The Caregiver Cup Podcast

Harnessing the Transformative Power of Gratitude for Stress Management and Sustainable Happiness

November 14, 2023 Cathy VandenHeuvel Episode 187
The Caregiver Cup Podcast
Harnessing the Transformative Power of Gratitude for Stress Management and Sustainable Happiness
The Caregiver Cup Podcast
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Imagine waking up each day with a heart filled with gratitude, even amid life's toughest moments. That's the powerful journey I embarked on back in October 2017, and it has not only helped me manage stress but also find joy in the role of caregiving. Throughout this episode, I share the transformative power of gratitude, from being grateful for small blessings to the therapeutic practice of maintaining a gratitude journal. 

Have you ever thought of thanking someone new each week? It’s a simple but powerful act of appreciation that can dramatically enrich our wellbeing. In this episode, we dive into creative practices of gratitude that can lead to sustainable happiness. I share my tested methods like morning journaling and reflecting on daily accomplishments. Drawing upon compelling evidence from Harvard and Yale, you'll learn how gratitude can rewire your brain to foster more empathy and happiness in just eight weeks.

The conversation doesn’t stop there. We explore the protective effects of gratitude against stress and its profound impact on mental health. You'll discover how focusing on positive thoughts can help you navigate the highs and lows of life, especially in challenging roles like caregiving. So, whether you're a seasoned gratitude practitioner or a curious beginner, this episode has something for everyone. Let's journey together on this transformative path towards happiness, positivity, and well-being.

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Speaker 1:

Well, welcome to another episode of the caregiver cup podcast. It's Kathy here. I'm starting out this podcast, letting you know that it is storming out here today and I found a lull in the radar, but there's still thunder and lightning going on, and I have my two co workers that are attached to my hip because they're afraid of the storm, and that would be Eddie and Lucy, and the puppy is in here playing with a cardboard box and Lucy is right behind my chair. So if you hear background noises, that's what it is, but you know what that's real life in the podcast world, especially for me. And so let's get started with today's podcast episode, and I'm going to talk all about gratitude today and focusing on positivity.

Speaker 1:

I know probably 50% of caregivers roll their eyes when they hear gratitude practice, and but I want to tell you that this is the number one thing that has kept my mindset, my stress and my well being probably intact or less, because of the gratitude practicing. And I started this on October of 2017, when I was in the most challenging time of my life, and that's when my husband was starting his chemotherapy treatments for his stage four non Hodgkin's lymphoma and my dad was getting treatment for his stage four pancreatic cancer and I no longer could maintain the original self care routine that I did, which meant going to the gym, doing my running, eating well, all those good things. I found that I was kind of like a teeter totter, going back and forth Some days were good, some days were bad and I was beating myself up until I heard this podcast from Rachel Hollis talking about her start today journal and her passion for gratitude and practicing gratitude and all of the reasons that it was helping her all along her career and her daily routines, and I knew I needed something that I felt good about, that I could maintain a habit that wasn't going to take a lot of time and that it was going to help my mental health and my overall stress and keep me as positive as I possibly can or focusing on optimism as I possibly can. No, I wasn't going to be Pollyanna the positive person all the time, but I had to see the light all the time in the hard times and in the days that were really challenging. It's a practice, like I said, I swear by, and when I skip a day in my journal, I feel my mindset slips and I shift over and I can easily fall back into really bad mindset practices, because your brain automatically wants to protect you in challenging times or in those boring times by putting those negative thoughts into your brain, and so, in today's episode, I want to share my practice with you that's kept me grounded in joy, embracing smaller moments of happiness and joy each day, and it helps me deal with the tough times and it keeps my mindset in check. That's what I call it.

Speaker 1:

I have probably since 2017, about 20 journals now, and I'm so proud of the journals because they are really what I felt each and every day, and no matter how tough the journals were, I journaled five things that I'm grateful for and my appreciation, and it might be for people or their words or the places that I was in. It might be just the nature. It could be little gifts, whether they be monetized gifts or non money gifts, and so it was anything and everything. It could be something as simple as a smile, or somebody left me in traffic, or whatever, and so now, if you're one of the people that are like I don't know, it's just another thing added to my plate, I want you to really seriously think about it and just experiment with this practice. Give yourself two weeks and see what happens to you in two weeks. If you're one that journals all the time, are ready. I'm hoping some of these tips or some of these added things can go ahead and make it a more enriching experience for you, but I truly think this shift will make a huge difference in your thoughts, in your actions and your overall health, and so I want to start out with talking about an article that I read from the National Council for Aging, and it just lightning out, so we're probably going to hear a big thunder, and this National Council for Aging wrote an article labeled or titled Gratitude for Caregivers.

