EAP Corner, Wholeness Healing Today

Choices for the Holidays – Stress or Gratitude?

Are you beginning to notice the stress in your body as you see the shops decorated and hear the countdown that started weeks ago?  Moving into the holiday time can unconsciously bring up a stress reaction in our body that activates our fight or flight survival mechanism. This reaction may come from our history of holiday times when we had some discomfort or difficulty during the holidays. It may be a habitual stress reaction that we engage in annually where we feel over stressed and/or incapacitated with too much to do and we get triggered just at the thought.  It may be from the expectations – knowing we must engage in trying to make this time special in ways that may take time and energy and wondering how we are going to get that job done.

For whatever reason, the stress reaction is there, often before we even realize it.  This is how our stress reaction works.  Often our reaction is a familiar old habitual pattern, the one we have had since our younger years.  It has probably been with us for years and we often aren’t even aware when we have kicked into it.  So, let’s talk about how you can choose to make this next few weeks better by engaging in a stress “response” rather than a stress “reaction”, moving into a state of appreciating the season rather than dreading it.

Thanksgiving naturally brings up an opportunity to move into the space of gratitude.  Traditions often have developed over this holiday that center around being thankful. At our Thanksgiving meal, we often take the time to speak out loud those grateful moments, sharing with each other.  It may be a surprise to learn that the practice of gratitude actually becomes a gift right back to the giver of the gratitude.

Studies show that having a practice of gratitude actually changes the molecular structure of the brain, keeps the gray matter functioning and makes us healthier and happier. Gratitude shifts the brain into positive feelings, stimulating the brain area associated with this.  This same result happens when we make ourselves smile.  But the act of gratitude stimulates the hypothalamus (a significant part of the brain that regulates stress) and the reward circuitry that produces the sensation of pleasure. (Brooks, 2015)  So gratitude helps us move out of the stress reaction and into a more positive place.

One study showed that a gratitude practice is complementary to counseling.  The research showed how integrating the practice of gratitude along with receiving counseling showed better benefits than counseling alone, even when the gratitude practice is brief. (Wong, 2017).  In this study, they had participants in the first group write one letter of gratitude to another person each week for three weeks.  The second group was asked to write about their deepest thoughts and feelings about a negative experience.  The third group did not do any writing activity.  Those who wrote gratitude letters reported significantly better mental health at four weeks and 12 weeks after their writing exercise ended.  So, this gratitude practice isn’t just for those who feel life is good. This practice is for everyone to use, shifting them into a more neutral or pleasant space.

Begin a gratitude routine and follow through daily regardless of how you feel in the moment. This could be a disciplined practice that you do as routine as your morning coffee. There are many ways to practice gratitude.  You might start with “interior gratitude” practice where you daily revisit something you are grateful for in the moment. Perhaps it is your shower routine.  Or you may use an “exterior gratitude” practice. Martin Seligman, father of positive psychology, suggests expressing gratitude in writing. This might mean writing five things down daily that you are grateful for and having them be different every day or journaling for five minutes a day about your gratitude. You might just make a routine of really saying thank you to those who do nice things for you such as someone holding the door open or passing you something at dinner. There is a mention of a gratitude practice in The Secret, using that time right when awakening, to review all the things you are grateful for, and then the author, (Ronda Bryne) talks about feet hitting the ground saying, “Thank” (one foot) and “You” (one foot). (Byrne, 2006)

We started by talking about bypassing stress this season through using the antidote of gratitude.  This practice is just that – a practice.  That means you do your gratitude rituals whether you feel like it or not.  Feelings are just feelings; we don’t have to adhere to them.  We can put our gratitude into practice and notice that the feelings change into more pleasant moments.  We have a choice in how we manage our season by how we “respond” to the stress rather than “reacting”. Make the time worthwhile, give gratitude, and find yourself in a more pleasant place to enjoy the moments of the season.

Works Cited

Brooks, A. C. (2015, Nov 21). https://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/22/opinion/sunday/choose-to-be-grateful-it-will-make-you-happier.html?smid=fb-nytimes&smtyp=cur&_r=1. Retrieved from nytimes.com: https://www.nytimes.com

Byrne, R. (2006). The secret. New York: Beyond Words Publishing.

Wong, J. &. (2017, June 6). greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_gratitude_changes_you_and_your_brain. Retrieved from greatergood.berkeley.edu: https://greatergood.berkeley.edu


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  • Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker
    Licensed Independent Mental Health Practitioner

  • Janie Pfeifer Watson, LICSW, is the founder and director of Wholeness Healing Center, a mental health practice in Grand Island, Nebraska with remote sites in Broken Bow and Kearney. Her expertise encompasses a broad range of areas, including depression, anxiety, attachment and bonding, coaching, couples work, mindfulness, trauma, and grief. She views therapy as an opportunity to learn more about yourself as you step more into being your authentic self. From her perspective this is part of the spiritual journey; on this journey, she serves as a mirror for her clients as they get to know themselves—and, ultimately, to love themselves.


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