Gratitude during difficult times

Gratitude During Difficult Times

Gratitude doesn’t always come easy

When times are tough—and you’re feeling discouraged, alone, anxious, or angry—it’s hard to be grateful. We know we’re supposed to feel grateful. It’s Thanksgiving time after all. But you may be having a hard time tapping into gratitude right now.  

Perhaps you’re out of work or you dread seeing your high-conflict family. Or maybe you’re grieving or struggling with physical or mental health problems. You may be worried about climate change, inflation, and the general unpredictability of our world.

Unfortunately, our problems don’t just disappear because it’s the holiday season.

When you’re struggling and life isn’t going the way you’d hoped, you have to work at feeling grateful. Gratitude may not come easily, but it’s worth the effort. 

We need gratitude during difficult times

Gratitude helps us focus on what’s good, on what’s working rather than what’s not. Gratitude shifts the focus from problems to positives. When we focus on the good things in our lives, we train our brains to look for the positives.

So, by practicing gratitude we will notice more of the good things in the world. Our problems don’t disappear, but they can feel more manageable.

There are a lot of good reasons to make a daily gratitude practice part of your life. According to Happify, people who practice gratitude regularly “experience more positive emotions, feel more alive, sleep better, express more compassion and kindness, and even have stronger immune systems.”

Practicing gratitude is simple, quick, effective, and free. There aren’t many things that can claim that!

Gratitude isn’t “toxic positivity”

Practicing gratitude doesn’t mean ignoring your problems or difficulties. Recognizing your struggles can help you appreciate the positive in your life and world if you look for little things to be grateful for.

We don’t need to feel positive all the time to be grateful.

Find something good amidst the struggles

Don’t wait for your life to be perfect to start being grateful.

Try to hold both the positives and negatives in your life at the same time—and remember that they can coexist. For example, you can be struggling financially and also be grateful for your family (or a hot shower or a thoughtful text from a friend).  

Reflecting on difficult times in your past, how you overcome those difficulties, and how much progress you’ve made, is another way to practice gratitude.

Read more about changing all-or-nothing thinking in this article.

How to be grateful when you're struggling

Start small

Don’t look for something momentous to be grateful for. This can be too big an undertaking when you’re not feeling 100%.

Instead, look for little things to be grateful for—simple pleasures, everyday conveniences, and things we generally take for granted.

If you have trouble getting started, answer the question: “I am grateful for ____________” using some of these gratitude prompts:

  • Something that makes your life easier
  • Favorite food
  • Person (real, fictional, historical, celebrity, anyone you’re grateful for)
  • Something in nature
  • Book
  • Movie, TV show, or podcast
  • Technological innovation
  • Mode of transportation
  • Comfort item
  • Service provider (mail carrier, hairdresser, waiter, bus driver, teacher, etc.)
  • Gift you’ve been given
  • Happy memory
  • Something that keeps you safe

Additional gratitude journal prompts and ideas are available in this article.

Help someone else who’s struggling

Helping others can improve your mood and help you tap into gratitude.

What are some ways that you can help others? Perhaps you can visit a home-bound elderly person, babysit for a busy mom, bake pies for a homeless shelter, rake leaves for your neighbor, donate to a charitable organization, or knit hats for babies in the NICU.

Thinking about how you can help others puts your attention on what you CAN do or what you DO have. For example, if you decide to pick up litter from your neighborhood park, try to be grateful that you have the physical ability to walk and bend and that you have the time and energy to do this community service. Not everyone can or would do this chore!

Helping others is also an opportunity to shift our attention away from ourselves and our problems. Volunteering can be a needed distraction and a chance to think about someone or something else.

What are you grateful for?

Let us know what you’re grateful for in the comments section below. Writing down the things you’re grateful for will help build the neural pathways in your brain that make it easier to feel grateful.

And sharing the things you’re grateful for can inspire others and help them build a gratitude practice during difficult times.

©2021 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved. Photos courtesy of Canva.com.

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Additional Resources

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Sharon Martin is a psychotherapist, writer, speaker, and media contributor on emotional health and relationships. She specializes in helping people uncover their inherent worth and learn to accept themselves -- imperfections and all! Sharon writes a popular blog called Conquering Codependency for Psychology Today and is the author of The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism: Evidence-Based Skills to Help You Let Go of Self-Criticism, Build Self-Esteem, and Find Balance and several ebooks including Navigating the Codependency Maze.

5 thoughts on “Gratitude During Difficult Times”

  1. Hi Sharon. Your site and articles are SO good and so helpful. I wanted to say that first. I’m grateful for you and your constant support of those of us who need it!

    Now to my other things on my gratitude list:
    Today I am grateful for:

    A safe home
    Money in the bank
    Plenty of food and water
    Clothing
    Indoor plumbing
    My car
    My beautiful pets
    The loving spirits of my Mom and Dad who visit me in my dreams
    Being best friends with my ex husband
    Learning one day at a time how to take better care of myself
    The beauty of Autumn
    My internet friends on The Mighty—a loving, safe, positive site where I now have the real friends I’ve wanted for years
    Having them and a Higher Power to turn to right now as I go through undiagnosed health problems without the support of “family”

  2. Each morning when I awake, I’m grateful for getting the chance to live yet another day. I’m grateful for living in a safe and peaceful country. I’m grateful for being able to enjoy Nature (i.e. trees, flowers, small animals, mountains). I’m grateful for being able to explore the many trails right in my own neighbourhood. I’m grateful for warm smiles coming from strangers while on my walks. I’m grateful for hearing children’s laughter, lovely birdsongs and awesome music. And every night before I go to bed, I’m grateful for my health so I can live to enjoy another day 🙂

  3. i am grateful for my early morning walks, ever since Covid hit; I am so thankful i can chat with schoolkids who are now waiting for the bus again, making new friends (immigrants). Meeting new people and learning lots about other countries.

  4. I’m grateful for the way tough times can teach us curiosity, acceptance of all our feelings, patience, faith, (or healthy doubt,) humility, and the courage to care for ourselves, our sibling creatures and the planet.

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