Speaker 1:

Gratitude grounds us in life, it says, and helps us be mindful of our place in the world. When things aren't going well, adopting gratitude helps us tackle our negative thoughts and challenges, to find ways to be grateful for them, and so yeah, and so for me, it had to be something simple that I could stick with. It couldn't be something that was too time consuming, so I grabbed my morning beverage whether that be my green shake smoothie or my coffee, depending on what time of the day I'm grabbing it and a journal and a pen, and I love finding a journal that is fun to look at. Now some people just use a three, one of those spiral notebooks. That's perfectly fine. Maybe put some stickers on it, so it's your own, but whatever gets you motivated. And all I do is write five things I'm grateful for. I do it in the morning because I've tested it in the evening and sometimes I'm too tired and it I don't take a lot of thought, but in the morning it grounds me, like I said, and it sets my mood and mindset for the rest of the day. I also then spend the day looking for more gratitude for tomorrow morning's journal, and so it just gets me looking at the positive side.

Speaker 1:

As caregivers, we always can't control the outcomes or people's moods or challenges or whatever the day holds, like the downpouring rain today. But we can look for gratitude and it keeps us optimistic and I look at well, this is better than snow in Wisconsin, because if this was snow in Wisconsin, people would have to go ahead and probably be careful driving, or I'm glad it's not ice or whatever it would be. So rain is better and you know what? The thunder and lightning is kind of exciting for me. But getting back to this piece, as caregivers, like we said, we can't control it, but this practice keeps us optimistic. It keeps us thinking of the abundance mindset that we need to have in, especially in tough times Now, another study that I looked at was from Harvard, and in this article it said in positive psychology research, gratitude is strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness.

Speaker 1:

Gratitude helps people feel more positive emotions, relishes good experiences, improves their health, deals with adversity and can help us build stronger relationships. People feel and express gratitude in multiple ways. They can apply it from their past, like their reliving or retrieving positive memories and being thankful for elements of childhood or past blessings, which I've used now that I've lost both of my parents. They can apply it to the present, by not taking good fortune for granted as it comes, or the future, maintaining a hopeful and optimistic attitude. Regardless of the inherent or current level of someone's gratitude, it's a quality that individuals can successfully cultivate further, and I love this, because gratitude is not something that we all have as a personality trait For me, no, but I can cultivate it, and now that I've cultivated, I bounce back to it really fast, especially in hard times, and I think about it. Gratitude isn't an attitude, it's a choice. It's a choice we make as a caregiver. We can look for the little things each day to lift us up, to light us up, because if we continue to for example, we continue to watch the news and all the negativity in the news it can bring you down, but when you switch to something positive or listen to something positive, it's going to help. As a matter of fact, like I said in the last episode, I listened to Hoda and Jenna all the time. Well now Hoda just announced her new series of Making Spaces and she's got a new podcast series coming up or a new season in her podcast called Making Spaces.

Speaker 1:

These are the most uplifting interviews and they give you such good and strong perspectives. I cannot wait to listen to them. I cannot wait to listen to them. Um, gratitude, like I said, is a choice and it then you feel like the little things are blessings. When you go ahead and and look outside and you see a bird that flies on your windowsill, you can think of it now as a blessing versus oh my gosh, how did that bird get here? Well, you can look at it like that bird visited me and it it's just a sign.

Speaker 1:

It shifts your perspective on the everyday deldrums, the everyday things that we have to be doing in caregiving, especially when you are in a hard season and you can't just turn it off and we never can and be okay with it. It's important that you won't be able to do. It's important that you focus in on the hard season, but you also focus in on what are the gifts in the hard season, because you won't be able to go ahead and continue to do your self-care like like you do did in the past. You're going to have to adapt and change and do things that are different. Maybe you're at a doctor's appointment and your loved one is is in getting his lab work. Or for Dennis, now he's going to go back to chemotherapy. Well, I know, based on where, where the, where the chemotherapy is, they have a beautiful walking path, and I discovered that the last time. Or I walked the hallways of the hospital and there's a beautiful piano in the lobby that I can sit down and listen to and get out of the, the clinical settings, because he's got nurses and people that are watching him, and so I'm going to look for the little things that can help me in my self-care and be grateful for the little things.

