For many people fighting chronic lung diseases like COPD, the hardest battles are not the physical ones, but the ones that happen inside the mind. Coping with a disease that disrupts your breathing—a basic life function—is far from easy, and it takes a major mental toll on many people with the disease.
Though COPD is usually thought of as a disease that affects the physical body first and foremost, it's known to come with a long list of psychological side-effects and risks. These include clinically-recognized disorders like anxiety and depression as well as other forms of mental and emotional distress that are a bit more difficult to quantify and define.
Many people with COPD find themselves consumed with worry, for instance, or over-focusing on the difficulties and losses in their lives. While this is a common, natural reaction shared by many people with chronic diseases, it's not a healthy, happy, or sustainable way to go through life long term.
Luckily, there are many healthy, effective tools for coping with COPD and the sometimes overwhelming emotional challenges of living with the disease. In this post, we're going to focus on one method in particular: gratitude exercises, which are proven to help improve happiness and emotional well-being.
Though little-known and under-appreciated, gratitude exercises are backed by a great deal of research that supports the idea that gratitude—when practiced correctly and consistently—can improve a variety of different aspects of mental health. In particular, gratitude exercises can make it easier to cope with misfortune and help you find more contentment and appreciation in life in spite of your COPD.
At first glance, gratitude practice might sound like a strange solution for people who struggle to cope with the mental and physical strain of COPD. We understand how it might sound ironic—or even condescending—to suggest that people should feel grateful while dealing with a debilitating, chronic disease.
Certainly, we're not saying the people with COPD should be grateful for their disease, nor that people with COPD should feel any obligation to be grateful at all. However, gratitude is a recognized psychological intervention, and it's something that anyone can practice by doing simple exercises at home.
Practicing gratitude also doesn't mean you're supposed to feel grateful all the time. It's not meant to invalidate your feelings, replace negative emotions, or even drown out unpleasant thoughts. Instead, gratitude practice is meant to help you access more positive emotions in addition to the negative ones, and to help you see the good things even when the bad things are hard to see past.
According to one blogger who writes about their experiences with chronic illness, "It is not easy to feel thankful when we are chronically ill; in fact, sometimes we feel cheated out of life." However, she explains, that's all the more reason to practice gratitude, which, like any skill, can be honed and improved over time.
Practicing gratitude helps you look at the world through a different lens—one that helps you see beyond your struggles and recognize the good things in your life. In this way, gratitude practice helps you build a more positive outlook on life in general, which can help you keep hope and happiness alive no matter how bad things might seem.
What Does Gratitude Have to Do With Mental Health?
Research on gratitude shows that it has a variety of mental health benefits, and many people with COPD report finding comfort and relief in gratitude. Of course, that doesn't mean gratitude practice works for everyone, but it does suggest it's a worthwhile option for people who struggle with mental and emotional health because of their COPD.
Gratitude is an important concept in the field of positive psychology, a sub-set of psychological research that focuses on identifying traits and behaviors that support positive mental well-being. This area of psychology is all about strengthening positive traits (reinforcing the things that make people happy) rather than fixing negative traits (correcting the things that make people unhappy).
In the scope of positive psychology, the purpose of gratitude is not to treat any specific mental problem or disorder, but to help people cultivate habits and perspectives that promote better general mental health. Of course, we're not suggesting that gratitude practice is a substitute for mental health treatment, or that gratitude alone is enough to overcome the (often) enormous burden of COPD-related emotional distress.
While gratitude can be a helpful tool for those struggling with mental problems, it's not enough to treat serious emotional problems or mental illnesses on its own. If you suffer from a mental illness like anxiety or depression, or you are unable to cope with the mental burden of COPD on your own, you should first seek proper treatment from a trained mental health professional.
If you'd like to learn more about mental health treatment for COPD or other coping methods to try, check out the following guides from our respiratory resource center:
- Coping with COPD
- Mental health treatment options for people with COPD
- Mind-body exercises for COPD
What Does it Mean to Practice Gratitude?
We often think of gratitude as something we show to others, but gratitude is also something you can practice all by—and for—yourself. That's what this guide is all about: how gratitude as a personal practice can help you feel better and cope better with the mental difficulties that often come with COPD.
In the simplest sense, gratitude practice is simply the act recognizing positive things in your life. It's about seeing the good things through the bad and taking time to actively look for—and spend some time thinking about—things in your life that you can be thankful for.
Personal gratitude practice is not about expressing thanks to others; it's about using gratitude as a personal tool to improve your mental well-being.
More specifically, however, “gratitude practice” can mean doing structured gratitude exercises that help you “practice” gratitude in a more deliberate, goal-oriented way. These gratitude exercises (also known as “gratitude interventions”) are designed to help you harness the benefits of gratitude to improve your psychological health.
