heart graffiti

In recent years, the concept of practicing gratitude seems be everywhere. But for those who are going through psychiatric drug withdrawal, gratitude can sometimes feel like the furthest thing from your mind. Searching for things to be thankful for when you’re in a state of struggle may seem naively Pollyanna-ish or akin to the humble brag (witness all those “#grateful” hashtags on social media posts).

As hard as it is to quantify gratitude, researchers have cooked up a surprising number of studies aimed at proving its benefits. Certain findings (many of them preliminary) suggest that people who make a habit of being thankful may sleep better, have more energy, report fewer aches and pains, and feel more hopeful about their lives and about the future. Some studies link the practice of gratitude to an increase in empathy and in the likelihood of offering emotional support to others. Others find that it seems to lead to more resiliency and a better ability to cope with stress and trauma.

For many who are experiencing withdrawal, the idea of connecting with gratitude—as much as you may want to—may seem not only incongruous but impossible. The experience of emotional blunting, cognitive fogginess, feelings of irritability or rage, and other symptoms can make it very difficult to access that warm, heart-swelling feeling that we associate with gratefulness. Some people who study gratitude, however, suggest that “not feeling it” is actually OK—that it’s the simple act of trying, of searching each day for things to be thankful for (even if nothing jumps straight to mind), that may help lay a neural pathway that makes the process easier over time.

Whatever the studies appear to show, common sense suggests that the act of focusing on what is good in your life, no matter how small, simply feels better than focusing on the bad. Or that it may make you less apt to compare yourself to others, which tends to make anyone feel worse. At the least, turning your mind to gratitude can offer a temporary distraction from any withdrawal symptoms you may be having. And seeking out things to be grateful for, whenever you can muster it, may just be self-perpetuating—that is, the more you look for gratitude, the more attuned to it you become, and the more likely to pass on kindness to others.

How do you practice gratitude?

There are as many ways of practicing gratitude as there are people who do so. Here are a few standard suggestions; feel free to personalize or create your own.

  • Make a nightly list. Some people make it a habit, just before they go to sleep, to write down five things from that day that they’re grateful for. If five sounds like a lot, it’s fine to jot down just one. If you’ve had an especially hard day with no real relief, your entry might simply read: “I’m thankful for my own strength in making it through the day.” You may find that less-apparent things come to the fore as well. For some people, doing this practice right before bedtime has helped them to sleep better.
  • Keep a gratitude journal. If you keep a personal journal already, it’s fine to integrate the two. Sometimes it’s good to have a written record of things to be grateful for to refer back to when you need an infusion of optimism.
  • Start a gratitude jar. Some people set aside blank scraps of paper and write on each scrap something they’re thankful for (ideally, at least one a day), then fold it and insert it into a jar. Once a month, once a year, or whenever the mood strikes, the jar can be emptied and the scraps re-read as an encouraging reminder.
  • Say thank you. To complete the “gratitude circuit,” it can be satisfying to say thank you to any people in your life that you’re grateful for, whether in person or in writing. At times when it may be difficult for you to converse or to write, you may want to send silent thanks in your thoughts.