Episode 24: Practicing Gratitude with Fibromyalgia

Practicing Gratitude with Fibromyalgia

Giving Thanks Can Make a Difference All Year Long

  • A growing body of research shows that an attitude of gratitude benefits our physical body.
  • Where you place your focus is where your life will flow. This is a basic law of the universe. This is part of the law of attraction. We also find it in the Bible.
  • It’s hard to count our blessings when fibromyalgia feels like an endless taking away of things, but we do have a choice.
  • The three general guidelines for developing a gratitude practice *plus* three practical ideas to help you get started PLUS an advanced bonus tip for those ready to take their gratitude practice to the next level.
  • Keep in mind that you are creating a habit—one that will pay dividends for the rest of your life.

“Don’t be sorry for me. Fibromyalgia is the best thing that ever happened to me.” This may seem like a radical statement, and I know most of you aren’t in this space yet, but even small gestures of gratitude can make a big difference. A growing body of research shows that people who practice gratitude are more optimistic and have greater satisfaction in their lives. They have been shown to make fewer visits to the doctor and have improved immune system responses. More than just a Thanksgiving observance, counting your blessings and giving thanks can make a difference all year long.

Links & Resources

  • Get a free copy of Tami’s book, Take Back Your Life: Find Hope and Freedom From Fibromyalgia Symptoms and Pain at FibromyalgiaPodcast.com/books.
  • Below you will find both a full transcript and video of the episode, with any studies mentioned in the show linked in the transcript.

Research Studies

Play Video

Transcript

You’re listening to the Fibromyalgia Podcast, Episode 24. 

Welcome to the Fibromyalgia Podcast! I’m your Coach, Tami Stackelhouse. 

Since this week is Thanksgiving here in the U.S., our episode this week is going to focus on creating a practice of gratitude.

[01:03] We’ll dive into that a little bit more in just a second, but first I want to give another listener shout out. I was actually getting ready to record this episode when this message came in on our Instagram account. This is about Episode 21, which was the interview that I did with Dr. Jarred Younger. If you haven’t heard it, we will link to that in the show notes or you can go to FibromyalgiaPodcast.com/21 and that is the episode this listener is talking about.

[01:37] This comment was from @DisneyFamily67. I think I know what you do on your vacations.

She said “This podcast Episode 21 was awesome. I am so encouraged that there is someone out there like Dr. Younger. There aren’t enough doctors that know enough about these issues or how to handle them.” She goes on to say that “Dr. Younger could sure teach these doctors a lot. I suggested that my doctor listen to the podcast, so that he could learn about fibromyalgia, as it would really help him to help his patients.”

[02:15] I think that is great. I love that we are able to provide you information that is helping you educate your doctors. I really wish everyone would listen to the episode with Dr. Younger. It is so great. It is so encouraging, all the research that he’s doing. I don’t know, there’s just a lot of hope that maybe we’re going to have some answers sometime soon.

[02:44] If you haven’t heard it yet, it’s FibromyalgiaPodcast.com/21 to listen to my interview with Dr. Jarred Younger on the latest, cutting edge research that’s happening with fibromyalgia, and all of the studies that he’s currently working on, and the answers he hopes he’s going to have for us in the next year or so.

[03:08] All right. So… today we are going to be focusing on gratitude. I thought it was an appropriate theme, with Thanksgiving being celebrated this week here in the U.S.

[03:17] Our giving thanks — that’s what gratitude is, right? I just want to start by sharing something that happened to me a couple of months ago that I know most of you probably won’t relate to, but it really illustrates what I think can be accomplished when you train your mind to start seeing the things you’re grateful for instead of the things that are challenging for you.

[03:48] A couple of months ago, I was at a retreat in Arizona with a group of other coaches, and a lot of us didn’t know each other. I certainly knew very few people who were there. There were lots of conversations around the idea of, “Who do you coach? Who do you work with? Who do you help?” When I talked about the work that I do coaching women with fibromyalgia, one of the other coaches asked me, “Well, do you have fibromyalgia yourself?”

[04:20] Of course, I said yes.

She said, “Oh, I’m so sorry.”

My immediate response — literally, before a thought could process in my head — what came out of my mouth was, “Oh my goodness, don’t be sorry! It’s the best thing that ever happened to me.”