Speaker 1:

But the one thing you should do and I feel, from a gratitude perspective, that has helped me is to document it, because there's something about writing it down and making it reinforced in your brain. There's probably science behind it. What comes to my mind is when you're in trouble in school and the teacher just gives you a timeout. You think about it for a few minutes, but then you can let your mind wander or get distracted by things that are going on. But the hardest disciplines that I've ever had is when the teacher makes you write it a hundred times. I will not do whatever in school. I will not chew gum in class, and or I you know whatever it was and I chew gum in class and had to write it a hundred times. Well, that I will not chew gum stuck with me. And you know what. I will never chew gum in class again. You know whatever it would be. Because that brain having to rewrite that so many times and saying it out loud while you're rewriting it to yourself or in your brain really reinforces it.

Speaker 1:

Another example that comes to mind when it comes to gratitude practicing is the last few months of my mom's life were really hard. She died last October 1st and the last few months. She was not really I shouldn't say nice to me, but her mood was. She was, I think, being going, knowing that she was going through death. She was getting what is the word? She was distancing herself from me and it really hurt me that I didn't get to do have a lot of those deep conversations and hugs and holding hands and giggling we did some, but it wasn't like we did in the past and then to see her in pain and then seeing her lose her bodily functions and just some of the things that I experienced. Just one minute, eddie, okay, he was digging in his box and I wanted to make sure I got my point across there and I could dwell on that and think about those things. But I choose to think about all of the memories of the past and all of the things that I can focus in on, that are happy and I'm grateful for and I want to fill my mind with gratitude and appreciation for all the time I have with my mom. And so gratitude is a choice and you have to physically make that choice and mentally make that choice.

Speaker 1:

Now, why gratitude? Before I get into specific practices that you also can do besides journaling, I went and looked at a study and an article from Purdue University and they go through seven surprising health benefits of gratitude and I thought these were really good to hear. Gratitude can make you be more patient. Oh my gosh, how many times do we need to be more patient as caregivers? They did a research from the Northeastern University and they found that people who felt grateful for little everyday things were more patient and better able to make sensible decisions compared to those that didn't feel very gracious on day-to-day basis. Now, 105 undergraduate students were asked to choose between receiving a small amount of money immediately or a large sum of some point in the future. For example, the students who had shown more gratitude earlier in experiments whoops, I just scrolled the wrong way were able to hold out for more cash. So it just proves that.

Speaker 1:

Number two, gratitude might improve your relationship and according to a study in the Journal of Theoretical Social Psychology oh my gosh, nothing but flubbing that journal of social psychology, I'll say feeling gratitude or grateful towards your partner or vice versa, can improve numerous aspects of your relationships, including feelings of connectedness and overall satisfaction as a couple. Having a partner that's grateful for you or you being grateful for the other can both help your love life, and Emma Sapella, a happiness researcher at Stanford and Yale University and author of the Happiness Track, also reinforced that. But overall gratitude might improve your relationship, especially your loved ones, when it's being tested all the time. And so being grateful for just the little things, like Dennis yesterday he went ahead and put up. This is crazy, but he did it. I'm so grateful. He put up the Christmas lights around our fence in the backyard yesterday. I think it was something he needed to keep his mind off his PET scan that he's had yesterday and he's waiting for it. But it really made me feel happy because when we look out our backyard now, the lights go on at night. It just is something so sweet and instead of looking at his down and in his mood, I'm looking at he just did something little which is just a major happiness piece for me.

