The countdown to midnight this New Year’s Eve may not include a ball drop, champagne toasts with friends, and crowds singing “Auld Lang Syne,” but that does not mean people are not looking forward to turning the calendar over to January. For a year that can only be summed up as unprecedented, it is hard to fault anyone for wanting it to conclude.
While acknowledging that many aspects of daily life were dramatically altered in 2020, a mental health expert with The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) shares that reminiscing on the moments that brought joy in this last year can help with both mental and physical wellbeing.
Research has shown that expressing gratitude can lead to increased activity within the parts of the brain that facilitate decision-making, reward-anticipation, empathy, and emotion. Cultivating a sense of gratitude has also been linked to reduced inflammation levels and better cardiovascular health.
“Making a ritual of expressing gratitude is a very powerful countermeasure that can help us to move away from focusing excessively on pain, failure, or disappointments,” said Vineeth John, MD, MBA, professor of psychiatry with McGovern Medical School at UTHealth.
Doctors and researchers with UTHealth who have been working tirelessly on the COVID-19 front lines shared their pockets of gratitude in the midst of a challenging year.
For Luis Ostrosky, MD, a professor of infectious diseases at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth, the chance to collaborate with experts from all over has been a welcome opportunity. “This year has given me the chance to meet people that I wouldn’t have otherwise met. Also the reduced travel has given me the opportunity to spend more time at home with my wife and kids,” he said.
Since the onset of the pandemic, Ostrosky has coordinated the COVID-19 response for UTHealth and its affiliate hospitals and clinics.
“I for one am grateful that everyone washes their hands more,” shared Michael Chang, MD, an assistant professor of pediatric infectious diseases with McGovern Medical School at UTHealth. “But truly, the incredible pace of scientific discovery and development related to COVID-19 will be a huge boon to fighting future pandemics as well improving current health care technology with regard to vaccines and medications,” Chang said.
His gratitude also extends to front-line nurses and providers. “They never questioned showing up for their patients, even when there were many unknowns,” he said.
Catherine Troisi, PhD, an infectious disease epidemiologist with UTHealth School of Public Health, made good use of technology to stay in touch with loved ones across the country. “We have a weekly call with my siblings in Boston and Oregon, staying up to date with what’s happening in our lives,” she said.
“And while I don’t feel safe working out at my gym, I’ve started swimming four times a week in their outdoor pool, only one person in each of the six lanes,” she added. “The quiet, the weight of the water, the sunlight through the water, it’s just a great time to pause and reflect.”
John, a geriatric psychiatrist in the Louis A. Faillace, MD, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences who sees patients at UT Physicians, shared that making it a point to express what you are grateful for does take some motivation. “Humans are very outcome-driven; we are not so much process-driven. Gratitude is part of the process. It takes work, but the benefits can keep you afloat with a sense of buoyancy for days and maybe weeks,” he said.
“As an intensive care unit provider, you know that patients don’t plan to be in the ICU that day. So it’s already a threshold where you are used to internalizing the concept that every single day is a gift,” said George W. Williams II, MD, associate professor of anesthesiology at McGovern Medical School and medical co-director of the surgical intensive care unit at Harris Health Lyndon B. Johnson Hospital.
Williams shared that for the first time in ten years, his family went for a walk together around their neighborhood. “Between work and school, we always had busy schedules to balance. We decided to slow down and take the time to enjoy something as simple as riding bikes or walking around our block together. I’m just so grateful for the opportunity to be around one another, because time is so precious,” he said.
His appreciation extended to the culture of support from within UTHealth. In the early days of the pandemic, Williams was part of a team who designed face shields for health care workers on the front lines in response to the global shortage of personal protection equipment. The team used cake collar material, a three-hole punch, and a scrapbook paper trimmer to produce the polymer sheeting for thousands of injection-molded headpieces for providers at Harris Health LBJ, Memorial Hermann, UT Physicians, and other health care facilities across the area.
For those looking to implement a habit of expressing gratitude in the new year, John suggests keeping a gratitude journal. “It doesn’t have to be anything elaborate; just take a few moments at the end of each day to reflect on three things that you are grateful for. I am sure each one of us can pinpoint those moments of magic, awe, and happiness.”
If you or a loved one are feeling overwhelmed, there are resources available, including the Crisis Text Line. Simply text HOME to 741741 to reach a professional counselor. If you are experiencing a crisis, please contact the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK. To make an appointment with a UT Physicians mental health specialist, call 888-4UT-DOCS.