Thanks A LOT, 2020! – Mpls.St.Paul Magazine

Thanks A LOT, 2020! – Mpls.St.Paul Magazine

To say that 2020 has been interesting is an understatement of Minnesota proportions. When the pandemic first started, we talked with motivational speaker and self-care advocate Doug Marshall about practicing mindfulness amid COVID-19. That was March, and little did we know what 2020 had coming for us.

These unsettling times have created some unique stressors that may affect each of us in different ways. But if you find yourself waking up at 2 a.m. in a panic, catch yourself releasing more deep sighs than usual, or notice a worry wrinkle has taken up permanent residence on your forehead—we’re right there with you.

With a socially-distanced Thanksgiving looming, and so many things to give thanks for this year—global pandemic, economic devastation, murder hornets, massive wildfires, poisonous toupee-looking caterpillars recently found in Virginia, and our newest skin concern, maskne—how will we choose?!

To dig ourselves out of this 2020-sized hole of negativity, we went to local pros in the yoga, meditation, and science worlds for the lowdown on practicing gratitude—just in time for our favorite thankful holiday.

So, What is a Gratitude Practice?

“This practice, for me, includes choosing a perspective of prosperity and abundance rather than scarcity,” says Greta Ertl, who teaches Kundalini yoga focusing on breathing, gratitude, and mindfulness, at boutique sweat studio The FIRM in Minneapolis. “I choose to focus on what’s going well and what’s working rather than what isn’t.”

Time and time again, gratitude practice has been shown to have long-lasting positive effects: boosting mood (at the very least), improving relationships and quality of sleep, and even correlating with more exercise and better health.

A 2019 study on gratitude from researchers at the University of Minnesota examined the impact of a 21-day gratitude practice in the online community CaringBridge, a Minnesota-based social platform for patients, caregivers, and others to access support and resources while facing a health challenge.

“Practicing gratitude is an opportunity to reflect on and celebrate the big and small moments in our daily lives,” says Linda Hanson, DC, MS, a researcher in the U of M’s integrative health and wellbeing research program and one of three researchers on the U of M gratitude study. “The practices are simple, free, and accessible to all, and the suggested physical, psychological, and social benefits are intriguing.”

That they are. The U of M study aligned with existing knowledge in the field, finding that practicing gratitude is associated with a reduction in stress, among other health effects. “The current research suggests that gratitude practices may have positive impacts on wellbeing, happiness, life satisfaction, mood, stress, depressive symptoms, and sleep quality,” says Roni Evans, DC, MS, PhD, director of the integrative health and wellbeing research program at the U’s Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing and another researcher on the gratitude study. Though she notes, “our knowledge about the health benefits is really in its infancy and there is still a lot to learn.”

Your Body on Gratitude

Research also suggests that practicing gratitude helps manage health conditions like heart disease and pain. “Often, we think of our health in silos: We view our psychological, physical, and social health as distinct entities. However, the research and our own experiences show that these are very intertwined and to really be well, we have to address all of these domains,” Evans says. “Our brains and our bodies are interacting all the time without us noticing, and this is what has become known as the mind-body connection.”

Evans uses a knee injury to demonstrate the intensity of the mind-body connection. Say, you’ve hurt your knee, she suggests. “You get worried and the increased stress makes you notice your pain more. This pain then prevents you from doing some of the things you want or need to do. This causes you to feel disappointed and concerned about your ability to do things in the long term—you may even get a bit sad or depressed—and this leaves you feeling unmotivated and fatigued,” she says. “Your body has affected your mind, and your mind has affected your body. It can be a vicious cycle if we let it. But by recognizing the mind-body connection, you can actually capitalize on it and use it to your advantage.”

Gratitude works about the same if we consider COVID-19 as a collective knee injury. And while it’s not a vaccine, practicing gratitude is a beneficial treatment for a handful of our ailments. Helping with lowering stress levels and coping—something we’re all in need of at the moment—and even in recovering from trauma and distress.

“One of the things I’ve observed during the pandemic is our tendency to focus nearly all of our attention to the negative things in our lives and forget the many things that are positive,” Evans says.

Through gratitude, yoga, meditation, Tai Chi, Qigong, and other mindfulness practices, we can strengthen the mind-body connection and turn the cycle around toward. “You can use your thoughts and feelings, in this case gratitude, to look at things a bit differently and acknowledge the things you can do,” she adds. “Paying attention to some of the positive aspects of your situation improves your mood and outlook, which then can positively influence your recovery.”

It’s Not All Right (But it’s Not All Wrong)

My office buddy (my mom) and I joked the other day that we should burn our planners on New Year’s Eve in hopes that 2021’s pages will have fewer scribbled-out plans. But not everything about 2020 was terrible.

“The reality is that almost anything has an upside and a downside—there are few things that are truly all good or all bad. We just need a bit of reminding,” Evans says.

It was 75 degrees in November. We had PSLs, even if it was outside and six feet from our friends. We picked up a workout habit that had fallen off the bottom of the list pre-pandemic. Not all bad.

The FIRM’s Greta Ertl (and many other experts) suggests journaling as a way of reminding ourselves of the good, as writing it out helps turn your mind away from negative thoughts toward gratitude and positivity. “Gratitude improves your life and mental health because you begin to see the glass as half full,” she says. “You begin to notice the blessings in your life more than the struggles. You naturally feel more positive and energized when you feel grateful.”

And it’s cyclical: The more you practice gratitude, the more you shift away from negative thoughts and feelings, and the easier it is to feel gratitude.