Speaker 1:

Number three gratitude improves your self-care because in a study published in the Journal of Personality and Individual Differences, researchers asked people to rate their level of gratitude, physical health and psychological health, as well as how likely they were to do well-being, boosting behaviors like exercise and eating healthy and going to the doctor. They found positive correlations between gratitude and each of these behaviors, which suggested that giving thanks helps people appreciate and care for their bodies. I want to add to that because gratitude is a self-care practice and it improves your mood and boost your energy when you start working on your mindset. Gratitude can help your sleep as well. I'm going to talk about this one because, as a practice, because you can practice gratitude as you lay in bed at night the same person that Cepella that wrote the book wrote the book I'm referring back to it once here wrote the Happiness Track book. Also had a say in the.

Speaker 1:

Gratitude can help your sleep. She says count blessings, not count sheep. I love it. She has found that feeling gratitude helps people sleep better and longer. That's likely because you have a more positive thought before you go to bed and you go to sleep. She had a study done which made these people it helps soothe their nervous system. If you're going to sleep and you're going to make a daily practice, she recommends either thinking about gratitude or writing it down before you go to bed. I found this one if I can't sleep, I'll get up and I'll journal and I'll write more things that I'm grateful for. I'll give you another tip in just a little bit here too.

Speaker 1:

Another one here gratitude may stop you from overeating because and I never knew this but gratitude replenishes your willpower, says Susan Pierce Thompson, a cognitive scientist who specializes in the psychology of eating. The concept is similar to the Northeastern research that found a connection between gratitude and patience. Thompson says cultivating feelings of gratitude can boost your impulse control, helping you slow down and make better decisions. If you find yourself taking a slice, or an extra slice of pumpkin pie, for example, thompson recommends excusing yourself from the table to jot down a quick list of things you're grateful for, which can help you clear your mind and reset. Another one is gratitude helps ease depression, and Thompson again, the cognitive scientist, says experiments have shown that people whole partake in three good things. The three good things exercise which, as the name suggests, prompts people to think of three good moments or things that happened that day.

Speaker 1:

See considerable. They see considerable improvements in depression and overall happiness. Your brain is such an impressive things. And she says sometimes it takes a little, it takes as little as a couple weeks, but if there were a drug that did that, whoever patented the drug would be rich. Gratitude is very powerful, she says. And then the last one or the seventh one is gratitude gives you happiness that last. Lots of things, from a compliment to a sugary treat, can bring little bursts of happiness, but instant gratification also goes away quickly, which leaves you craving more. Gratitude is something that leads to much more sustainable forms of happiness, because it's not based in that immediate gratification, it's a frame of mind. So, pella says.

Speaker 1:

If you regularly take time to express gratitude and thankfulness, you'll likely see the results. And I did, and that's why I have continued this six plus years of journaling gratitude. So what I want to talk about here next is the practices that I have tested, and I do, and I want you to go ahead and think about these. My little disclaimer is start small, but commit to it two weeks, three weeks, even four weeks, and then assess it, because for me, for example, journaling gratitude consistently at night, at bedtime, I wasn't good at, but journaling in the morning, five things that I'm grateful for in the morning are so important.

Speaker 1:

Now, when you're journaling gratitude, get specific. When you first start out, you might say I'm grateful for my family and my faith, but no, I want you to think about specific things that have happened in the last 24 hours that you're grateful for. Maybe you saw that bird on the window sill, or maybe the sun peeked through the storm clouds and you had saw a rainbow. Those are two nature things. Or maybe somebody smiled at you in the grocery store or the clerk came over and helped you, or the music that was playing while you were waiting in line was something that oh yeah and you pay attention to that. Or maybe it's the nurse that helped you get your loved one into the car and the wheelchair into the trunk or the back of the car. You have to look for things that you're grateful for and start documenting those and writing those things down For me.

Speaker 1:

This past weekend I went to that wedding and I was grateful for seeing my cousins. I haven't seen my cousins from the Minneapolis area since my mom's funeral, but I'm also grateful for seeing their children. This is what I wrote down in my journal on Saturday or Sunday morning. But at the wedding there was cake pops or they have cake on sticks like a popsicle, but they're cake pops. I was watching my cousin Angie's little boy. He had to have eaten nine or 10 of them. I was just giggling and smiling, thinking oh well, she's going to have a sick child tonight with a bellyache, or a tired child tomorrow because he had too much sugar. When I journaled it out, it took my brain from the bad news that we're dealing with with Dennis to a moment of smiles. A moment of smiles. You want to think of those things. They can be small some days because you don't have a lot, but it couldn't be a funny clip but on TV, or it could be a fart that your mom did in the grocery store and you just giggled and smirked and laughed. Whatever it would be, you have to get creative Now.

