How to practice gratitude

I have wanted to write about gratitude for quite a while now, but I think I have been putting it off. It is so easy (although scary) to write about your own life and what you have done, but when it comes to writing about ‘big ideas’, that horrible old imposter syndrome sets in, and I worry I won’t be able to write about it in a way that you will understand or that will make a difference to you. And this topic is so important that I really want you to give it a go and see how much happier your life can be.

On that note, have a read and if you think I’m talking nonsense then please don’t give up on the idea.  There is a lot of writing out there on gratitude, read a bit, read the books I’ve linked and just give gratitude a go for yourself – I promise you, with a little time and practice it will make all the difference in the world! 

What is gratitude

Gratitude has lots of different definitions, all of them focus on the idea of giving thanks for something.

For me, it is a feeling. I know that I am grateful when I get a warm glowing feeling in my stomach and the centre of my chest – my heart if you will. I know when I feel that, that there is something I feel grateful for.  

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What gratitude does

There was a big study carried out in 2003 which is always referenced when discussing gratitude. The study was called Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life, by two guys in America called Robert Emmons and Michael McCullough.

What they found was that practicing gratitude has overwhelming physical and psychological effects.

People who practice gratitude have

  • Better sleep
  • Less anxiety and depression
  • Stronger immune systems
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Better ability to cope with stress, illness and adversity
  • More desire to exercise and take care of their health
  • Stronger relationships
  • More joy and pleasure

They are also

  • More optimistic
  • More resilient
  • Better able to cope with pain
  • less lonely and isolated
  • more forgiving
  • more helpful, generous and compassionate
  • happier (2,3)

They have written extensively since on the subject and I’ll put the links to their books at the bottom.

Why does gratitude work

So how is something as simple as gratitude a seeming panacea for so many ills?

Studies have shown that gratitude encourages us to focus on what is good in our lives. By doing so, it becomes very hard to focus on negative emotions. They almost cancel each other out. When something bad happens or when stress hits, if you are used to focusing on the positive, you will be less likely to be swallowed up by overwhelming life events. Gratitude forces us to see passed ourselves; it forces us to acknowledge that there is a world of goodness outside ourselves which allows us to feel a part of something bigger. Connection to something bigger has been shown time and time again to increase feelings of happiness and wellbeing, whereas isolation has been shown to increase feelings of depression. Feeling connected, gives you more feelings of self-worth.

When you feel grateful, you are truly in the moment, because you are feeling that moment.  Celebrating the present, prevents us from spending too much time focusing on the past or worrying about the future. If you are enjoying, and therefore grateful for, the present, you are not going to want to lose that feeling so you will focus more energy on being grateful for the present rather than taking it for granted. Seeing the things in your life to be grateful for in the present, will lessen your desire to escape from the present.  Focusing on the present also forces you to let go of control and just accept what is.

Finally, it has been shown that people who are grateful have better relationships, personally and with their community.  They don’t take relationships for granted, are willing to express gratitude for their partner and are more willing to ‘pay it forward’, bringing the blessings and enjoyment to other people. (2)

How does gratitude work

For me it makes total sense. When looking at gratitude, what the studies show fits with all the things I have learned over the years through spiritual teachings and philosophy.

Louise Hay, author of You can heal your life, says that the universe supports us in everything we think. She says that what we give out we get back. Therefore, if we nurture our feelings of gratitude and give thanks for the good in our lives, then the universe will support our feelings and give us more good in our lives to be grateful for.

Deepak Chopra, author of the Seven Laws of Spiritual Success, says that the universe operates a dynamic exchange. This exchange means that we get more of what we give out, positive or negative. So, if you focus on what you are grateful for you will have more to be grateful for. He also teaches that focusing on the present, rather than worrying about your past (which you cannot change) or trying to control your future (which you cannot do), allows the energy of the universe to continue its flow. As previously said, this flow will take with it what you are focusing on in the present, positive or negative.

Zen philosophy teaches us to cultivate gratitude for everything you have and everything you have been given by nature and by your ancestors. It teaches that the most happiness is found in gratitude for the smallest, most ordinary things. For more on this read Ikigai: The Japanese secret to a long and happy life

Spiritual teacher and author of The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle, writes that there is nothing but the Now. You have everything you need right now, worrying about the past and future does nothing but block your ability to live in and enjoy the present. Not living in the moment increases feelings of dissatisfaction, frustration, depression and anxiety. Gratitude allows you to be more in the present, thereby countering these feelings. 

