Is is possible to practice gratitude during divorce?
There is no doubt that going through a divorce is one of the most stressful and difficult times in your life. Suggesting that it is a good time to practice gratitude seems ludicrous – but there are many reasons why keeping a positive frame of mind will help you during the divorce process.
Medical researchers have used an EKG as one tool in determining the effects of gratitude on the heart (see “The Grateful Heart: The Psychophysiology of Appreciation” by Rollin McCraty, Ph.D. and Doc Childre). These studies are indicating that practicing gratitude has a positive effect on the parasympathetic nervous system, which regulates heart rate, rhythm, blood pressure, and other body functions. Thoughts influence body functions. Happy thoughts (like gratitude) increase endorphins (the “feel-good” neurotransmitters), and angry ones cause constriction of blood vessels, which can lead to cardiac disease.
In a study done at the University of California, Davis, subjects either kept a gratitude journal or wrote about problems or neutral subjects weekly. At the end of the study, those in the gratitude group achieved their goals quicker and scored higher in feeling more positive about their lives.
Psychologists Robert A. Emmons and Michael E. McCullough are in the forefront of doing research in the field of gratitude and find that those who practice it report an increase in their amount of exercise and are more optimistic about what is happening that week. (See “Counting blessings versus burdens: Experimental studies of gratitude and subjective well-being in daily life”.)
What happens if you are too hurt or too angry to even consider the concept of gratitude? You just replay all the arguments in your head alongside the what-ifs and what-could-have-beens.
People who dwell on the negative may find themselves getting deeper and deeper in their depression. Psychologists call this style of repetitive negative thoughts “rumination.” When cows ruminate, they chew on their cud, chomping over and over without swallowing. When humans ruminate, they repeat negative thoughts over and over, dwelling on something either in the past or the present — but do nothing to change anything. Ruminating is like spinning your wheels in the mud. You don’t seem to be getting anywhere, so you just keep spinning your wheels, faster and faster. You keep digging a hole, find yourself stuck, and dig deeper and deeper.
Examples of rumination include repeating in your mind negative experiences in the past, replaying conversations that you had, dwelling on the “injuries” and “injustices” that you have suffered, or asking questions that don’t have answers, such as “Why am I so depressed?,” “Why me?,” “What is the meaning of all of this?” or “Why did he or she say that?” You may ruminate about your physical maladies, your aches and pains, your emotions, your sensations or just about anything. The key thing is that you are stuck. Susan Nolen-Hoeksema at Yale University has been studying this problematic style for years. Her research shows that people who ruminate are more likely to get depressed and stay depressed.
To Practice Gratitude, Set Aside Rumination
If you have concluded that rumination is a problem for you — or if your partner thinks you are complaining too much about your negative thoughts — then consider the following:
- Will this rumination really help me? What do you hope to gain? Will you really “get the answer?” Will everything make sense? Has it really worked for you? If not, try the next step.
- Set aside rumination time.
This is quite simple, but you will think it may be impossible. Write out the topic of your current rumination — when it occurs — and set up an appointment with it later in the day. Let’s say your rumination time is 4:30 PM. If you ruminate at 10 AM or 10 PM then write it down and think about it at 4:30. Chances are it won’t bother you very much when you meet up with it — and you will be able to enjoy your life during the rest of the day.
- Is there a real problem to solve now?
If you find myself dwelling on something, ask yourself, “Is there a problem to solve?” If there is, go into problem-solving mode, listing the goal, resources, and writing out a plan, if necessary. Often there is no real problem to solve — it’s a problem that happened in the past. It’s unfortunate, perhaps, but it’s dead and gone.
- Focus on goals that you can accomplish.
A lot of your rumination is focusing on goals you can’t achieve — like changing the past. Let’s say that life is a buffet. If one of the entrees is distasteful, try something else. If you are focusing on a conversation last week — and you are miserable and ruminating — then refocus onto something that is fun today. Changing goals changes the way you think and feel.
- Learn to accept the world in order to live in it. You often ruminate because they reality you chew on is not the one you can swallow. Try accepting that things can be unclear, unfair, unfortunate and unpleasant. That doesn’t mean you like it — doesn’t mean you are saying it’s “OK.” It just means that you say, “I notice it is what it is, but I want to get on with my life.” If you don’t accept what is given, you will drag yourself down further — it’s like treating yourself unfairly (by ruminating) because unfair things have happened. Accepting the past allows you to build the future.
It doesn’t come naturally, even when everything in life is going well. When life is more difficult, the idea of practicing gratitude seems even more foreign. It takes a conscious decision to continue practicing gratitude even when you really don’t feel like it. Training yourself to look for the good in life helps to change the focus from “poor me” to seeing yourself becoming a happier, a more empowered person. This is a great strategy for divorce and beyond.
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