[04:38] I know for a lot of you listening to this podcast, you are not in that place yet.

If you want to hear more about my journey and how I got to the place where I could immediately say, without even thinking, “Don’t be sorry for me. Fibromyalgia is the best thing that ever happened to me,” go back and listen to Episode 3. That is where my friend, Lee, interviews me about my journey. That is the episode titled “How Fibromyalgia Became My Friend.” Go to FibromyalgiaPodcast.com/3 to hear my story and why I really feel like fibromyalgia is an old friend of mine. A lot of how I got here was truly focusing on what I had to be grateful for more than I focused on the things that were challenging in my life.

[05:35] Now, there have been a lot of benefits associated with creating a practice of gratitude. There is one researcher in particular that has done a lot of studying on this, and that is Dr. Robert Emmons. We will link in the show notes to some of his research articles that you can find on Google Scholar.

[05:59] There was one study in particular that he did with Dr. Michael McCullough. It was looking at: 

When you are focused on the things that you are grateful for versus focusing on either:

  1. neutral things that have happened in your life, or 
  2. the challenging things that have happened in your life

What would be the outcome of that?

[06:25] They spent ten weeks, and they had three groups of people. One group wrote down the things that they were grateful for every day. You probably have heard about this. A lot of people talk about keeping a gratitude journal, where you’re jotting down, every day, the things that you’re grateful for it. That’s what this particular group did.

A second group wrote down the things that irritated them every day — kind of the opposite of a gratitude journal. They wrote down all of their little irritations and frustrations.

The third group just wrote about things that happened to them. Just very neutral, not necessarily positive or negative, just like: Here’s what happened to me today.

[07:07] At the end of ten weeks, they found that the group that focused on the things to be grateful for was more optimistic. They had greater satisfaction in their lives. Interestingly, they also found that the group exercised more and had fewer visits to the doctor than the people who focused on the things that frustrated them.

[07:31] There are very specific benefits to focusing on gratitude instead of focusing on what’s frustrating to you. I’ve also heard that practicing gratitude and increasing your optimism increases how effective your immune system is. It can boost your immune system and help you ward off infections and things.


[08:00] 
There was a study that we linked to in an earlier episode that talked with law students about being optimistic for the future, and the more optimistic they were for the future, the greater the immune system response those students had to different stimuli. We know it can boost your immune system.

[08:25] I think the most important thing about cultivating an attitude of gratitude is simply how you view your life. We all have heard that what you focus on, you get more of.


[08:44] 
I will tell this story again in a few episodes, when we talk about goal setting. When I was a kid, my dad was teaching me to ride my bike. We went to this playground at this school. There was literally one basketball hoop in this playground. There was a massive paved area with one big pole on the playground, which was the basketball hoop. I was so afraid that I was going to hit that one pole in this sea of nothingness.

[09:19] I was so afraid I was going to hit that one pole, that it was what my brain was focusing on. Because it was what my brain was focusing on, guess what? I drove straight into it. Yes, straight into that basketball pole, crushed the cute little white basket on the front of my pink bike. It was very sad, but it has been such an illustration for me, that where your focus is, that’s where you will go. The more you focus on the positive or negative in your life, the more of that you will get. The more you focus on wanting things, the more you will not have.

[10:04] This is a basic law of the universe. This is part of the law of attraction. We also find it in the Old Testament. We find it in the New Testament. What you focus on, where your heart is, where your mind is, that’s where your life is going to go. This is something that we see in lots of different cultures, lots of different spiritual beliefs. I think we can also see it when you’re learning to ride a bike, right?


[10:38] 
How can you start to cultivate this attitude of gratitude when you have something like fibromyalgia? 

I think it can be really challenging. I think if we don’t try to create this attitude that is focused on gratefulness, focused on the positive in our lives — focused on the things that we want more of — then our attention is naturally going to be drawn to all the things that we can’t do, and the ways that our lives have changed, the pain we might be feeling, and the fatigue that we’re feeling.


[11:22] 
I think that is the default course of action for many of us. We have to purposefully make choices to think along different lines, to have a different attitude and a different experience.