The science of gratitude

However, recently it is not just spiritual teachers and philosophers who are amazed by the profound positive effects of gratitude. The University of California, Los Angeles has stated that gratitude changes the ‘molecular structure of the brain’ and people who are grateful are ‘more peaceful, less reactive and less resistant’. The University of California, Berkeley analysed people’s brains using an MRI scanner while they were undertaking activities which induced gratitude – such as writing gratitude letters and giving money when they felt grateful. The scanner showed that gratitude activated areas of the brain related to social understanding, empathy, stress relief and pleasure. The Institute of HeartMath, also in California, examined heart rhythms and signals in people experiencing gratitude  and found that this positive emotional state induced a more ordered and stable heart rhythm which reflected the signals travelling from the heart to the brain, supporting higher cognitive function (4,5).

How does gratitude will help your sobriety

So much of the time we are drinking to escape the past or escape worry about the future. Often, we are stuck in a situation that we don’t want to be in and therefore use alcohol to escape. We use alcohol to escape from pain, depression and anxiety. We can feel overwhelmed by negative emotions. I often drank to escape, but I also drank to give myself a moments respite from the overwhelming responsibility I felt to control and be in control of everything. 

Feeling gratitude can help us to find the good in the now, enjoy the now, and therefore lose the need to escape. It can also help us to let go of the past, let go of worry about the future and let go of the need to control everything.

In early sobriety, we can sometimes feel lots of negative emotions, and looking for the good in our lives will allow us to direct some positive energy into our sober journey. Focusing only on the negative will often lead to a relapse as you convince yourself that there is no good in your life, so you need alcohol to manage.

Feeling gratitude for our new sobriety will help us to not take it for granted. From hearing many experiences, it is usually when we start taking our sobriety for granted, that we can more easily slip back into old drinking ways.

How to practice gratitude

Gratitude, like anything, is a practice to be cultivated. Like sobriety, exercise, yoga, music, art, meditation, it isn’t something that you will suddenly be able to do with no practice. You brain has old habitual pathways that it likes to follow (see Am I an alcoholic? for more on this). We can retrain these pathways or make new pathways, but it takes practice to convince our brain to follow the new route, rather than the older easier one.  If you have spent a lot of your life worrying, anxious and focusing on the negatives, it will take a little time to get used to focusing on gratitude. My point is, don’t give up if it doesn’t come naturally straight away.

Here are some ideas for how to practice gratitude.

Most often people talk about writing a gratitude journal. This can be carving out a small part of your day to think about and write down what you have felt grateful for, or it can be carrying a small notebook with you and writing down times that you feel grateful. Personally, I use my phone. I have a note section in my phone and when I feel grateful, I write down what’s happening at the time that I feel grateful.

Other people will take time at the start or the end of the day to do a short meditation and give thanks for the blessings in their lives. Some people do it through prayer.

Some people keep a gratitude jar. They write down things they are grateful for on a small piece of paper and add it to the jar.

Couples, or people in close relationships, can write gratitude letters to each other as a way of saying thank you and showing their appreciation for the other person. This has been shown to have a hugely positive effect on relationships. Or you can just take time to say to the person what you are grateful for.

The important thing is to feel the gratitude. It is easy to say I grateful for this or that, especially the things that you feel you ‘should’ be grateful for, but it won’t have those positive lasting effects if you don’t actually feel the gratitude. Next time you feel grateful try to be aware of how your body feels, so that you know what gratitude feels like for you. As I said, for me it is a warm glowing feeling in my stomach and the centre of my chest.

I’ll just give you an example of some of the things I have felt grateful for.

Walking across the field near my house to the bus stop at 5.45am on my way to work. The field is a big, open green expanse and surrounded by trees that rustle in the wind. The sun is rising and the streaks of pinky purple are lining the sky. I am grateful for the beautiful natural spaces so close to home.

The beauty of my children when they are asleep. Their breathing and the relaxed peace on their faces. I am so grateful for their lives and their health.

Getting out of my car after a night shift, the sun is rising and I can see all the different colours of sunrise reflected in the windows of the houses nestled in the trees on the hill opposite. I feel grateful to come back to a warm home, a sense of fulfilment at finishing a shift in a job I love and the knowledge that I can kiss my family and get into a cosy bed for a well-earned sleep.

I feel grateful for the rain splashing onto a dark road reflecting the streetlights when I’m sheltering in a bus stop. I feel grateful for the first bite of the warm mince pies at Christmas. I feel grateful for my warm coffee as I sit in the town market square waiting for my bus. I feel grateful for the glitter of frost on the road, grass and cars that makes everything look precious.  I feel grateful for any delicious food.