Gratitude exercises come in many shapes and forms, including written activities (such as gratitude journaling) and more abstract thought-based techniques (such as gratitude meditation) We'll show you how to practice these and other effective gratitude exercises a bit later in this guide.
Of course, it's possible to practice gratitude on your own without a strategy; however, studies suggest that you're likely to get more from your gratitude practice if you do it in a structured way. Gratitude exercises provide a framework to help you practice gratitude consistently and put the practice to work in your life.
As the authors of one study put it (PDF link), “relatively simple intentional changes in one’s thoughts and behaviors can precipitate meaningful increases in happiness.” That's what gratitude practice is all about: improving your mental well-being by taking deliberate actions to recognize and reflect on the things you have to feel thankful for.
How to Find Gratitude Under the Shadow of Chronic Disease
So far we've discussed the meaning of personal gratitude and what gratitude exercises are, but we haven't yet discussed what it really means to feel grateful, or what kinds of things you should feel thankful for when yo have COPD. These are personal questions that form the core of gratitude practice, and the answers depend on your depend on your experiences, your circumstances, and what you value in life.
Unfortunately, many people with COPD and other chronic diseases have faced so much misfortune that that they lose touch with what it's like to grateful. When your life is full of health problems and hardship, it can even feel impossible to find anything that you could feel thankful for.
However, times like these are often when you need the gratitude the most. Even if it seems like you don't have much to appreciate, doing gratitude exercises can help you fine-tune your gratitude senses and teach yourself how to recognize the good things, both big and small.
You'll likely be surprised at all the positive things you can find when you're actively looking for them instead of focusing on the problems and hardships in your life. With practice, you can learn to find joy and contentment in even the most mundane and unexpected places, like the pleasure of taking your first sip of morning coffee or the satisfaction of practicing self-care.
This is especially important for people with COPD, many of whom live with constant reminders of their disease and what their body can't do. Gratitude practice can teach you to love and appreciate your body more by helping you acknowledge all of the amazing, helpful things that your body can do.
That's what gratitude practice is all about—getting in the habit of looking out for the good things no matter how grim and hopeless your circumstances might seem. Sometimes it just takes some time to build up your gratitude muscle before you can break outside the box of negative thinking and explore the full positive potential in your life.
Just know that there is no right or wrong way to feel personal gratitude, and there's no right or wrong thing to feel grateful for. What matters most is what you think is worthy of gratitude, and how you can put those feelings of gratitude to work in your life.
The Benefits of Gratitude for People with COPD
The psychological sciences have long recognized the potential of gratitude to improve mental well-being, and it's been the topic of a great deal of studies over the years. In fact, there's a wide body of academic research on gratitude that spans the fields of positive psychology, mental health treatment, and quality-of-life improvements for people with chronic diseases.
Before we go on, however, it's important to clarify that there's an important distinction between looking at the benefits of gratitude (as an existing feeling or trait) versus the benefits of gratitude interventions (exercises that focus on gratitude and appreciation). Both are important for understanding how gratitude effects well-being, but they tell very different stories about what the benefits of gratitude mean.
Studies on the benefits of gratitude itself essentially describe the differences between people with different gratitude tendencies; they compare the well-being of people who have more gratitude to the well-being of people who have less. However, studies on the benefits of gratitude interventions actually measure how people's well-being changes in response to gratitude exercises, and how gratitude can be used to increase people's well-being.
In other words, the benefits of gratitude alone may only apply to those who are already grateful people; they don't tell us much—if anything—about what gratitude exercises can do. The benefits of gratitude exercises, however, can apply to anyone who completes a gratitude intervention, regardless of natural gratitude tendencies or baseline gratitude levels.
It's also important to note that, in general, the size of gratitude benefits tends to be modest; however, that doesn't mean that gratitude can't still have a significant positive effect on people's lives. Gratitude isn't exactly a game-changer, but it is an effective tool for building healthier mental habits and introducing more positive feelings and perspectives into your life.
Improved Emotional and General Well-being
Two things that research consistently finds about gratitude is that it tends to foster positive emotions and that people who feel more gratitude tend to have better mental health. Research also shows that gratitude exercises are associated with a variety of other benefits related to personal well-being.
Numerous studies, for example, have found that people who participate in simple, structured gratitude exercises—such as writing down what they're thankful for every day—tend to experience more positive emotions and fewer negative emotions than people who don't. Studies also show that gratitude interventions can increase people's general happiness and satisfaction with their lives.