Speaker 1:

Another way you can do gratitude is the nighttime routine we talked about. I don't journal anymore, but I lay in bed at night and I took advice from Hoda, from the Today show and from the Hoda and Dennis show. What she does each night is either she lays in bed or she thinks about it while she's brushing her teeth and you look at yourself in the mirror, or you're laying in bed at night and saying I'm proud of me for this today. You just think about all the things that you're proud of about yourself. You should be proud of yourself for going ahead and doing the little things, doing the things that you need to do throughout the day. I'm proud of myself for having the conversation with my mom, who said something that hurt me and I'm just using that as an example. Or I'm proud of me for going ahead and pushing through and having the salad when I really wanted to order Uber Eats and having that, whatever it would be.

Speaker 1:

Another thing that I do when, especially when I'm really feeling blah or bored or down I took this from Mel Robbins I go for a walk and I look for all of the things that I'm grateful for. I look for things out in nature or people driving their car, or a wave from somebody, and I just saying okay, for the next 10 minutes, kathy, I'm gonna turn my earbuds off and I'm just going to observe and be grateful for the things around me. I'm going to be grateful for the neighbor that swept his sidewalk, or the beautiful decoration that I saw, a wreath on somebody's door, or the bus driver this morning that waved Lucy and Eddie and I across the street and let us go before they turned the corner, whatever it would be. And I just take in all of the good things that are out in the world, because there's so much bad in the world and bad things happening to me. There are enough good things in the world, we just don't recognize them. So I do that.

Speaker 1:

Another thing that I just started doing, probably in the last year, is I make a point of thanking someone new every week. I find somebody new to thank every week. I got something in this week today because I have a surgery coming up next Wednesday. So when you're hearing this podcast it'll be on the 15th, so it'll be Wednesday, and the surgical check-in lady I don't know what her official title is called me up and gave me all of my times, gave me all of the details, talked through everything with me and I just didn't say thank you. I said you know what. I appreciate you making these calls. I know it's your everyday job, but you do it in such a pleasant and a nice way. Thank you for making everything so simplistic and easy for me today and from the bottom of my heart, I want you to have a good rest of your day. And she was like phew, but you can just say thank you, but by doing it sincere and open, it makes that person feel good, but it also makes you feel better and it lifts your mood up through the day. So I wanna encourage you to do that.

Speaker 1:

We have to deal with so many different people from a caregiving perspective, so you could start with your loved one, and that would be person, that would be a new person. But now you have to find somebody new next week and somebody new the following week, and what happens is you start building that muscle and you be nice. You're appreciative of everything. Now, another thing that I have been doing is, for example, tonight now I have to go bowling and my girlfriend that I bowl with had carpal tunnel surgery and so she's not gonna be there, and so I have to bowl with a sub, and I don't know who I'm bowling with and I'm introverted believe it or not, I'm introverted and it makes me feel uncomfortable and right away my negative mindset sets in, and so I have to psych myself up, and so I'm going to go in and I'm going to drive there and think about what am I excited about for the bowling tonight, especially if you have to go into something that you're not looking forward to, like you're not looking forward to the doctor's appointment, or you're not looking forward to having to clean the dirty sheets from your loved one you have to go in with. But what excites me about today, or what's exciting and you can replace the word exciting what's the good things that are gonna happen in the next hour. But for me, for bowling tonight, I'm gonna go into what can I be excited about for bowling tonight? And I love the atmosphere. I'm excited to go ahead and see if I can go ahead and get my average. I'm excited to go ahead and get the exercise. I'm excited to meet the new person, whatever it would be.

Speaker 1:

And then the last thing that I do from a practice perspective and then I have some that I did some research on is Dennis and I always, after we get done with an appointment that doesn't go well or we've gotten the bad news, we have to process it. But when we process it I say, okay, let's talk about the appointment. Like, let's talk about the appointment where he got the both cancers are back and he got that result. Let's talk about this. But before we do this, let's just focus in on our gratitude and what we appreciate the most. We appreciate our oncology team, we appreciate we're getting a second opinion, we appreciate they're moving fast, and so we process that first and that kind of keeps us optimistic. And so I want you to think about that as well. If something went wrong, if you had a bad situation, go haywire. You want it before you start doing the. You know the spiral down.

