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5 Exercises to Ease Chronic Pain With Gratitude

How to ease suffering and enhance well-being with quick gratitude practices.

Key points

  • Gratitude was found to be related to physical health, psychopathology, emotional well-being, psychological well-being, and social well-being.
  • Those with chronic pain who practiced gratitude noted an improved overall sense of well-being and a reduction in pain.
  • Gratitude is the mental state that one has gained some benefit from a positive outcome that originated from an external source.

The stress of today is mounting. We all feel it. This is on top of living with chronic pain, for those who experience it. Sometimes it can feel like the pain is both inside and outside of ourselves when we consider both physical and emotional pain. We try to find ways to relax, to disconnect. But it seems so many still feel exhausted or burned out. Perhaps the real goal should be to take pause. Instead of disconnecting, maybe we can take a moment to connect with a broader view, taking perspective and seeking peace.

The practice of gratitude has long been associated with spiritual and religious activities, but it is gaining interest in medical and health communities. There are numerous benefits identified in those who engage in regular gratitude practices or who embrace a grateful attitude. Benefits even include pain reduction. So what is gratitude?

Definition of Gratitude

 Rodnae Productions/Pexels
Taking a few moments to give thanks for our meals, fresh water, and clean air prevents taking anything for granted.
Source: Rodnae Productions/Pexels

Gratitude is both a state of being and a personality trait. It has also been described as an emotion or an attitude. It is the mental state that one has gained some benefit from a positive outcome and that the positive outcome originated from an external source (Jans-Beken et al., 2019). For example, one can enjoy a meal while appreciating that their hunger was satisfied by the wholesome foods thoughtfully grown and harvested by farmers and carefully prepared for this meal.

Gratitude is also defined as a personality trait of taking a “life orientation towards noticing and being grateful for the positive in the world” (Jans-Beken et al., 2019)—for example, taking note of and appreciating the little things in life or appreciating other people. This worldview includes a feeling of being enough.

Research Findings

The science of gratitude draws from positive psychology and mindfulness-based therapies, both of which have been studied for decades. Gratitude has been found to be related to several aspects of health, including physical health, psychopathology, emotional well-being, psychological well-being, and social well-being (Jans-Beken et al., 2019).

When it comes to chronic pain, those who practice gratitude regularly noted an improved overall sense of well-being as well as a reduction in pain on the day they practiced the gratitude exercise (Carson et al., 2005). Interestingly, it was found that a longer gratitude practice resulted in incrementally greater pain reduction (Carson et al., 2005). So, 15 minutes was better than 10, 20 was better than 15, and 25 minutes resulted in greatest pain relief. Although pain reduction was measured on the same day as the gratitude practice, and questions may arise as to whether this effect would sustain, one could say that engaging in a gratitude mindset is related to one’s overall sense of well-being. And that is worthwhile.

5 Gratitude Practices

  1. Gratitude journaling: Grab a paper and pen (or start a note on your preferred electronic device) and write about anything for which you are grateful. You may reflect on people, things, pets, nature, food, or even experiences you have had. Anything and everything can be appreciated. Some people even write about their pain and aspects of themselves they have seen grow as a result. Journaling can occur regularly or sporadically.
  2. Gratitude letter: Write a letter or email to someone in your life you are grateful for that perhaps you never fully thanked for their impact on you. You can choose to read your letter to them, but writing it and reflecting on your appreciation is also meaningful on its own. Dictation software can help if hand pain interferes with writing.
  3. Three good things exercise: Close your eyes and reflect on three good things that happened today. Next time, try the same but consider good things that happened over the course of a week. Later, consider the good things that happened in a year. This can be a mental exercise or a written exercise.
  4. Meditation focused on a positive or sacred word: Think of a word that appeals to you or offers strength and support. You can test it by repeating it silently for a few days, and perhaps choose another word if desired. Use this word for slowing down reactions. You can use this word any time you are waiting, exercising, dealing with unwanted emotions or annoying situations, when your mind is in overdrive, or any time you wish.
  5. Meditation focused on loving-kindness: Start by thinking of a time when you felt a strong, positive feeling of connection with a loved one. Next, let go of the content, situation, and details of the memory, and focus on the feelings of love and kindness associated with the memory. Take pause to connect in the present moment to those feelings of love and kindness. Think of a phrase to capture these feelings toward the loved one (for example, “Be at ease, darling.”). Then, direct these feelings toward yourself and sit with these feelings for a bit.
Vlada Karpovich/Pexels
A few quiet minutes for self-reflection can lead one to appreciate more.
Source: Vlada Karpovich/Pexels

These practices can be completed daily or just once. One can explore many ways to cultivate feelings of gratitude and a gratitude orientation in life. Thank you for taking the time to connect with this idea.

References

Murphy, J., & Rafie, S. (2021). Chronic Pain and Opioid Management: Strategies for Integrated Treatment. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Jans-Beken, L., Jacobs, N., Janssens, M., Peeters, S., Reijnders, J., Lechner, L., & Lataster, J. (2019). Gratitude and health: An updated review. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 15(6), 743–782.

Carson, J. W., Keefe, F. J., Lynch, T. R., Carson, K. M., Goli, V., Fras, A. M., & Thorp, S. R. (2005). Loving-kindness meditation for chronic low back pain: Results from a pilot trial. Journal of Holistic Nursing, 23(3), 287–304.

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