With fibromyalgia, there’s just so many things that change in our lives. It feels like an endless taking away of things. This is something that I’ve said so often. We can’t do the things we used to do. Maybe we can’t eat some of the things we used to eat. Maybe our bodies won’t let us do things in the same way. Some of us even lose friends or jobs, or family members are not around as much.There is a lot of of taking away that happens with fibromyalgia, and it’s very, very natural to have our attention focused on what is being taken away or focused on the pain that’s screaming in our bodies.

[12:22] The reality is that you get to make that choice. You get to choose what it is that you focus on. Without purposefully making that mental shift — onto what it is that you want to focus your energy on, focus your attitude on rather than going with the flow — you’re probably just naturally going to be drawn to the negative.

I think it can be really, really helpful to rewire your brain to change your thinking, to have a practice where you are purposefully focusing on gratitude. I have a few ideas for you, and as I give you these ideas, there are some general guidelines that I want to give you for a gratitude practice.

[13:13] 1. Be specific. The more specific you are about what you’re grateful for, the better. If you are starting off and you are finding it hard to be grateful for anything, then by all means feel free to say that you are grateful that you’re alive. If that’s true. I know that can sometimes even be a challenge for some of us. The more specific you can get, the better. Like: “I am grateful that I got to go have lunch with my husband at the park today.” That develops a greater sense of seeing the details to be thankful for, rather than just saying, “I’m grateful I’m alive today.”


[14:04]
2. Be real. Don’t try to be grateful for something you’re not grateful for. Your brain knows the difference. Your brain knows when you are lying. Find something that’s true. You might not be able to say, like I can, “My fibromyalgia is the best thing that ever happened to me,” but you probably can say things like, “I am grateful that I met this particular person that I never would have met if I didn’t have fibromyalgia.”

[14:36] Find something specific that’s also true. Don’t try to fool yourself, because it never works. Find things that you can truly be thankful for.

[14:47] Keep in mind that you are creating a habit. You’re building a habit. We’re going to talk more about goals and habits in a future episode, but know that developing a habit, number one, takes time. Don’t expect to have your brain naturally start thinking along the lines of gratitude just by doing it once. It takes the time of doing it over and over and over again.

[15:16] You also have to be willing to give yourself the grace to mess up. 

Let’s say you decide you’re going to journal every day about the things that you’re grateful for. There’ll be days that you miss. There’ll be days where you just don’t feel grateful at all for anything. That’s okay! You need to give yourself permission to be imperfect, right? Because we are. We’re imperfect human beings.

  • Be real about the things themselves — don’t try to lie to yourself, 
  • Be real about how long it takes, and 
  • Be real about the fact that you’re not going to be able to do this perfectly.

[15:54] Another thing that I want to focus on, so this is the third thing. First be specific. Second be real. 


[16:04]
3. The third thing is focus on people and relationships. It is great to be grateful for things, but it is even more important to be grateful for people, because the relationships in our lives, that’s where we really find our happiness and our satisfaction in life. The joy that we have in life is more often tied to people and relationships than it is to things. Try to focus on people, even if it’s something as small as, “That person was really nice on the freeway today and let me in.” You know, the little things like that, and just focusing your gratitude.


[16:43] 
You also can go back and look at past things. There are probably nice things that people have done for you that you haven’t properly thanked them for. This is actually one of the things that Dr. Emmons studied, which was writing a gratitude letter. Writing a thank you note to someone who did something nice for you in the past. The benefits of that were seen over thirty days after writing the letters. The benefits of that can really last.

[17:18] Here are some ideas for how you can begin cultivating this practice of gratitude.

1. Is one that you’ve probably heard a lot, and we’ve already mentioned here on this episode, which is keeping your gratitude journal. This can be as simple as just sitting down once a day and jotting down a couple of things that you are grateful for that happened to you today. Even if it was in the past, just three new things.

[17:56] It is important, since we’re cultivating this attitude of being thankful, not just checking a box and moving on, but that you try to think of new things every day, because we’re trying to stretch your brain. We’re trying to get your brain to think differently. That means noticing more things, new things. They can be small. They can be big. They can be simple. It doesn’t matter, but try to think of new things every day.

[18:27] If you can physically write them down, I think there is a greater connection that happens in your brain. They’ve actually found that with students taking notes, if you hand write notes, more of that information gets stored into your head. By hand writing out the things you’re grateful for, more of that is going to be stored in your head as well.

