Thanksgiving playboy
Priscilla Du Preez

Psychology

Giving Thanks Is Good For You

About 174 million Americans in 2017 spent an average of $335 per person during the five-day period from Thanksgiving to Cyber Monday, according to the National Retail Federation. Over 10 percent of the surveyed shoppers hit the stores on Thanksgiving Day. When you’re camping outside Walmart for a 65” smart TV or refreshing your Amazon app for the latest flash deal, you’re neglecting an invaluable facet of Thanksgiving: being grateful for who and what you have in your life.

Plenty has already been said about how the once family-centric holiday has been diminished by consumerism, but when choosing between a brand new PlayStation or a drunken tirade from Uncle Gary, the choice is a no-brainer. Still according to Los Angeles-based psychotherapist Julie Gustafson, LMFT, the holiday season frequently amplifies stressors and introduces unique challenges, but self-reflection and the act of giving thanks can improve your mental health during this complicated time of year.

“In discussions [with my clients] leading up to the holidays, I see themes of worry,” says Gustafson. “Primarily, I see themes of anxiety and ‘what if’ thinking: What if my uncle gets drunk and makes a scene? What if my sister and I get in a fight? I also see themes of setting interpersonal boundaries around how much individual time is important versus how much family time is spent together. The politics of family dynamics come to life.”
The brain is not so great at holding two opposing emotional states at the same time, so if you can move your mind to an authentic state of gratitude, it’s unlikely you can simultaneously stay in a state of contempt.
Much to the dismay of many, these “family dynamics” manifest in incredibly overwhelming ways, but Gustafson is quick to debunk the urban myth that suicide rates rise during the holidays. She does note, however, a dramatic decrease in psychiatric care attendance. Simply put, the average person does not always have time for self-care during the hectic holiday season. “When people return to therapy after the holidays, I find they are more exhausted, generally more aware of distressing family dynamics,” says Gustafson. “The holidays seem to amplify whatever primary internal process, or family theme,a person regularly deals with. These are typically the themes that they do not have to confront on a concentrated basis the rest of the year.”

The increase in family time is partly what makes the holiday season both stressful and rewarding. “During the holidays, people lose some equilibrium because they are out of their normal routine. This loss of equilibrium is not always negative,” says Gustafson. Thanksgiving, for many people, means traveling long distances to listen to another one of Grandma’s racist diatribes or finding yourself trapped between two bickering siblings. But the holidays also create opportunities for building bridges and introspection.

“Despite personal themes of distress seeming more amplified, I commonly see people longing to connect and wanting to do the best they can to figure out how to have a quality time with loved ones,” Gustafson explains. “For those with holiday distress, it is an excellent source of information for self-growth if they’re willing to apply some radical acceptance to the experience and use it for self-reflection.” Prioritizing “acceptance” and “self-reflection” might seem downright criminal when there’s gravy-drenched turkey and mashed potatoes to consume, but personal growth definitely outweighs indigestion.
It’s also no secret that gratitude has been replaced with shopping sprees during the Thanksgiving holiday, but Gustafson argues that establishing a habit of giving thanks provides substantial mental health benefits and ultimately strengthens relationships. “It’s surprising how uncommon the basic act of a daily thank you is in relationships, but introducing gratitude is as simple as shifting your focus to it internally, in addition to the most basic act of saying thank you to your partner on a regular basis,” says Gustafson. A little acknowledgment, like a thank-you note or some appreciative words, goes a long way to dispelling gloom and pessimism, improving the mental health of all those involved. “Gratitude and giving thanks are critical to ongoing emotional health as it buffers against the relationally destructive emotional state of contempt,” says Gustafson.

Harboring negativity and anger (as many of us do during the holidays) is exhausting and toxic. Fortunately, gratitude leaves no space for bitterness and frustration. “The brain is not so great at holding two opposing emotional states at the same time,” continues Gustafson, “so if you can move your mind to an authentic state of gratitude, it’s unlikely you can simultaneously stay in a state of contempt.” In fact, Gustafson regularly assigns her clients a daily “gratitude inventory.” Taking stock of all that’s good in one’s life can ward off a looming sense of dread. “When people actually do it, and move into a space of gratitude, I see it work like magic to reduce distress,” she says.

Ultimately, if all else fails, here’s something to be thankful for: the holidays might trigger anxiety, but a challenging holiday season can be transformed, with self-reflection and gratitude, into a growth experience. So, the next time Uncle Gary makes a scene at the dinner table remember to reflect on all that’s good and what can be learned from the experience—it might be exactly what you need to end the holidays as a healthier, happier person.

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