By Carol S. Pearson
Feeling gratitude has been shown to decrease stress, help us feel happier, promote emotional and mental health, and foster spiritual growth. But the Thanksgiving holiday can be stressful for all sorts of good reasons that undercut the very purpose of a day dedicated to giving thanks.
Many of us might be stressed because we will be spending time with folks who are at odds with one another or with us, or we with them. Others are required to work when they would like to be with people they love, or will be celebrating alone and feeling lonely or even a bit abandoned. Even worse, things have gone so badly for some of us, it is difficult to think of anything to be thankful for. The possible issues of this season are legion. For me, I always miss my mom, who passed on some years ago, as I prepare the dishes we used to make together.
Or the sources of stress can be purely incremental expectations for how special Thanksgiving should be and about diet and health: You might be planning a traditional feast of turkey and all the usual trimmings, feeling nervous about getting everything done right, and then you find out that one guest is vegetarian, another is on a low carb diet, still another is off dairy and gluten, yet another keeps kosher, and so on—at which point you wonder, “What should I do? Or, you simply could be struggling with how to stay true to your own dietary preferences on what is, by custom if not policy, turkey day.
So, here is a meditative exercise that helps me. I hope it can help you. Each part can take just a minute or so, until the last two parts, which sometimes require more extended rumination as I go about my day.
- First, start by sitting comfortably, breathing slowly and deeply in through your nose down into your belly, and out even more slowly through your mouth.
- Second, consciously ground yourself, so that you feel connected to the earth beneath you and nature around you. Take a few moments to be thankful for what nature provides you, perhaps starting with your body, the breath going in and out of your lungs, food, shelter, the beauty of the natural world, and the wonder of your senses, which allow you to see, hear, touch, smell, and taste.
- Third, take your mind to your feet and go through your body, relaxing each part, thanking it for what it does for you.
- Fourth, center your attention in your heart and begin thinking about the people, places, things, and activities that you have loved and those that you love now, allowing yourself to feel pleasure as you appreciate them.
- Fifth, turn your attention to the stories you are telling yourself in your fantasies or worries about this Thanksgiving and what it will be like, and observe how these stories make you feel. Spend a moment enjoying the good feeling some may give you. Then notice any story you are telling yourself that results in your feeling stressed, mad, sad, or anxious.
- Sixth, send love and empathy to yourself, sympathizing with yourself for what you are concerned will occur, or how hurt you feel by this or that person, how nervous you are about the impression you will make, how sad or full of remorse you feel related to a past Thanksgiving, and so on. Based on the nature of your story:
- Forgive yourself or others, or just put your judgment about them or yourself aside, so that your judgment or fears do not keep you from enjoying your Thanksgiving Day. You can return to them later.
- If you are fearful of something that might happen on Thanksgiving, create a plan for what you will say or do to protect yourself from it.
- And in the realm of the practical, ask for any help that you need from others.
- Finally, use your creativity to explore six different turns of the plot of the unhappy story you are telling yourself that could leave you feeling much better or even grateful. Take in any lessons you are learning from this narrative shift. Then imagine how you will have a more delightful and appreciative Thanksgiving by continuing to shift your own inner narrative, so that you stay open to a day full of appreciation and joy.
So, what are your strategies for experiencing genuine happiness and gratitude on Thanksgiving when faced with a stressful situation? It would be great for me and others to know them.