[18:51] I would recommend going out and getting a notebook. I would get a new one, since you’re starting a new practice. Get something that’s pretty. Get something that feels good for you to write in — that you want to write in. Find a nice pen that feels good as it’s flowing across the page. Make that whole experience as yummy as possible.

[19:16] Every day jot down three things that you are thankful for, that you are grateful for. Three new things. Now they don’t have to be new, in that they just happened today. You can think about things in the past, but each day as you’re writing things down, don’t repeat anything that you’ve already written down. That’s the first idea: a gratitude journal.

[19:41] If you have been practicing in this way for a time, you may even want to not just list the things but actually write about them. Write about why you’re grateful for those things, right? Instead of just writing down, “It was sunny today”, write more about it. 

For those of you who really want a challenge — and this is the advanced level, so if you’re not here yet, by all means, don’t feel like you have to start here. I know a lot of people have been practicing gratitude and using gratitude journals. For those of you who are familiar with the practice and need a challenge, then I would challenge you to find things about your fibromyalgia — specifically where fibromyalgia interacts or intersects with your life and what you are grateful for there.


[20:37] 
There are so many things to be grateful for — so many good things that fibromyalgia is bringing into your life that you probably have never even noticed. Friends that you have made. Resources that you have come across. Ways that maybe you understand other people’s suffering better.

[21:02] Maybe you are a more compassionate person than you used to be. I know I am. Maybe you are better able to stand up for yourself and advocate for yourself, because you have fibromyalgia and you need to. Maybe in some ways you actually take better care of yourself by practicing better self-care, or maybe eating healthier than you used to. I’m getting checkups more often. There are so many positive changes that have likely happened in your life that you just haven’t noticed as positive. For those of you who want a more advanced version of doing a gratitude journal, then I would challenge you to look specifically for ways to be grateful for your fibromyalgia diagnosis, and all the other sidekicks that come along with it.

[21:58] 2. Another practice that you can use, which I love as well — I had a friend years ago who used to do this every year — was to have a gratitude jar. She had little pieces of paper, that when something happened that she wanted to celebrate or something she was grateful or thankful for, she would write it on a piece of paper and put it in the jar. Once a year — she would do it around Thanksgiving. I’ve had other friends that would do it every year on New Year’s — she would go back through the jar and read all of the awesome things that happened throughout the year.

[22:37] Again, they could be little things like, “I went and had lunch with my husband in the park today,” to big things like being able to go speak to the medical students at Oregon Health and Science University. That would be something that I would stick in my jar. Whatever your things are for you, you can just write little notes. It could be anything.

[23:03] It could be, “I’m thankful that I had a friend send me a little love note out of the blue, send me a nice text message,” or “I am grateful that my husband took the trash out without me having to ask.” It could be anything. Keeping those in a jar, writing them down, little notes, putting them in the jar, and then periodically reviewing what was in that jar, because that’s part of it also — recalling those things to mind and refreshing your memory.

[23:37] 3. As I mentioned earlier in this episode, another practice is writing gratitude letters. This could be as simple as writing people thank you notes for the little things that they do for you. Whether somebody dropped something by your house, or did a favor for you, or helped you in some way, or whatever it might be, you could write a note to thank them.

[24:03] You could even go back and write notes to people for things they’ve done in the past. You can imagine what it would feel like to receive a note like that. Why not give that, as well, and share that love with somebody else. We want to make the world a better place. Sometimes the simplest way to do that is simply sharing that gratitude with the people who have blessed your life.

[24:35] Those are some tips for you to develop a practice of gratitude. Remember the three things, no matter which way you choose to practice, the three things that you want to remember:

  1. Be specific about what you’re grateful for. 
  2. Be real, both being real about what you’re grateful for — don’t lie to yourself — also be real about how long it takes to build a habit, and be real about the fact that you aren’t going to be doing this perfectly. 
  3. Try to focus on people and relationships to really maximize the good that this does in the world.

 

  1. As a fourth option, for those of you who want a challenge, think about ways you can actually be grateful for your fibromyalgia diagnosis.

[25:33] The three ideas that I gave you, for ways that you can practice gratitude: 

  1. That gratitude journal where you’re just writing down three new things every day that you’re grateful for.
  2. That gratitude jar where you are jotting down the things you’re grateful for on a slip of paper, putting them in the jar and then reviewing those at a later date.

