How Gratitude Can Improve Treatment Outcomes for Drug and Alcohol AddictionAnna Ciulla
Researchers in recent years have sought to understand the link between gratitude and health. Specifically, they have wanted to know whether a practice of giving thanks yields positive health benefits for mind and body. Much of this same research has significant and encouraging implications for treatment and recovery from drug and alcohol addiction.
This article will explore these recent findings, with a view to showing how gratitude can improve treatment outcomes for people with substance use disorders (SUDs). (Learn more about other factors that correlate with better treatment outcomes.) The takeaway is that a regular practice of giving thanks can be an easy, accessible, cost-free and potentially very therapeutic component of any holistic treatment plan.
How Gratitude Improves Mood and Emotional Health
Positive psychologists who study what makes people happy have discovered that gratitude is at the core of life satisfaction. They are now applying this insight to studies in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction— with eye-opening results.
For example, a 2015 pilot study led by Dr. Amy Krentzman, Ph.D., a positive psychologist at the University of Minnesota, followed a group of clients receiving alcohol treatment over a 14-day period. Clients who daily wrote down three things they were grateful for in their day achieved “lower levels of negative mood and greater levels of feeling calm and serene.” (The control test subjects, in contrast, saw no improvement in mood or emotional health.)
The gratitude exercise was very simple: filling out text boxes with three thanksgivings from the day. The format of the exercise was similar to father of positive psychology Dr. Martin Seligman’s “Three Good Things” exercise, which he recommends doing at bedtime. (Get a quick tutorial from Dr. Seligman himself here.)
After the study, the test subjects were invited to share reflections about their experience. The people in the gratitude group reported that, in addition to experiencing a lift in their mood, they noticed a change in negative thought patterns. The unanticipated effect, according to researchers, was “reinforcing recovery.” Members of the gratitude group were directly attributing these good things to their recovery.
In summary, the UMN research suggests that gratitude can improve treatment outcomes by:
- Improving mood
- Changing negative thought patterns
- Reinforcing recovery and motivation for recovery
How Gratitude Relieves Depression and PTSD
Roughly 43 percent of people with SUDs have a co-occurring disorder (COD), according to data from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Depressive disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are two common CODs among the substance abuse treatment population— and research now shows that a regular practice of gratitude can alleviate the symptoms of both of these CODs. That’s significant, because a reduction in COD symptoms can lead to better addiction treatment outcomes.
First, with respect to depression, consider the following findings by scientists at the University of California Davis:
- Keeping a gratitude diary for two weeks decreased levels of perceived stress (28 percent) and depression (16 percent) in health-care practitioners.
- Two gratitude activities (counting blessings and gratitude letter writing) reduced the risk of depression in at-risk patients by 41 percent over a six-month period.
- Writing a letter of gratitude reduced feelings of hopelessness in 88 percent of suicidal inpatient clients and increased levels of optimism in 94 percent of them.
In addition to these findings at UCD, a University of Pennsylvania study reportedly found that clients who wrote and personally delivered a letter of gratitude to someone who showed them kindness experienced a “huge increase in happiness scores” that lasted for at least a month and was more beneficial than any other intervention.
When Beach House clients took part in the same exercise, they experienced similarly positive results.
Next, how gratitude alleviates the symptoms of PTSD … A 2014 study in The Journal of Positive Psychology found that practicing thankfulness not only relieved symptoms of PTSD but also boosted resilience to trauma.
Other Physical Benefits of Gratitude During Recovery
Practicing gratitude doesn’t just improve mental and emotional health: it offers many physical benefits, too, according to research. Some of these are especially relevant to recovery, insofar as they correlate with better outcomes. For example, after 10 weeks, those who kept a regular gratitude journal felt better about their lives, exercised more and had less health problems, according to other UCD findings.
And, giving thanks at the end of the day apparently can also improve the length and duration of your sleep, a 2009 study concluded. Healthy sleep hygiene is an important component of a healthy lifestyle that supports recovery and better treatment outcomes.
For more on gratitude, see “Spiritual Tools for a Healthier Living and Recovery.”