"Today I'm grateful for_____." This isn't a sentence I reserve for completing only when gathered around the table for Thanksgiving dinner. I consider cultivating gratitude a practice. Some days I actually jot down in my Gratitude Journal what it is that I'm focusing my gratitude on that day, other days I contemplate it more organically throughout my day. On particularly bad pain days, having a strong and toned gratitude muscle I can flex is enormously helpful.
When my body aches, my energy may actually be breaking quantum mechanics and going into a negative energy realm, and I generally feel like walking death, it is so easy to let negative thoughts and emotions build velocity and begin a downward spiral. And has that ever in the history of mankind been helpful? I'm going to go out on a limb and say no, no it has not.
I choose to use gratitude like my own personal emergency brake in these situations. Stopping to consciously assess what I can still find to be grateful for in those hard times has profound impacts. In the immortalized words of Albus Dumbledore, "Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light." Gratitude is a great proxy for happiness. When you begin to focus on that one thing you can find to be grateful for, I guarantee you'll also find that it starts a chain reaction of thinking of another thing, and another. Soon your one small ray of light has brightened and is breaking through the darkness. To continue with the Harry Potter theme, it's like when after Dumbledore's death all the students and staff turned their single rays of wand light into the sky and together their collective light obscured the Dark Mark of the Death Eaters. (If you don't get this reference, stop what you're doing immediately, and watch all 8 Harry Potter movies, otherwise I just can't even...)
Let me give you an example. Currently my shoulders and neck feel like they are in a vice grip (Ok, what I imagine that would feel like. I've never actually been in a vice grip because I'm not a masochist.), my low back has kind of a throbbing slow pulsing pain going on, and since I've been working on the computer for like 2 hours now my wrist tendinitis that was finally feeling a little better is starting to get unhappy with me. If I wanted to focus on the negative right now I have ample opportunity to do so. But, do I have anything I can be grateful for? I sure do - let's start small and work our way bigger. I'm alive. I woke up today (which is not guaranteed). That's a pretty good starting place, and it's something I can be thankful for every single day no matter how horrific I feel. The last few days my knees were really bothering me, but today they feel better, so I've got that. Although my wrist is starting to hurt, it feels worlds better than it did just one week ago when I was severely limited in being able to do basic life things, so pretty thankful for that. I've got a really nice glass of wine I'm sipping while I write. I'm writing from my parents living room while I watch a basketball game with my dad and grandma as my dad gets dinner ready. I live half way across the country, so I'm really grateful for this time home with my family. I'm grateful that I have a family that I genuinely like enough to want to basically use all my yearly vacation time to make sure I'm home for all the holidays.
At this point my heart and mind are pretty damn full of love and gratitude for all that I have right now. I turned on enough small lights that collectively they make it impossible for the dark cloud of pain to completely overtake me. That doesn't mean it doesn't exist. This practice doesn't reduce my physical pain. But it lessens the emotional pain that come along with the physical. It pulled the emergency brake on that downward spiral, and that helps me keep the affects of my pain manageable. It's not in control, I am.
Give it a try yourself. You have literally nothing to lose, it's absolutely free, you can do it anywhere and at pretty much any time. Interested in learning more about positive psychology and gratitude? The Gratitude Diary is an excellent place to start and it's an easy an enjoyable read.