addicts stop using their substance of choice, they can no longer change their feelings through the use of substances. Many addicts turn to other methods of changing their feelings like food, shopping, and romantic relationships in order to change their feelings instead of dealing with themHow
Eventually, these methods become too painful to continue, just like using substances. Once that happens, addicts are left with their uncomfortable feelings. If these feelings become uncomfortable enough, the addict may relapse.
Programs of recovery teach addicts to deal with their uncomfortable feelings and daily life without substances. One of the most successful methods for dealing with life and uncomfortable feelings is a change of perspective. This is where gratitude comes in.
Gratitude has been shown to literally rewire the brain. By focusing on the things we’re grateful for, the brain can be trained to notice the good instead of the bad. This is especially important for addicts, who tend to constantly focus on the bad.
Consciously focusing on gratitude is also a method of distraction from the obsessive thoughts that come with addiction. When an addict is overcome by a desire to use a substance, focusing on what they’re grateful for redirects their brain. This can counteract the desire to drink or use.
Addicts in recovery also practice gratitude as a way to appreciate the way their lives have changed since they got sober. Reflecting on how difficult their lives were before they got sober leads them to be grateful for the way their life is now.
When things get difficult in sobriety, it’s important to still look for gratitude. When addicts fail to find gratitude for their sober life, they can get stuck in a negative perspective. This can lead them to conclude that maybe sobriety isn’t worth it, which can lead to relapse. In this way, finding gratitude even when life is difficult is an effective relapse prevention technique.
There are several effective ways to cultivate a gratitude practice. Many addicts intentionally set aside time each day to be grateful. Others practice gratitude throughout their days.
Here are a few effective ways to start a gratitude practice.
The easiest way to practice gratitude in your daily life is to make gratitude lists. This can be as simple as jotting down a few things on a post-it note when you’re frustrated at work. Or you can set aside time to make a more extensive gratitude list either in the morning or at night.
If you’re having a difficult day and you’re having trouble thinking of things to add to your gratitude list, there are a few methods you can use to get your brain going.
Keep these lists somewhere you can access them so you can look at them when you’re having a hard time. One good way to do this is to keep a gratitude journal with you or to write gratitude lists on your phone.
Whenever you encounter difficult feelings or a desire to use, jot down five things you’re grateful for. Repeat that until the feelings pass. Then make sure to talk to someone in recovery about what you’re feeling so you can process in a healthy way.
Another way to make gratitude part of your daily life is to look for gratitude throughout your day. This requires you to make a conscious decision to focus on gratitude. Once you make that conscious decision, you’ll be surprised at how much you can find to be grateful for in your everyday life.
Whenever you have a moment of pause in your day, look around you and notice what you’re grateful for. These are usually simple things like the sun shining through the window or the fact that your cellphone is charged, or that lunchtime is in 30 minutes. This is a great way to train your brain to notice that you’re constantly surrounded by things that you can be grateful for.
This practice is especially helpful in situations where you’re frustrated or impatient, like when you’re stuck in traffic or waiting in line. Instead of scrolling through social media, which often leads to negative thoughts, look around and find the gratitude.
Cultivating a gratitude practice is an essential part of staying sober. Addicts are most likely to relapse when they cannot deal with the difficult feelings and circumstances that come with daily living. One of the best ways to work through these difficulties is to focus on gratitude. So, cultivating gratitude in recovery is an important relapse prevention technique.
For more information about techniques for relapse prevention, check out our blog.