Find a way to record gratitude. Whether it’s a ratty notebook with sentimental value because your best friend gave it to you in high school, your phone or device, or a special journal, having a ritual, consistent space to write and record gratitude tells you to treat yourself well and pay attention to what you’re doing.
As we all know, times are tough right now. In addition to the acute medical crisis caused by the Pandemic, in our post COVID world, we are also experiencing what some have called a “mental health pandemic”.
What can each of us do to get out of this “Pandemic Induced Mental and Emotional Funk”?
One tool that each of us has access to is the simple power of daily gratitude. As a part of our series about the “How Each Of Us Can Leverage The Power Of Gratitude To Improve Our Overall Mental Wellness ” I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Diane Solomon.
Dr. Solomon originally received her Master of Science in Nursing from Yale, becoming a Certified Nurse-Midwife devoted to women’s empowerment and health. After two decades of practice, she returned to Oregon Health & Sciences University to become a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner. Dr. Solomon also holds a certificate in psychoanalytic psychotherapy and a PhD in Nursing. With a private psychiatric practice in Portland, she is also a health policy advocate, promoting the NP role and NP solution to primary and behavioral healthcare through systems-level change, organizational consulting, engagement, action, and collaboration. She volunteers as adjunct faculty at OHSU, on the Boards of Oregon Nurses Association, Nurse Practitioners of Oregon, the Oregon Wellness Program, and most recently on the Governor’s Behavioral Health Advisory Council.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about you and about what brought you to your specific career path?
As a child, I had life-threatening asthma. This was in a time when asthma therapies were much more primitive than they are today. My mother, or maternal grandparents, had to pick me up from school at a moment’s notice several times a week to come home and use the “breathing machine” (nebulizer) when I had an asthma attack. A malpracticing allergist treated me with anabolic steroids (yes, the ones athletes take illegally!) and hormone shots which didn’t particularly help my asthma, but definitely stunted my growth. I’m well under five feet, while my parents and brothers are much taller. I still get comments on my “great arm definition.” I appreciate the compliments and I do work out, so that helps, but I know that muscle definition is really because of the childhood steroids!!
By the time I was in high school, I had been poked, prodded, hospitalized so many times, and when I was 14 I nearly died. I can remember hanging onto life tenaciously in the operating room, barely able to breathe, and only letting go and letting myself lose consciousness when I felt secure I was going to make it. That lifetime of interface with the medical system gave me an understanding of good healthcare and bad, both technically in terms of medical treatments, and humanly, in terms of compassion, understanding, and what it means to truly touch a patient, on all levels. I thought I wanted to become a physician, but the nurse practitioner model of relationship-based healthcare — vs. the medical school model of disease treatment — was much more aligned with what I knew to be best for patients.
Finally, I grew up with three wonderful older brothers. People always assume they must have coddled me and treated me like a princess. Far from it! I was the youngest and only girl, and they didn’t feel comfortable with my smarts or my opinions — which were as good as theirs! So I grew up anxious about their approval, but learned to be scrappy and strong, as well as an ardent feminist — I was a charter subscriber to Ms. Magazine at age 12. For all these reasons, I devoted my career to healing, women’s health, mental health and wellbeing, and advocating for better health policy to fix a broken healthcare system.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
There are so many! In healthcare there is an abbreviation, TNTC, which stands for “too numerous to count.” Is the most interesting story the time I’d worked years delivering babies in Native American and Latinx communities so when I was helping a white woman and her baby was crowning (and bald) I was sure I’d made a mistake and the baby was breech, with the butt presenting (I hadn’t miscalculated — I just wasn’t used to hairless babies!)? Was it all the times I tried to grocery shop in the local Safeway in a rural town in Oregon where I practiced women’s health, and was accosted by patients in the aisles wanting to ask me very indiscreet questions? Or when psychiatric patients have been seated at my table at fundraising events, or began dating people I had known professionally and personally for years? TNTC, you decide!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why do you think that resonates with you? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
Because of my history growing up as the only girl with three raucous, sometimes intimidating, relentlessly teasing older brothers (with the exception of the one who grew up to be a psychologist, who was often a protector), I’ve always appreciated Nietzsche’s “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” But as I’ve aged and devoted myself to mental health and wellbeing, I prefer to focus on what I’m grateful for every day rather than the negatives that may have almost (literally or figuratively!) killed me. My last marriage, to an alcoholic/addict who relapsed, brought me to Al-Anon, for which I will be forever grateful. I can’t think of better “Life Lesson Quotes,” than many 12-step ones I try to remind myself of whenever necessary: “One day at a time,” “Live and let live,” “Take what you like and leave the rest,” and “Progress, not perfection,” just for starters.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story about why that resonated with you?
