Gratitude and The Trauma-Sensitive Approach

Thanksgiving is upon us and with it comes people sharing a meal and discussing how grateful they are for their lives and their loved ones. However, it is vital to understand that not everyone is grateful, but they feel pain in its place.


This article will explore a different approach to gratitude that is trauma-sensitive.


Thanksgiving Rubbish




Too often survivors of complex trauma are bombarded during the Thanksgiving season with advertisements and other media about how they should be grateful.

Survivors are told to write the things they are grateful for, beginning with their family of origin.


But what if the survivor isn’t grateful for their family of origin? What if they are alone and lonely this Thanksgiving? Does that make them a freak?


When amid healing from complex trauma brought on by parents and family who abused and neglected them, survivors find it exceedingly difficult to be grateful for anything.


The treatment these survivors received when kids have left open wounds and scars that no amount of thanksgiving rubbish can heal.


What Gratitude Is and Is not



The word gratitude means thanks, appreciation, and pleasing. When one feels gratitude they are expressing that they are pleased with someone or with the results of an action. Genuine gratitude is given freely, and not coerced, and involves no anxiety about having to pay someone else back.


Obviously, survivors of childhood trauma, such as neglect or abuse of any kind, are not pleased by the actions of their abusers. Neither must they feel all warm and fuzzy when faced with a holiday like Thanksgiving.


Unfortunately, society pressures people into believing they should feel guilty if they are not thankful, forcing many survivors to feel rejected and dejected.

  • Gratitude is not something that can be forced.
  • Gratitude is not feeling happy about what happened in the past.
  • Gratitude is not saying the right words.
  • Gratitude is not about doing the right actions.


No, gratitude is freely felt and freely given to yourself and others, not just on a holiday in November, but always.


Indeed, the following quote describes gratitude as it should be.


“Gratitude is not about diminishing how difficult and unprecedented this all is, or being all Pollyanna about it, or pretending you’re not anxious and that everything’s fine. Because things are not fine, for anybody.” (Judy Moskowitz, Ph.D., M.P.H., professor of medical social sciences at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine)



The Trauma-Sensitive Approach to Thanksgiving



Trauma is a word that seems vague and perhaps it is, but its definition is any upsetting or interrupting major event that disrupts a person’s ability to cope with their day-to-day life. Trauma often leaves survivors feeling disjointed from other people and struggling against depression and anxiety.


A trauma-sensitive approach takes into consideration and understands the prevalent nature of trauma and stimulates environments of healing rather than using services and practices that re-traumatize survivors inadvertently.


Trauma-informed care practice and awareness require a shift from society and therapists asking, “What is wrong with this person?” to “What happened to this person?” This fundamental change aids both mental health professionals and the survivor in changing how the survivor is seen and how their trauma should be approached.


With Thanksgiving, a holiday that celebrates being grateful, the trauma-informed approach allows mental health professionals to prepare their clients for the bombardment of platitudes that they will face. These clichés include society telling survivors they MUST be happy and forgive all who have harmed them to fit the holiday.


It is critical to remember that no, they don’t. Besides the point that it is futile. Trying to force someone to feel guilty because they are not grateful is cruel and does not acknowledge the pain from the past


Forming gratitude for today and forgiveness (if desired) takes massive amounts of time to achieve and will happen in the timing of the survivor, not because of a guilt trip put on them by family and society.


It simply isn’t fair that society thinks survivors should overflow with joy during the holiday season. The trauma-informed approach recognizes this and works to instill in a survivor a sense of peace with themselves before ever approaching the subject of joy at Thanksgiving.


Three Ways To Be Thankful



Scientists look at gratitude as being expressed in three different ways, including emotionally, as a trait, and as a practice. Let us explore each approach together to lay minds at rest as to the definition of thankfulness and what it means to them.


Emotionally. Gratitude is seen by scientists as a momentary emotional experience, a temporary state that occurs when something good happens, such as someone else doing something good for you. You may note that emotional thankfulness does not include any coercion or shame but allows a survivor to experience in their life today all that others have done for them over the past year and does not approach childhood trauma at all.


As a Trait. Gratitude is also seen by scientists as a dispositional characteristic such as how grateful of a person the survivor is. Some of these characteristics may include how the survivor notices the good in their life today and enjoys the goodness that is available now. Also, this trait involves how survivors enjoy the goodness that is available to them outside themselves. This form of experiencing gratitude involves opening up to the possibility of enjoying life without being obligated to do so.


As a Practice. There are many practices a person can adopt to become grateful for the things they experience in life today. Paying attention to what is good and healthy in your relationships at work and home instead of dwelling on the painful ones of the past is vital to healing. However, once again, doing so not does not come quickly or easily, but takes time and a willingness to change.


A study in 2010 examined dozens of studies to look at the effects of gratitude on mental illness, well-being, and social relationships. They found that people who lived with higher expressions of gratitude were likely to experience decreased depression and greater well-being with higher satisfaction with life in general. Clearly, there are benefits to gratitude.


Pulling it All Together


Childhood trauma leaves survivors with deep wounds that cannot be plastered over with a sense of gratitude. So, the point I am trying to express in this article is that gratitude and thankfulness are vital to healing, but if you are not ready, it can feel like a stone around your neck.


If you decide to begin a gratitude journal or are ready to discuss gratitude with your therapist, begin simply. Are you able to see and hear? Can you work? Do you have a roof over your head? These simple and humble beginnings may lead you to a world you have seldom known.


Another practice is to surround yourself with people who love you and not necessarily your family of origin. I realize that many of us isolate and know few people, but now is the time to seek out like-minded people that you might find that in a restaurant or church setting. Volunteer at a dinner for the homeless and be surrounded by people who are grateful you are there to help them. In doing so, you will by osmosis catch the Thanksgiving spirit that so many greeting cards hint at.


Most importantly, if you remember nothing else from this article, remember this. You are not alone. There are thousands, if not millions, of advocates out here, just like me, who care deeply for you and only wish the best for you.


“If gratitude a poor man’s virtue is,
‘Tis one at least my sick soul can afford.
Bankrupt I am of all youth’s charities,
But not of thanks.” Adapted from a poem by Wilfred Scawen Blunt




Wood, A. M., Froh, J. J., & Geraghty, A. W. (2010). Gratitude and well-being: A review and theoretical integration. Clinical psychology review, 30(7), 890-905.



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