Ask the Doc: Why should I be thankful?

Nov. 26, 2013 @ 11:25 PM

Doc, I don’t enjoy Thanksgiving. Why should I? Since I lost my child I have not known one day of happiness or joy. My marriage failed and life to me is just getting up, getting to work, and getting through the day.

Thanksgiving can be a very difficult time for many people who have had great losses in their lives. Financial loss, marital and relationship failures, and the stress “to be happy” seems to be compounded by holidays. Parents who have lost their child to death, or those who have an unfulfilled desire for children, seem to struggle the most during the holidays.

If there is one thing I have learned in medicine, it is the that the power of the mind is enormous. Sometimes for good. Sometimes for bad.

Research has shed some light on the power of the mind. The research on gratitude is consistently interesting to read.

In the book “Thanks!: How the New Science of Gratitude Can make You Happier” by Robert Emmons (Houghton Mifflin, 2007) several studies are noted for having a positive impact on the health and mental outlook of the volunteers.

One study used three groups. Each group was asked to write once weekly in a journal. The first group was to write about five daily hassles. The second group was asked to write about five things that affected them (positive or negative). The third group was asked to write about five things they were grateful for.

At the end of the study, the group who wrote about the grateful things were more optimistic about the future, reported fewer health problems, and felt better overall.

Physical effects of daily gratitude journaling also revealed individuals enjoying more sleep, spending less time getting to sleep, and feeling more refreshed in the morning.

One very interesting point made in the research was that people can change the way they think. Many believe they are simply destined to think what they think by their genetic makeup and circumstances. Not so. Our set points of thinking can be changed.

I have seen patients faced with incredibly physical challenges such as pancreatic cancer and devastating neurological diseases grasp and hold to an attitude of thankfulness for their family and especially for each and every day they have.

They lived out their lives on a timeframe given by their body but they existed in the timeless realm of infinite happiness and love that refused to be caged. The impact of such fearless gratitude and happiness lasts with everyone who comes in contact with them.

How does a person change? It takes a daily effort.

First, reduce the distractions. We are bombarded every day, in every place, from almost every device with the news of the world. Good news rarely takes the lead. A person can literally watch a news story in bed before sleep about the horrors on the other side of the world. It is good to be informed, but not enveloped by the news.

Second, we should write (journal) daily about the things we are grateful for in the final hour prior to sleeping. Simply get a notepad and pen next to the bed for two weeks and try it. It might be surprising how much of an impact it makes.

Third, we should be accountable to someone for our effort to change. For some it may be a relationship partner. Others may need a professional counselor to work through the difficult losses of life.

The old hymn “Count Your Many Blessings” holds such great truth. Truth that was written about nearly a century before medical science started catching up to it.

We all face, or will face, deep personal challenges in this life. It seems as if some face deeper challenges than others, and a few face losses or guilt that reverberates through every waking moment the rest of their lives. No one is exempt.

My faith holds to the belief that no matter what may come, or what losses may occur, that I am not spiritually alone. It is the peace of the soul I cannot create in my mind, but hold steadfast to. It is my duty to form the habit of reminding myself of that.

And for that, and so much infinitely more, I am thankful.

Eric J. Littleton, M.D. is a Family Physician in Sevierville. He will be relocating to his new office at 958 Dolly Parton Parkway in January 2014. Topics covered are general in nature and should not be used to change medical treatments and/or plans without first discussing with your physician. Send questions to askdrlittleton@gmail.com.