Last, and definitely not least, I feel grateful for the unconditional love I receive from my husband and my mother, even when I am at my grumpiest and most objectionable. My glowing feeling swells when my mother tells me she is proud of me and even a little bit when she is disapproving of my latest hairbrained scheme, because I know she is proud of those too (if also totally terrified by most of them!).

It is so easy to take your closest relationships for granted, but even when we are a little bit like ships that pass in the night, there are moments when the love I feel for and from my husband, ignites the glowing feelings and I grab onto them because they are the most special.

How to practice gratitude when things suck 

Whilst I stand by my comment that it is important to feel the gratitude, it can also be good to “fake it until you make it” at times.

As I said, gratitude is a practice. The more you practice it, the easier it is to be grateful. Initially, you may only find one thing to be grateful about, but make sure you feel grateful about that, and then keep looking for any other good things. The more you look, the more you will eventually find; and the more you understand how you feel gratitude, the easier it will become to feel.

Make sure you look for things to be grateful about in yourself. This is a great practice in self-love, learning to appreciate the good things about you. Sign up for my course below to find out more about the importance of loving yourself.

If you have been practicing gratitude and you start to hit a bleak spot again – like any new practice or habit, you are going to have ups and downs on your journey – then go back to your journal or phone or gratitude jar, and read what your felt grateful for. If you truly felt the gratitude at the time, the memories stirred will reignite the warm glowing feeling and make it easier for you to get back on track.

Everyone struggles to maintain good practices sometimes, but it does get easier with practice. Remember that just because you have slipped back into old habits, it does not mean that all the work that has gone in before is wasted. Use the bank of gratitude memories to help you on those darker days.

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What is a SOBER RAVE like?

This is a question I asked myself many times before heading off to my first sober rave for Halloween. I have raved many times in my life, all with alcohol, usually ending in a blur and a hangover. To be fair, I wasn’t sure what a rave was really like due to the alcohol distortion.

So, Halloween 2019 and 18 months sober seemed like a good time to find out.

I haven’t had a night out since I became sober. I don’t get that many as a mother of 3 anyway, but a sober night in town seemed way too scary!  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had nights at social dances, nights at a festival (See Greenman Festival – Sober!) and parties; but never just a night out for a night outs sake.

I kept asking myself what the point of a night out was. I mean, why do we go out on a Friday night into town? I was impelled to go to this one for two reasons, firstly to tell you about it and secondly to support my local sober bar (also because My Love loves dressing up for Halloween and I love dressing up full stop!)

Yet the more sober events we have and the more normal we can make being sober, the easier it will be for so many people who are struggling with their relationship with alcohol to feel that they have a choice not to drink.

I had a think about what I wanted from the evening (see How to party sober at Halloween). I have always adored dancing. More recently I’ve taken up Ballroom and Latin dancing, but I still have that desire to just boogie around randomly to music. I also wanted an excuse to dress up, because there are far too few of those once you are a mother! I wanted a night out with My Love (see note above!) and l also wanted to meet people like me; people who had fought through their own battles to make positive changes in their life, especially by becoming sober. Maybe this night would lay the groundwork for some friendships and some local community.

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So, Friday began. 1st November not the 31st October but hey ho, close enough to still call it Halloween. My boys had just come back from a week away on Halloween and we’d gone all out with the dressing up, trick or treating, party games and food. I love celebrations and I love making the children happy, but mix the evening with bickering older children and wilful toddler and I was feeling slightly fraught already.

My boys on Halloween

Friday came and I wanted to take the boys to see the Adams Family (something that, to My Love’s horror, I have never seen). I had been mentioning for a few days that something didn’t seem right with the gears of the car and My Love had made jokes about my dodgy driving. While driving up the hill to the cinema, the gears gave up completely and we couldn’t move on a tiny road, uphill. My Love, still not entirely believing me, took over the driving and we eventually limped our way to a 3-hour parking spot near(ish) to the cinema. My Love was all up for sacking off the cinema and taking the car to a garage straight away, but I had got everyone out to the cinema so to the cinema we would go!

The film was fun, and The Baby was sat remarkably well while munching through a bag of popcorn. Afterwards, My Love got the car to a garage with the conclusion that the clutch had gone and I would be carless until Monday, with all the post half term, paid for activities starting again the next day (not to mention £400 down). Starting to feel slightly more fraught, I got the children into town on the bus and thought, while I’m here I’ll make it worthwhile and get their bus passes. Turns out that at 9 and 11 years old, they looked far too like 19 to be to get an under 19s bus pass without passports!