[25:57] One of the things that I do in addition — I don’t use a jar — but I have a box that I actually will keep love notes in. It’s my love note box. When I get thank you cards from clients, when I get birthday cards, like the last birthday card my sister sent me is in there. I have a letter in there that my grandma sent me years ago and a few other things like that. It’s just my love notes box. You can periodically go through that, especially in times where you might feel like there isn’t much to be grateful for, you can go back through that jar, through a love notes box like I’ve got.

[26:43] 

  1. The third idea for practicing gratitude is writing gratitude letters or thank you notes. You can go back and write those for the people in your life who have done things that have made your world a better place.

[27:02] If you’re having trouble coming up with things to be grateful for, I would encourage you to go back and listen to Episode 13, which is a walkthrough of a practice that I use with my clients called the Joy List. Most of the time, the things that show up on our joy list are also things to be grateful for. The things that bring you joy are the things that you’re grateful for.

[27:31] I always talk about “The Belly of Happiness and Joy,” which is my cat, Sam. He is definitely on my Joy List. He is also on my gratitude list. I am thankful I get to rub that fuzzy belly, and that I have him to distract me when I need to be distracted and give me furry lovens.

Go back through Episode 13. If you’ve done the Joy List, make sure you take a look at the items on your Joy List, as that will be fuel for your practice of gratitude.

[28:07] All right, you guys, I hope this blesses your Thanksgiving week, and I hope it starts to shift a little bit in how you think about your day today. My wish for you is that your brain would be rewired to focus on gratitude, so that when someone says to you, “Oh, I’m sorry,” that your immediate reaction is “No, don’t be sorry. This has brought me blessings.”

[28:38] All right, so for upcoming episodes, I want to give you a preview for what’s coming up. We have a bunch of things. As we get closer to Christmas, we’re going to be talking about “Faith and Fibromyalgia,” the intersection there. Fibromyalgia can challenge so many things in our lives. It can also strengthen so many things in our lives — and I think our faith, our spiritual beliefs, our spiritual practice, is one of those that goes both ways. It’s very challenging, but I think we also can find our faith in times of challenge and struggle like with fibromyalgia.

[29:22] In the new year, we’re also going to be talking about setting goals and creating good healthy habits. We’re going to be talking about exercise with fibromyalgia.

[29:33] Of course, we have our next “Ask the Coach” coming up in a few episodes. If you have any specific questions or topics you would like me to cover on our next “Ask the Coach” episode, please send those in. You can do that at the Fibromyalgia Podcast website. It’s FibromyalgiaPodcast.com and under the Contact menu you’ll see the Ask the Coach option, and you can go ahead and send in your questions or the things that you would like me to cover in that episode.

[30:08] Remember today’s show notes can be found at FibromyalgiaPodcast.com/24 for Episode 24. I will have a link to a couple of articles about gratitude. There is a review that was done on several of the studies on gratitude. I’ll link to that review. There was also an article by Harvard Health that talked about the study that I mentioned early on, so we’ll have that link there for you as well.

[30:41] As always, if you find what I’m talking about in this podcast challenging for you, this is an area where working with a coach can really help. Sometimes, we get so bogged down and mired in the challenges that we’re facing, that it can be really difficult to see beyond where we’re stuck and only seeing our limitations, and we can’t see the blessings. If talking with someone would be helpful for you to have a different perspective on your situation, then we would love to help you do that. Just go to FibromyalgiaPodcast.com, under the contact menu, you’ll see the Find a Coach option, and you can schedule a complimentary consultation. We will talk to you about the ways a coach can help and match you up with the coach that we think will be the best help for you.

[31:42] You guys have gotten to hear from a couple of my coaches so far on this podcast. You’ll hear from more in future episodes. We’ve got lots of coaches from lots of life situations, lots of different experiences and backgrounds to really be able to help you find your best life possible. One of the ways that we do that is by helping you focus more on the positive, on the blessings coming into your life, rather than focusing on the negatives.

[32:13] With that, I hope you and your family and your loved ones have a very blessed Thanksgiving this week, if you’re here in the U.S. Have a week of thanks, if you are not in the U.S., you can still celebrate with us and give thanks for all the good that has come into your life. We’ll see you next time for our next episode. Bye!

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