As the busy holiday season gets closer, it can bring us joy but also stress. How can we maximize the joy while reducing the stress? According to Michelle Roley-Roberts, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist at CHI Health Psychiatric Associates at Immanuel, the simple act of practicing gratitude on a routine basis can have powerful mental health effects and increase feelings of happiness.
“Your thoughts are connected to your feelings and behaviors, ” Dr. Roley-Roberts explained. “When you direct your thoughts to something positive, that then will direct your mood to something positive. Conversely, negative thoughts can cause negative emotions.”
Dr. Roley-Roberts said gratitude is one of those positive thoughts that can release dopamine, sometimes referred to as our body’s “happiness chemical”. The Thanksgiving season helps us focus on gratitude, however, she says we can incorporate this practice into our everyday lives.
One tool she strongly recommends, for example, is keeping a 21-day gratitude journal to record three things you are grateful for every day.
“There is a science behind that number – it takes 21 days to form a habit,” Dr. Roley-Roberts explained. “The idea is that you ideally incorporate this into routines you already have set up. Maybe you can complete the task first thing in the morning, leading to a sense of accomplishment that can propel the rest of your day.”
Dr. Roley-Roberts also offered some great tips on how to overcome what some of the challenges are for people during the holidays.
"Thanksgiving and other celebrations can be very difficult for some people,” she explained. “Holidays are a huge trigger for people who are grieving, for example. If that is the case, allow yourself the space that you need to feel whatever emotions are coming up for you. After you have done so, be grateful for the time you spent putting yourself first.”
Another helpful practice is to have a “mantra” that you repeat during times of stress or anxiety, a method that challenges your automatic thoughts.
“For instance, if I’m worried about the food turning out perfectly or on time, a mantra can be: ‘What really matters is that we are making memories with our family,’ or ‘I’ve made it through in years past, and it doesn’t need to be perfect, it will be ok.” Dr. Roley-Roberts also said that some of the best and funniest memories can actually come from something having gone wrong.
“We can find something to be thankful for even in the worst situations,” she added.