Needing to get the bus home, it was approaching 5pm by this point. The children hadn’t eaten and were getting ansy. I was still trying to work out how to, without a car, get my children to my mother’s in the sticks (she was having all 3 for a sleep over on proviso that I came after the sober rave to looks after the Bear’s blood sugars in the night), get home, dress up, get to town, party sober and get back to the sticks. Not to put it mildly, I had lost the will. It seemed that the universe clearly did not want me to attend this rave. Do you know why I went? Because I had promised you, my lovely reader, that I would. If I couldn’t just suck it up and make it happen, what kind of example was I?! And thank you for the incentive, it was so worth it!

My mother kindly picked up and fed the boys. She automatically said, make sure you eat, you need to line your stomach, which made me laugh! My Love and I then did a quick rush job to get the face paints on. Thank goodness for Snazaroo face paints, they glide on and off with no fuss – about the only thing of the day that was not a fuss!

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We jumped on the bus, frightening a few small children as we went and finally made it, at 8pm to the sober rave. We arrived on time, but early for a rave, for two reasons; our last bus to the sticks was at 10.55pm (so not long really), and sober people tend to follow their bodies natural rhythms more and don’t want to stay out until crazy o’clock. Also I had no idea if I was going to hate it and want to escape!

My Love – quick Snazaroo job!

I had started to cheer up a bit and to feel nervous, now that we had made it, but were greeted warmly on the door of Café Sobar by the manager in a captain’s hat and smoking jacket – it suited him well. Morticia stood behind him (I now recognised who Morticia was). It was quiet but still a good few tables full.

I looked around at everyone, mostly in full fancy dress, and wondered what they were hoping for from the evening. Some were lively and loud in big groups, still tottering on 6 inch heels – my desire for those died years ago! Some were in couples, some sat alone. I couldn’t help but feel amazed by those sitting alone. Yes, probably waiting for someone, but to arrive alone, in fancy dress and sit waiting with no alcohol, cigarette, book, phone or tablet to hide behind is something I would never be brave enough to do, so hats off to you.

We started with a Rose Lemonade and J20. Chatting, but in that slightly awkward ‘we’re here on a date, sober, in a rave, unsure of what to do, so better make conversation’ kind of way. The dance floor was empty but the 90s tunes started belting out from two DJs so I thought, ‘I’ve come to dance so I’d better start now!’ I did wonder if the 90s choice was due to the number of people who are now sober but were probably boozing away at school in the 90s – seemed like it was very much the thing then!

My Love dances beautifully in formal dances but doesn’t feel so comfortable with the boogying so he took a while to warm up, but I am so grateful to him for joining in. For me, it came back like I was still at a school disco. I was throwing myself around and loving every minute. Some single dancers joined the floor – I loved the guy in full colourful tie-dye and the male policeman in a skirt, boots and fishnets with huge muscles!

Harlequin, the sad clown, the bad fairy and some amazing blue wigged costume laughed and smiled from behind the bar, serving fizzy drinks, teas, mocktails and smoothies with a dab hand. Funnily enough, I didn’t want lots to drink. Not surprising really as, although I was dehydrating myself with the dancing, that doesn’t even come close to the alcohol dehydration. I had a rose lemonade, cup of tea, some of My Love’s avocado smoothie (sounded dreadful but was light, fruity, gingery and delicious!). I did have a full sugar coke near the end because it turns out my mother was right, I should have eaten more before dancing solidly for 3 hours!

90s made way for techno/trance – sorry if I’m completely wrong on that but hey, you weren’t there so I’ll definitely say it was one of them!! This was around 10pm and the floor was pretty much full. An incredible array of costumes had arrived from a full wedding sari to a beautiful Maleficent. A Donald Trump mask kept popping up next to me as I spun around, scaring the bejesus out of me!

The beats swept through me on the floor and my body seemed to know how I was supposed to move. I pondered that it must be similar to the ‘om’ chant in yoga; the vibrations are on a level your body and mind respond to it naturally and it can be felt by everyone on the floor. It was wonderful to be sober and aware of how much I was being swept up by the music. Also being sober, I could appreciate the skill of the DJs keeping the floor full and moving. This guy had it.

I wondered whether everyone on the floor was so friendly because they all knew each other or just because they had equally succumbed to the music. It didn’t seem to matter either way, maybe these smiles and this shared experience would start new friendships later down the line, at subsequent sober events (or may not if they don’t recognise me without all the face paint!)