One large meta-review that analyzed 38 high-quality gratitude studies offers a great summary of the effects of gratitude interventions, including how well they work and what their benefits are. The study identifies nearly a dozen specific benefits of gratitude practices, including:
- Increased gratitude
- Increased happiness
- More positive feelings
- Fewer negative feelings
- Reduced depression
- Increased well-being
- Increased life satisfaction
- Increased optimism
- Increased relationship quality
The meta-review also confirms that these positive effects aren't just temporary; in fact, they seem to be just as strong when measured at 6 months after the gratitude intervention as when they're measured just two weeks after the exercise is done. One study on older adults, for example, found that a two-week gratitude intervention resulted in improved well-being that persisted for at least 30 days.
This emotional boost is is something that many people with COPD could benefit from, particularly those who tend to feel hopeless or pessimistic about their condition. By helping you learn how to think and feel more positively, gratitude practice can help you break free from the cycle of negativity and despair that so often plagues people living with chronic diseases.
Research shows that gratitude is an effective tool for coping with hardship, including the hardship of living with chronic illness. One study, for example, found that feelings of gratitude are associated with a reduced risk of depression in people with chronic disease.
This is likely due to the the fact that gratitude fosters positive feelings, and positive feelings make it easier to cope when things get tough. This is part of the “broaden and build” model in psychology, which suggests that experiencing positive emotions creates a kind of “reserve” of positive feelings that you can use to help yourself feel better in times of need (PDF link).
In other words, doing activities (like gratitude exercises) that generate positive emotions now can make you more resilient to hardships in the future. This is particularly helpful for people with COPD and other chronic diseases whose lives are often filled with struggles big and small, both in the context of daily living (e.g. chronic discomfort and gradual physical decline) and in the context of managing their disease (e.g. hospitalizations and unpleasant treatments like oxygen therapy).
Gratitude exercises can help you build up the mental fortitude you need to cope with these struggles and get the most out of life. The stronger your mental health and skills in positive thinking, the better you'll be able to deal with whatever troubles that life (and COPD) throws your way.
Another benefit of gratitude that's worth mentioning is improved relationships. Several studies have shown that gratitude interventions can improve relationship quality and satisfaction, in part helping you appreciate your bonds with other people more.
This is an important benefit for people with COPD, who often feel isolated at a time when they need other people the most. Who knows? Practicing gratitude could help bring you closer to your loved ones or help you discover new sources of love and support that you didn't even know you had before.
A number of studies have investigated the impact of gratitude on physical health measures like blood pressure or sleep quality, but results so far are inconclusive at best. Unfortunately, there is very little research in this area, since most studies (understandably) focus on the mental health benefits of gratitude rather than physical health.
However, several studies suggest that gratitude interventions can improve sleep quality. This makes sense, since we know that gratitude can have a variety of psychological benefits, and research shows that sleep quality is closely connected to psychological health.
Other studies suggest that gratitude interventions might be able to improve other physical factors such as blood pressure, asthma control, or eating behaviors. However, based on the evidence found so far, many researchers doubt that these benefits are substantial, if they exist at all.
Improved Quality of Life for People with COPD
Unfortunately, very few studies have looked at the implications of gratitude and gratitude interventions for COPD patients specifically. Those that have, however, have come up with similar results to those found in other gratitude studies.
One study, for example, found that people with COPD who are predisposed to feel gratitude tend to have a better quality of life than those who don't share that trait. Researchers from one study specifically recommended gratitude exercises as a means for COPD patients to "work toward more flexible, positive thinking through the use of concrete tools."
This suggests that gratitude is not only beneficial for people with chronic diseases, but that gratitude exercises can be an effective tool for coping with COPD specifically. This is echoed in the personal testimonies of COPD patients (on sites like copd.net) who have found and hope and healing through gratitude.
To sum it all up, gratitude helps you appreciate what you have and feel more satisfied with your life and relationships, even when things are difficult because of your COPD. Doing activities that foster gratitude and other positive emotions can also also make you more resilient to adversity, making it easier to cope with health-related misfortunes such as hospitalization or COPD-related physical decline.
Potential Drawbacks of Gratitude Practice
While gratitude can be a helpful tool for good, it can sometimes backfire if used in the wrong way. For example, focusing on too much on gratitude—or letting it become a rigid way of thinking—can undermine other valid thoughts and emotions you have.
You might start to think “I shouldn't think these negative thoughts, I should feel grateful!” which can just make you feel guilty for feeling bad. That's why gratitude isn't supposed to be used to replace negative feelings, but rather to add more positive feelings and thoughts into your life.
You shouldn't ever feel pressured to feel grateful; it's okay to feel how you feel, even if you feel bad, and even if you have lots of things to be grateful for. In fact, it's important to let yourself experience unpleasant emotions without judgment or shame, and to make peace with your negative feelings rather than wishing them away.
According to the psychotherapist Katie Willard Virant, "to be thankful for what one possesses does not mean that one cannot simultaneously feel grief for what one has lost.” She explains how her experiences have taught her that gratitude does not necessarily put a stop to mourning, but rather “[places] it into a context that [makes] it more bearable.”
