Chronic Pain and the Holidays: Discovering the Spirit of Thanksgiving

Karen Lee Richards Health Guide
  • When you think of Thanksgiving, what comes to mind?  For most of us it would probably be some combination of family and food.  Thoughts of Thanksgiving might also trigger a slight sense of panic or dread as you think about all the stress and strain this holiday can put on your already painful body. 

    As I thought about what I wanted to write about regarding Thanksgiving, my first instinct was to give you the usual tips for surviving the holiday, such as not overdoing and sharing the workload.  But instead, this year I want to focus on the real purpose of Thanksgiving – giving thanks – and how that can make a difference for you all year long.

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    Taking Cues From the First Thanksgiving

    Very few details are known about the first Thanksgiving other than the fact that 90 Wampanoag Indians and 52 English colonists gathered together for a three-day harvest feast.  In a letter to a friend, dated December 1621, colonist Edward Winslow wrote that the purpose of the feast was “so we might after a more special manner rejoice together, after we had gathered the fruits of our labors.” 

    For the colonists, the bountiful harvest they gathered in the fall of 1621 was a very good reason to celebrate and give thanks because it followed a year of hunger, harsh conditions and fading hopes.  For the Wampanoag Indians, however, “thanksgiving” was apparently an activity they practiced every day. 

    In an article on the first Thanksgiving, The Christian Science Monitor quotes Linda Coombs, associate director of the Wampanoag program at Plimoth Plantation.  "We as native people [traditionally] have thanksgivings as a daily, ongoing thing.  Every time anybody went hunting or fishing or picked a plant, they would offer a prayer or acknowledgment."

    Study Shows Benefits of Thankfulness

    According to research, we would all do well to emulate those early native Americans.  A 2003 study found that people who regularly count their blessings are generally happier, feel better, and have a more positive outlook that people who don't. 

    Participants who listed the things they were grateful for once a week had a more positive appraisal of their life, spent more time exercising and reported fewer physical symptoms.  Those who made daily gratitude lists had even higher levels of optimism.  Included in the study was a group of people with neuromuscular diseases.  Although there was no significant difference in pain levels, that group did experience greater levels of positive affect, more and better quality of sleep, greater optimism and a deeper sense of connectedness to others.

    My Thoughts...

    Personally I've found that focusing on the things I'm grateful for and generally having an attitude of thankfulness makes a huge difference in how I feel.  While I can't say it necessarily reduces the level of my pain, it definitely helps me cope with the pain better and makes me a much happier person overall. 

    In my recent interview with actress Jennifer Gray, she talked about separating pain from suffering and the fact that although we may have to live with some pain, we don't have to suffer.  For me, this is what focusing on thankfulness does – reduces my suffering.

  • A Challenge for You

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    During this week before Thanksgiving, I'd like to challenge you to practice developing an attitude of gratitude.  Each day between now and Thanksgiving write down at least three things you're thankful for.  They can be big things, like your family, or small things, like the feeling you get when your cat curls up on your lap.  But you can only list something once in the week – no repititions allowed.  By Thanksgiving Day, you should have at least 21 different things for which you are grateful. 

    If you decide to take on this challenge, I hope you'll come back and share what kind of difference it made for you. 

    Wishing you all a very Happy Thanksgiving!

    Armstrong, Elizabeth. “The first Thanksgiving.” The Christian Science Monitor. November 27, 2002.
    Emmons RA, McCullough ME. “Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 2003. Vp;/ 84. Mp/ 2. 377-389

Published On: November 16, 2011