As I was getting tired and thinking about heading bus wards, I was jumped by my niece and then more sedately by the nephew and sister. Turn out the 3rd DJ was my nephew DJing teacher who was there to do a set and support his sober friend (small world but growing community). I was so happy to see them and, tiredness forgotten, the boogying started all over again. My nephew looked hugely uncomfortable and said he hadn’t got his sober dancing shoes yet. Whilst this is such a common feeling for so many, he told me that he was impressed that all these people were dancing so freely while completely sober. I felt really happy to have shown him this, because these small moments can impact what we consider normal. For him, dancing always has to include alcohol, but maybe, having seen so many sober people raving, he’ll question that assumption.

For me, I loved every minute of my first Sober Rave and cannot wait for the next one. For me it really is about the dancing and the music (and the dressing up!). If music and dancing are not your thing, the maybe look for a different sober activity that you love.

Thank you to all the team at Café Sobar Nottingham for such a fab event and for all your hard work making the night such fun. Also thanks to DJs Es Vedra, Blimey O’Reilly, Chubz & Nukem and Charlie Four Four.

I was never in control of my drinking until I quit

I knew I wasn’t in control of my drinking from the very start, when I was 14. After 18, when getting hammered at university was de rigueur, I just let go. I was incredibly unhappy and ended up on antidepressants at age 24. I am an introvert with social anxiety, not at all equipped for the society we live in that rewards extroverts. Alcohol helped me hide my personality and my fears. 24 years old was the beginning of my 12 year struggle to stop drinking.

From this point onwards, I ‘controlled’ my alcohol intake to a maximum of 1 bottle of wine or 4 cans of beer most days – unless it was a social or celebratory occasion, in which case, anything goes! But I was never in control. Alcohol completely controlled me. But because I seemingly had a grip on the situation – there was no rock bottom, no loss of job, I could juggle children, work and life without drinking in the mornings – I was dismissed time and time again as not having a problem.

I can look back now, at 15 months sober, in horrified fascination at how long it took me to stop. I think it is likely that I didn’t actually want to stop drinking, I just wanted to stop wanting to drink. But I finally quit drinking forever on 29th April 2018. I am around people who drink, I am around alcohol, I go to pubs, bars and restaurants and I am totally fine!

“We understand that most things are on a spectrum, so why is alcohol either all or nothing?”

So why did it take so long?

I never opened up to anyone other than close family and my doctor, all of whom didn’t think that there was a problem. I considered AA, but I didn’t access the support of the huge sober community because I didn’t want to be labelled ‘an alcoholic’. The negative connotations attached to that word makes it so hard for people to ask for help. We understand that most things are on a spectrum, so why is alcohol either all or nothing?

So what changed?

I decided, after an unnecessarily heavy Christmas which left me feeling dreadful, to try Dry January. I was happy to announce this intention to the world as it was a challenge, not a problem. There’s no stigma attached to a challenge! This was my first taste of support. Everyone around me and on social media was generally very encouraging. I lasted 40 long, craving-filled days and needless to say, I started drinking again very soon into February. But it had changed something in me.

I had never gone so long without alcohol, other than in pregnancy. I started to do yoga and exercise. I had done that before but always in an ‘all or nothing’ kind of way. If I didn’t do it daily or didn’t lose weight quickly enough I’d give up, feeling like a failure. This time was different, I realised that if I didn’t exercise one day it didn’t matter, as long as I did it again another day and didn’t just stop. Yoga and exercise made me feel amazing and I believe this was the start of forming new and healthier habits.

“…when it comes to forming new habits it doesn’t matter if you slip up one day, as long as you stand up again and keep going.”

For me, alcohol was a habit – a means to a very quick reward: relief from stress and anxiety, escapism – whatever the ‘reward’ or reason seemed to be. It was a well-trodden path that my brain was familiar and comfortable with. When I stopped drinking, my brain craved that quick reward. But brains can be trained to follow new pathways, to new rewards. For me, those new rewards were exercise – same happy hormones, but those good feelings lasted for so much longer than that first glass of wine! And like my exercise, when it comes to forming new habits it doesn’t matter if you slip up one day, as long as you stand up again and keep going. This attitude is how I got to my current, craving-free life!

One final note on accepting yourself that is crucial to living your happy alcohol-free life: I have always had feelings of low self-worth and anxiety. I thought that alcohol helped this. In reality it fuelled these feelings every day. I rarely have anxious feelings these days, unless there is a genuine reason! My sense of self-worth is increasing daily; otherwise I could never have opened up to others with my blog. I sometimes wonder, if I had stopped drinking sooner, where I would now be at 37 years old.

But I don’t worry for too long because if I had done anything differently, I wouldn’t have the life I have, and I am so grateful for every tiny part of it.