Gratitude and Silver Linings in a Time of Unrelenting Stress

by Coleen Vanderbeek, Psy.D., LPC

Balancing optimism with the acceptance of harsh realities can be difficult under the best of circumstances. In the midst of a life-altering stressor like the COVID-19 pandemic, however, it can feel like a next-to-impossible tightrope walk.

Both mental health professionals and well-meaning lay folks have shared endless ideas about how to cope with the fear, boredom, grief, and ambiguity that have been our constant companions since March of this year. Some advocate for an acceptance approach: Accept yourself where you are! Be kind to yourself! Sit with and tolerate the discomfort and the solitude! Face the facts! Lower expectations of yourself and others! Resist the urge to compare yourself with others! Just do the best that you can!

Others, however, suggest that we work hard to stay positive: Learn a new skill! Finish that home project you’ve been putting off! Enjoy the extra time with your family! Look for the life lessons! Reach out to others! Find a way to do what you do for a living or for fun in the virtual world!

During this time of pain and uncertainty, how does anyone know what aspects of this seemingly opposite advice to follow? Individuals who have lost a loved one, or who are still recovering themselves from COVID, or who have been financially devastated by the pandemic, may not have much energy or interest to examine mental health coping strategies. But as we approach the holiday season, and Thanksgiving in particular, it may be useful to reconnect with a sense gratitude for what we have, and even to acknowledge the unexpected silver linings that some have discovered in the midst of the pandemic.

Several of the most promising interventions for improving mental health that are derived from the field of “Positive Psychology” have targeted appreciation/gratitude, which is defined as an acknowledgment of the meaning and value of something, and a positive emotional connection to it. A growing body of evidence suggests that gratitude is related to greater positive emotion, optimism, life satisfaction, and academic achievement. Grateful thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are also related to improved social functioning, and to decreased anger, anxiety, depression, materialism, and envy. Also, there are research studies that demonstrate the effectiveness of some relatively simple interventions that can quickly foster grateful thoughts and feelings in both children and adults, such as keeping a gratitude journal.

It is important, however, to distinguish between a stance of gratitude, and what has been labeled as “toxic positivity”. Those who always emphasize “looking on the bright side” run the risk of ignoring, or turning too quickly away from, the painful emotions that are an inevitable part of life. They do themselves and others a disservice by minimizing or invalidating feelings of sadness, fear, grief, and uncertainty, often judging themselves harshly for feeling bad. Additionally, the avoidance of painful emotions is a common factor that contributes to a variety of mental health symptoms and disorders.

This is not to say that cultivating a positive outlook is a bad thing: it is, in fact, the basis of many of the most powerful tools of cognitive-behavior therapy. But it is the acceptance of reality as it is, both situationally and emotionally, that ultimately frees us up to be optimistic and proactive. Accepting without judgment all our emotions provides a pathway to more effective problem solving, and overall better mental health.

So, in anticipation of Thanksgiving and the holiday season, first give yourself permission to feel, label, and articulate, without judgment, ALL your feelings. Then, start considering what you personally and professionally are grateful for, including the possible silver linings of this devastating pandemic.

While most of us have been separated from extended family members and friends, either because of quarantine or other losses, many will also have positive memories for years to come of extra time with those with whom they quarantined. While stressed parents tore their hair out trying to balance generating an income and overseeing their children’s education, small children, teens, and even young adults who stayed or returned home had the opportunity to more fully appreciate the support of family.

For those whose homes are the opposite of supportive, we can hope that the spotlight placed on the role that schools play in identifying child abuse and domestic violence will move the needle in the direction of enhanced funding and programming for these vulnerable individuals. In fact, on a more general level, one silver lining will likely be a greater appreciation by parents, school boards, and communities for the role that teachers and schools play in the lives of children. In addition to academics, schools provide meals, childcare, social and recreational activities, parent/family support, as well as critical rehabilitative and health-related services, including mental health education, screening and treatment.

Despite the technical nightmares that many educators faced in the early days of the pandemic, there is no doubt that most will emerge from this crisis with less resistance, improved technology skills, and a greater understanding of how technology can enhance rather than replace in-person learning. Perhaps a fuller appreciation of the “relational” aspect of learning can emerge, that is, an acknowledgment for the educational value of teacher-student and student-student relationships and interactions. Institutions of higher education have perhaps learned ways to expand their global customer base via online class offerings, while primary and secondary schools may have found ways to include students who are homebound in a more vibrant and meaningful way.

One potentially powerful silver lining of the pandemic is the way in which educational and health care disparities have been brought into sharper focus. While activists in both arenas have worked long and hard to address disproportionality, the pandemic will hopefully be a catalyst to address the ways in which minorities, especially black and Hispanic individuals, have been denied equal access to health care and educational opportunities. While many school systems had already begun to address the disproportionality in the way that minority youth are disciplined and/or classified as disabled, perhaps the pandemic will accelerate and expand these efforts.

And finally, healthcare is in the process of being revolutionized before our eyes now that telehealth has come into its own in a big way. The possibility that more accessible and inclusive medical and mental health services can be delivered more efficiently and inexpensively is a silver lining that now seems within reach. To be sure, the mental health professionals at Effective School Solutions are working hard to absorb the lessons to be learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, and are grateful for the professional collaborations that will carry us through and beyond this crisis.

Resources:

Time to ditch ‘toxic positivity’, experts say: ‘It’s okay to not be okay’

A Silver Linings Playbook: COVID-19 Edition

Reinventing K-12 Mental Health Care. Effective School Solution partners with school districts to help develop K-12 whole-school mental health programs.

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