Thanksgiving is the holiday of gratitude – for family, friends, the food on our tables and the many other blessings in our lives. And while Thanksgiving will probably look different this year, with smaller gatherings and ongoing COVID-19 uncertainty, mental health experts advise that practicing gratitude should still be part of your day.

Gratitude is an appreciation for what you have and receive, whether that is tangible or nontangible. It is consistently linked with positive emotions and research suggests that people who are grateful experience both mental health and physical benefits.

According to neuroscientists, there is a physiological effect, where gratefulness causes the brain to release more positive neurotransmitters such as serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin and lessen the presence of the stress hormone, cortisol. 

The impact is significant, with numerous studies in the last decade showing that people who practice gratitude are less likely to struggle with depression and anxiety, feel greater empathy toward others, have better self-esteem, are more open to relationships, are more resilient, feel fewer aches and pains, have lower blood pressure and better heart health, and tend to sleep better. But how do you live a life of gratitude, especially during tough times?

There are many strategies for cultivating gratitude. Here are a few tips from Robert Emmons, a psychology professor at the University of California – Davis and one of the world’s leading scientific experts on gratitude, among some additional tips:

1. Keep a gratitude journal. Getting into a daily habit of writing down the people, events and things you are grateful for, is a great way to remind yourself of how much you are thankful for.  

2. Remember the bad. By contrasting where you are today, compared to more difficult times in your life, you are better able to appreciate the gifts you have now.

3. Learn prayers of gratitude. Again, this is a way to remind yourself about the positive parts of your life. Here is the Examen Prayer as an example.

4. Express appreciation. Tell the people you care about how grateful you are for them. Not only does expressing your gratitude for someone to make their day a little brighter, but it can do wonders for increasing your own levels of gratitude.

5. Help others. Volunteering or giving back to others, can provide an enormous boost to your wellbeing and help you feel appreciation.

6. Practice mindfulness. Sit down daily and think through five to 10 things you are grateful for. Picture them in your mind and sit with that feeling of gratitude in your body. Doing this every day will rewire your brain to be naturally more grateful. 

7. Spend time with loved ones. Nurturing your relationships and supporting the people you care about will make you feel more connected, optimistic and grateful.

8. The actions of thankfulness preceed the feelings of thankfulness. Even when you are not feeling positive or thankful, going through the motions of smiling and saying thank you, can trigger feelings of gratitude. 

9. Pay attention to the little things. Get outside and appreciate nature or admire the Thanksgiving table decorations. Taking notice of the beauty around you helps inspire gratitude.

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