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The Power of Gratitude in a Life of Recovery

Giving thanks shouldn't be reserved for one day a year. When practiced on an ongoing basis, gratitude can change our lives in ways we might never have imagined -- taking us from the darkest depths into a world in which anything is possible.
11/25/2015 11:32am ET | Updated December 6, 2017
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Giving thanks shouldn't be reserved for one day a year. When practiced on an ongoing basis, gratitude can change our lives in ways we might never have imagined -- taking us from the darkest depths into a world in which anything is possible.

Having been in recovery for more than a decade, I can look back now and see that it was only when I found a treatment program that helped me see myself and my life on all levels -- mental, emotional and spiritual -- that I truly began to heal. Gratitude was a powerful tool in addressing the underlying causes of my addiction: my fear of not being "enough," my sense of isolation, my disconnection from myself and from those around me. Creating a treatment program for teens founded on the principles of compassion and unconditional love is, in many ways, an expression of my gratitude for getting my life back. Gratitude has immense power in catalyzing and maintaining a life of recovery.

I hear this sentiment echoed among my many friends and colleagues who have experienced this personal evolution firsthand. Newport Academy Executive Director Tim Walsh, who has been in recovery since age 22, says the practice of gratitude is an essential aspect of his life.

"Without gratitude, my frustration and underlying anxiety, depression and anger can easily bubble up to the surface," Walsh says. "When you treat gratitude as a process, it neutralizes those emotions." For him, that process involves both the outward expression of kind words and kind gestures and the inner practices of prayer, meditation and time spent in nature.

"Being outside always sparks gratitude," Walsh says. "When the sun peeks over the trees in the morning, it reminds me how abundant everything can be if I have the right perspective."

Gratitude doesn't usually come naturally to teens, but the Newport Academy treatment model offers them multiple ways to access it -- through journaling, daily gratitude lists and affirmations, stewardship of nature and practicing yoga and meditation on almost a daily basis, including metta (loving-kindness) meditation. Practices that facilitate gratitude and connection challenge maladaptive behaviors and give adolescents a new set of tools for regulating their emotions.

"There's a lot of isolation in substance abuse and mental illness," Walsh says. "Teens become more and more introverted and closed off to themselves and others. There's a hopelessness, fear and anxiety born from disconnection. Giving them the opportunity to be of service to themselves, each other and the greater community, breeds gratitude and connection naturally."

The power of gratitude isn't just anecdotal; it's been scientifically validated. Research on gratitude by Robert Emmons, PhD, and his team showed that doing gratitude practices regularly results in enhanced optimism and well-being, as well as better progress toward goals. In one of Emmons' studies, young adults who practiced a daily gratitude exercise reported higher levels of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, attentiveness and energy.

For Aruni Nan Futuronsky, a life coach and faculty member for the Yoga, Meditation, and Recovery Conference at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health, gratitude takes the form of giving back.

"Because I have been given the gift of life, because I was dying and today I have an amazing life, my commitment is to give back, with gratitude, that which I've been freely given," she says. She sees gratitude as a three-step practice that encompasses giving thanks, daily rituals that nurture gratitude and paying it forward -- "offering that which was offered to me, the blessings of fellowship and connection."

At Newport Academy, perhaps the purest expression of gratitude we see comes from our alumni, who have made a fundamental life shift and want to give back.

"We have so many alumni who are begging to come back to speak to the kids who are in-house," Walsh says. "They see that this struggle has become one of their greatest gifts, and they want to share that."

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Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.