Speaker 1:

Go ahead and talk about what things Are you grateful for. I'm grateful that the conversation finally bubbled up with my siblings and we had the hard conversation. It didn't go well, but we had the conversation. I understand now where you know they're coming from. You know that might be an example. Okay, so those are my practices. Now a few other ones that I pulled off of the studies the Harvard studies and the Yale studies. I think that's where I pulled it from. Is it which I just reinforced is the one that they had is find gratitude in your challenges. Gratitude is not only about being thankful for positive experiences. In fact, sometimes thinking about negative or difficult situation can help to really nail down what you have to be thankful for just reinforces what I said.

Speaker 1:

Another way to practice gratitude is practice mindfulness. Sit down daily and think through five to 10 things you're grateful for, and it could be through meditation, it could be through yoga, it could be your drive. Whatever it would be. Doing this every day will rewire your brain. They say it only takes. It only takes eight weeks of gratitude practice for people to start showing changes in their brain patterns that lead to greater empathy and happiness. So your brain is this powerful tool and it's and you're. What you're doing with gratitude is you're training all the parts of it so that you can go ahead and start doing this. So what are you waiting for? You want to start working through it.

Speaker 1:

They talked about a journal, but I wanted to talk about this. When you write down your positive thoughts to further focus your attention on the subject, while you're putting the pen to the paper, you have no choice but to consciously think about the words you're writing without distracting ungrateful thoughts. As a matter of fact, I put my phone as far away as I can when I journal so that I can fully focus on this. When you do this regularly, you form a pattern. Another way to practice gratitude is volunteering. Now, I know not everybody has the capacity, but I've worked with clients who went back to volunteering one day a week because they feel gratitude and it. Giving back to others in their local community makes them feel this form of gratitude and it increases their well-being. Thus far, their ability to have more gratitude. Improving happiness in other areas of your life is another way to do it.

Speaker 1:

Being grateful can make you happy, but being happy can also make you grateful. So think about flipping the thing over. There are plenty of other ways to get your mood up, including exercise or participating in a hobby that you enjoy. Once you feel this, your endorphins are going to start flowing, and then you're going to show gratitude, which becomes easier, and you're able to make list after list of all the things in your life that you're thankful for. So I challenge you to think about what things that make you happy, so that you can go ahead and build that gratitude muscle.

Speaker 1:

So, to conclude here today, I just have a quick thing that I wanted to go ahead and share with you. You can't sit around and wait for joy and happiness to come to you, because you know what? It probably won't come to you. You have to create and find it, and you have to look for it, and sometimes look hard for it and look for the little things. Gratitude turns what little you have into abundance. Gratitude is so much more than saying thankful. Gratitude changes your perspective of the world and the caregiving journey that you're in. Overall, gratitude can transform your mental health, and this is what I want to end here with today.

Speaker 1:

Gratitude can help protect you from the effects of stress. The connection between gratitude and improved mental health in the face of stress has been recognized by researchers for quite some time and there was a study done with gratitude associated with COVID and the stress. Think about COVID, that time marked by significant upticks in stress and anxiety from people when they focused on gratitude. It lowered their stress and the effects of stress. So I want to end with Dr Moy, who says in this effects of gratitude helping their mental health. He says gratitude anchors us back towards our inner knowing that we are in control of our own peace, our own joy and our own happiness by how we choose to respond to stress. And so gratitude, especially in caregiver stress and caregiver burnout, will be one of the tools that will help us decrease our stress.

Speaker 1:

So I hope you enjoyed my episode today on gratitude and see the importance that it has. The big thing I want you to do is you have to find the practice of gratitude that works best for you and start experimenting with one that works best for you If there's another one that you use that I didn't include today. Oh my gosh. Drop me a message on Instagram or drop me an email and tell me what it is, but for you, I know this works. I know it personally and I feel it in my soul, and it has changed me as a person to the better, from a health perspective, from a from a mind shift perspective and an overall well-being perspective, and I want that for you. So take care, my friend, and we'll talk to you again next Tuesday. Bye for now.

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