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House Call: The power of practicing gratitude

UPDATED: Wed., Nov. 25, 2020

Kirsty Hart of Meals on Wheels holds hands and chats with Ronna Sue Johnson, who smiles during an opening ceremony for the new location of the Silver Cafe, one of 12 congregate sites for GSC Meals on Wheels, on Jan. 31 at St. Mary of the Presentation, 602 E. Sixth St., in Deer Park.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Kirsty Hart of Meals on Wheels holds hands and chats with Ronna Sue Johnson, who smiles during an opening ceremony for the new location of the Silver Cafe, one of 12 congregate sites for GSC Meals on Wheels, on Jan. 31 at St. Mary of the Presentation, 602 E. Sixth St., in Deer Park. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
By Dr. Jeff Markin For The Spokesman-Review

After months of what’s felt like dodging curveballs around every corner, the idea of giving thanks or even celebrating might seem impossible, but it might also be the most important challenge for us yet in 2020.

Something to remember is negativity doesn’t just take the joy out of life, it can take over our lives and even our physical health as stress and anxiety build up like it has this year. It also can leave us drained and wondering how we can celebrate a season of giving when we feel we don’t have anything left to give.

The truth is we can’t help others if we don’t first take care of ourselves. We might need to change our own outlook on the holidays if we are to genuinely embody the spirit of the season.

You may have heard of the mind-body connection, which is how our thoughts impact our physical health – and it’s true. Research suggests our brains produce chemicals based on our thoughts and feelings.

Let’s say you catch a cold but maintain positive thoughts you’ll get better: Your brain signals your body to boost its healing power. Through positive thinking, we also might help lower blood pressure and stress, reduce risk for heart disease and help our immune system resist infection.

In the spirit of this season, saying what we’re grateful for can help us feel more positive, too. Multiple studies suggest that practicing gratitude can make people more optimistic and connected to others.

Whether that’s writing relatives a letter of appreciation, starting a family tradition of saying thanks before a meal or pausing to appreciate everything you have, thoughts and words can have meaningful impact.

When my kids were small, we practiced a daily ritual where each family member shared an affirmation about everyone else. It was amazing to watch the positive impact this had on both the giver of the affirmation and the recipient.

It also can help to share your feelings with a friend or relative, which helps us keep our thoughts in perspective. Just remember, it’s equally as important to support others as it is to seek support for ourselves. We can never be sure what others are going through until we take the time to ask.

When we do, we’re building a social connection that helps us all become more resilient in the long haul. It can open our eyes to what other members of our community might be experiencing and inspire ways we can help.

Maintaining relationships during the holidays is especially important for our senior community members this year. The challenge we all face is fostering connections in ways that truly matter. Even small actions can have a tremendous impact on mitigating social isolation and food insecurity, and they include the following:

• Arrange for contactless delivery of a homemade meal to a friend.

• Arrange for contactless grocery pickup/doorstep drop-off for an elderly neighbor.

• Create a paper chain of gratitude and write what you’re thankful for on each strip. You also can start a gratitude tree and hang the strips on a tree in your front yard so neighbors can add their own.

• Take this time to reflect and go through old photos and memorabilia (scan and upload old photos and make them into custom puzzles, a great, mentally stimulating gift idea for grandparents).

• Make a phone call to check on and catch up with someone you haven’t heard from in a while.

Due to the risks of COVID-19 exposure, our seniors are dealing with daily anxiety from simple tasks like going to the grocery store, for a walk or exercise, to a doctor for an appointment or vaccination or to get fuel for their vehicle.

This increased stress and avoidance of self-care can lead to weight loss, malnutrition and depression. Many already suffer reduced mobility or loss of a spouse, further contributing to their social isolation. Whatever the case might be, remember that help, including the three resources listed with this House Call column, is within reach.

In addition to knowing what resources exist, we all have a role to play when it comes to safely and thoughtfully helping neighbors and isolated family members during this holiday season.

By practicing gratitude daily, we can find the renewed energy and positivity we need to support one another during this challenging holiday season.

Dr. Jeff Markin is a family medicine physician practicing at Kaiser Permanente’s Veradale Medical Center.

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