Ertl says Kundalini yoga, which she calls yoga for the mind, saved her life when she was struggling over a decade ago. “I realized the only way out of the negative feelings I was experiencing was to change my attitude. Through a yoga and meditation practice, I began to embody presence and gratitude for what I have instead of focusing on what was bothering me.”

Like journaling, yoga and meditation are vehicles for gratitude. “At the end of a meditation practice, one’s heart naturally opens to giving thanks,” says Daniel Hertz, MS, BCB, a longtime faculty member at The Meditation Center and author of yoga-meditation memoir, Everything is A Little Bit Alright. Hertz is a strong advocate for pairing gratitude and meditation, even centering a chapter of his book on his own gratitude practice.

“Gratitude and forgiveness are two sides of the same coin,” he says. “Feeling grateful opens the heart to forgiveness. Forgiveness can only be accomplished if we are thankful for what we have, rather than what we think we are owed.”

Can we all agree that forgiving 2020 for its existence is going to be a long process? But instead of thinking about all the concerts and sports games and vacations 2020 owes us, let’s think about all the things we still can do. Patios, outdoor running, bonfires, Netflix bingeing, sourdough baking, TikTok dances.

“You can’t be angry and grateful at the same time. Even if you are angry, you can be grateful for the challenge that’s being presented,” Ertl says. “This automatically allows you to reframe the situation into something positive rather than negative.”

We Minnesotans are born to complain: the weather, our bad luck with sports teams, more weather, terrible drivers, snow in October, and, oh, did we mention the weather? No one can blame us. But what would happen if we shifted from annoyance and aggravation to gratitude? Not for the snow in October—heavens, no!—but for the little and big things that make our days in the Bold North what they are. Maybe even for appropriately timed snow in November. 

“Working with gratitude,” Evans says, “is one simple thing we can do to shift our perspective and bring more attention to the good that is around us. This gives us a little bit more control over our situation, and this can make us feel less stressed and anxious and better overall.”

Putting it into Practice

I found myself struggling at a barre class in mid-October with exercises and movements I would normally execute naturally and wimping out in reps I would normally power through with a smile. And while I understand the mind-body connection from years of yoga, I’d never experienced a moment when it was so clear that my muddled mind was inhibiting my physical movement.

To get into the pilgrim-n-turkey spirit, I gave this whole gratitude thing a try. And, friends—it works!

Sure, it was hard to set aside 10 minutes some days, and at the end of two weeks I didn’t have a perfect track record. But if we’ve learned anything from our experts it’s that perfection is not the point. Each day was a new chance to be grateful.

While it was natural to be grateful for the big things (the right to vote, my health, my fiancé), it’s just as uplifting to be grateful for little things (a cup of coffee in my favorite mug, warm days in November, a new tube of mascara). And in just a few days gratitude came more naturally, my bullet points flowed easier and multiplied day by day. Some days were still hard, but it did get easier.

In preparation for Thanksgiving, the experts suggest some tips for jumping into your own gratitude practice.

  • Start with gratitude. “I love the idea of doing something grounding and centering in the morning because it sets the tone for the rest of the day,” Ertl says. She suggests journaling, meditating, or praying first thing in the morning—just five minutes makes a difference. Get a boost by bookending your day, she notes: “I also love to pray at the end of the day and thank God or the universe for everything I have.”
  • Rework your routine. Doing your gratitude practice at the same time every day helps maintain the habit. “Perhaps you could attach it to your morning coffee or tea. As you’re sipping, you could write your gratitude list or do some sort of 3-minute meditation while the coffee is brewing,” Ertl says.
  • Write it down. This is my own tip, but I found in my two-week practice that while just thinking about gratitude is powerful, putting pen to paper packs far more punch.
  • Smile. Nat King Cole, Uncle Kracker, and Katy Perry had it right. “Remind yourself to smile as often as you can,” Hertz says. “Whether you feel like it or not, the act of moving your mouth into a smile position can change your mood.”
  • Words of affirmation. Raise your hand if this is your top love language. Normally, we think of words of affirmation as coming from others, but Ertl says we should leave words of affirmation on Post-It notes for ourselves. “Even something simple like, ‘I am grateful for my amazing life!’” she says. “I always suggest writing affirmations in the present tense, for example ‘I am’ versus ‘I will.’ This trains your subconscious mind to believe you already have those feeling instead of thinking they’re somewhere out in the future.”
  • Stick with it. “The challenge is to have a relentless determination to sustain the practice,” Hertz says. “Every time you have a negative thought, the key is to notice it and transform it to what we have versus what we don’t have.” The shift toward positive thinking takes time, but the mindfulness pros say that as we forge on, consistent practice becomes more natural and gratitude is easier to find. “My best advice is to create a practice you enjoy, so you’ll be motivated to keep going rather than it feeling like a chore,” Ertl says. “If this is new to you, it can take a little time to establish this new practice. … Keep returning to gratitude every time you spiral into a negative space.” There’s no gratitude mastery, just continual practice. She says: “Just do your best to always do a little better than the day before. It gets easier, I promise!”

So, even though our Thanksgiving tables and the world outside our garland-laced doors look vastly different this year, as we raise a glass with our quarantine pals and share the year’s highlights, we ask: Why limit giving thanks to the fourth Thursday in November?

“It’s not easy, but instead of thinking of all the things I won’t be able to do, I remind myself of all the amazing things I can do now, that I couldn’t do before,” Hertz says. “Staying home more allows me more time for all these things.”

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