Another thing you should avoid during gratitude practice is comparing yourself to other people, which often leads to unnecessary judgment and guilt. For example, you might end up thinking, “Some people have illnesses that are worse than mine, so I shouldn't feel so depressed about having COPD!”
It's important to remember that your feelings—whatever they are—are valid, no matter whether or not other people have it better or worse than you. In fact, there's no need to pass any judgment at all about what you “should” or “shouldn't” feel grateful for. Whatever you can find to appreciate within yourself and your own circumstances is worthwhile, no matter what other people's circumstances might be.
As you practice gratitude, it's important to check in every once in awhile to make sure it's helping and working for you. Gratitude practice isn't for everyone, and it's only worth doing if it actually helps you feel better, not worse.
How to Practice Gratitude
Now that we've discussed the merits and reasoning behind using gratitude as a coping method for COPD, let's take a closer look at some different techniques for practicing gratitude. In the following sections, we'll introduce you to several simple gratitude exercises along with some helpful tips for how to get started on your own.
Like most types of mental health and coping techniques, everyone's experience is different, and different methods tend to work for different people. So, if you're new to gratitude practice (and even if you're not), you might need to try out more than one method before it sticks.
Gratitude works best when you practice it frequently; ideally, you should try to do a gratitude exercise every day or at least a few times per week. You might find it easier to make it a habit if you integrate the exercises into an existing daily routine, such as your usual self-care regimen or bedtime preparations.
Also keep in mind that none of these practices are set in stone; feel free to tweak, adjust, and combine these exercises—and any others you come up with—however you see fit. What's important is to find a technique that feels meaningful and resonates with you.
Daily Gratitude Reflections
Doing daily gratitude reflections is probably the easiest way to practice gratitude: all you have to do is spend a few minutes at the end of every day to think back on good experiences and the things you have to appreciate. It's a great place to start if you're new to gratitude practice since it's quick, simple, and doesn't take any special skills or supplies.
The goal of these reflections is to put yourself in a mindset of positivity and gratitude long enough to come up with at least a few specific things that you feel thankful for. Those things can be just about anything: something good that happened to you, something that's made you happy recently, or just about anything positive you've might have noticed or experienced throughout the day.
You might find these gratitude reflections more difficult some days than others, such as when you feel sick or things just aren't going your way. However, it gets easier to access feelings of gratitude—even on the bad days—over time as you practice putting yourself in the mindset of actively seeking out the good things in your life.
Gratitude journaling is one of the most common and well-studied methods for practicing gratitude. It's basically just like gratitude reflection but with one extra step: you have to write down the things you are thankful for, or at least write down your thoughts about good things you've noticed or experienced throughout the day.
There's no hard and fast rules for exactly how to complete a gratitude journal entry, so most of the details are up to you. As long as you get it down on paper, you can express what you're grateful for in whatever way prefer, whether it's in a few bullet points, a picture collage, or a few sentences expressing what you feel.
You don't even have to use an actual journal if you don't want to; you can jot down your entries on a spare piece of paper or napkin if you'd like. However, using a dedicated notebook or digital document makes it easier to keep your entries together in case you want to look back on them again later.
While you should try to journal on a regular basis, if not every day, you can spend as much or little time on your gratitude journal entries as you like. It's a simple, flexible practice that doesn't have to take more than a few minutes out of your day.
Practicing Gratitude Meditation
Another way to practice gratitude is with gratitude meditation, a type of mindfulness meditation that—like other gratitude interventions—is designed to stimulate positive feelings through gratitude and appreciation. What makes this intervention unique is the meditation aspect, which essentially serves as focusing tool; it helps you calm your mind, take control of your thoughts, and immerse yourself more fully into the experience.
Just like all forms of meditation, gratitude meditation takes practice, and it's best to seek out some instruction before you try to do it on your own. Luckily, you can find plenty of free resources online, including guided meditation scripts, videos and audio recordings.
Most gratitude meditations are anywhere from 5-15 minutes long, but you can make your meditations whatever length you'd like them to be. You can even do 2-5 minute mini meditations that are perfect for busy mid-day schedules or practicing on the go.
Having COPD means having to face a number of challenges, including significant changes and, often, significant loss. But though you cannot always control what hardships come upon you, you can control how you respond to these health hardships—even if it takes some time, support, and practice to figure out how.
Gratitude exercises can be valuable tools for coping with adversity and for easing the mental toll of living with COPD. They not only inspire positive feelings, but also help you build up the mental resilience you need to stay strong when things get tough.
Practicing gratitude helps you construct a more balanced perspective on your life in general and teaches you how to direct your thoughts and emotions toward more positive things. This can help you cope with everyday COPD challenges and stay mentally healthy throughout the long journey of battling chronic disease.