The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, by the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Abrams. Abrams, a Jew, was able to bring the Dalai Lama and Tutu together for a week, ask them whatever he wanted, listen, and scribe. I read this book shortly after it came out in 2016 and, among other practices, it suggested a daily gratitude practice. I have kept a nightly gratitude journal ever since.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I’m actually in the midst of an exciting but honestly anxiety-provoking transition. I have taken care of patients — from cradle to grave, physically and emotionally, one-on-one, for over 35 years. I’m excited to move beyond micro-care of individual patients to macro-care of groups of individuals and entire systems we use to provide health, and mental healthcare. I know I’ll use my talents and experience in healthcare policy, writing, warmth, mental health, and passion to inspire others while thriving myself. I strive to be a wise mentor who inspires hope and change in others. What that completely looks like, whether a podcast, book, blog, faculty position, speaking, or what have you remains to be seen. That’s where the excitement and anxiety come in, frankly. I’m grateful for the excitement of a new path, of course, but for the anxiety opportunity as well — I get to work with that daily and, at my best, transmute worry into positive energy.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I think many women my age lacked great female mentors as there was a scarcity mentality of only enough room at the top for perhaps one woman, if even that. I preferred working for and by myself early on to avoid judgment or competitiveness I didn’t want to fall prey to or participate in. As corny as it may sound, I extremely grateful for my parents. They weren’t perfect — no parents are or should stive to be! — but they reflected faith in me and my abilities, and that is precious. My mother wanted me to marry and let myself be financially supported by a husband, which I scorned, but she also exuded pride in my intelligence and capacity to do whatever I wanted. My father, on the other hand, never held a double standard for me and my brothers, and that still keeps me stiving professionally step after step in my career.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now that we are on the topic of gratitude, let’s move to the main focus of our interview. As you know, the collective mental health of our country is facing extreme pressure. We would like to explore together how every one of us can use gratitude to improve our mental wellness. Let’s start with a basic definition of terms. How do you define the concept of Gratitude? Can you explain what you mean?
To me, gratitude simply means finding opportunities to be thankful each day. At the end of a bad day — we all have em’ — I may only be able to feel grateful the day is over, but that’s something I’m definitely grateful for! On a good day, I can recall a list of sacred and mundane moments that punctuated my day with a pause, a noticing, a warm feeling, from a stranger’s smile to a friend reaching out unexpectedly; a delicious fresh peach to a special moment shared giggling with a loved one.
Why do you think so many people do not feel gratitude? How would you articulate why a simple emotion can be so elusive?
Our brains are expertly hardwired to “take in the bad,” more than to “take in the good.” When we lived in the cave, it was so much more important to embed the danger of a saber-toothed tiger than the fragrant aroma of a jasmine flower — our lives depended on it. Hopefully, most of us don’t literally need to worry about saber-toothed tigers today, but figuratively our brains focus on threats — bills to pay, errant offspring, relationship problems — more than what’s going right. We have to bring attention to looking and savoring ways to foster gratitude to make it stick. Like any other habit, it’s a practice.
This might be intuitive to you but I think it will be constructive to help spell it out. Can you share with us a few ways that increased gratitude can benefit and enhance our life?
The science is robust that gratitude improves wellbeing for those who practice it. It’s like drinking water or eating healthily or getting enough sleep or meditating. It takes practice and consistency, and the more we focus on gratitude, the more we notice things to be grateful for. Say you like red cars. You don’t notice red cars, but if you tell yourself every morning before getting in the driver’s seat that you’re going to notice red cars, suddenly red cars are everywhere! With gratitude, it’s not magic — there is still suffering in all our lives — but being grateful for the red cars punctuates our days more and more with positive emotions. That benefits and enhances our wellbeing in general.
Let’s talk about mental wellness in particular. Can you share with us a few examples of how gratitude can help improve mental wellness?
Another thing I love about gratitude is the pause for reflection. I may have been irritable or frustrated much of my day at work, or annoyed on the road, or even felt slighted by a friend. At night, when I take out my gratitude journal, I focus on the underlying goodness in those events. I’m grateful my stress at work is propelling me to grow my career in new directions, that COVID-19 has done an amazing job at alleviating bad traffic for an entire year! And that my feeling unheard by a friend allows me the opportunity to connect with that person and clarify and improve an important relationship.
Ok wonderful. Now here is the main question of our discussion. From your experience or research, what are “Five Ways That Each Of Us Can Leverage The Power Of Gratitude To Improve Our Overall Mental Wellness”. Can you please share a story or example for each?
- Find a way to record gratitude. Whether it’s a ratty notebook with sentimental value because your best friend gave it to you in high school, your phone or device, or a special journal, having a ritual, consistent space to write and record gratitude tells you to treat yourself well and pay attention to what you’re doing.
- Start small. I like to write at least three things I’m grateful for each night, but starting with even one is perfect. It might be tiny moments — the birds on the track flitting away while I was jogging, the freshness and redolence of the early morning air as I stepped outside to fetch the morning paper. Or soulful — grateful I had a conflict with my kids where I kept my cool and felt I really listened; that they seemed to feel better after and we healed old hurts.
- Be specific. Some days, I reflect for several moments to discover something about the day that was unique. “I’m grateful for food” may cut it once, but not all the time. “I’m grateful for lunch with (my son who lives with autism) and how he smiled and made me laugh when he threw his voice and sounded exactly like that movie character he was quoting.”
- Be kind to you. Putting yourself down for anything that has to do with a gratitude practice is against the rules! If you skip a day, don’t worry. If you are only grateful that the day is over, don’t worry — that’s a great gratitude! If you aren’t into writing but just notice throughout your day that you’re grateful for the sun, the smile a stranger gave you, or the fact that the grocery store was no longer out of your favorite olives, don’t worry, great!
- Share your story. Any new practice takes time and self compassion. Talking about it, asking others how they do it, opening up about how awkward it may feel, all help!
Is there a particular practice that can be used during a time when one is feeling really down, really vulnerable, or really sensitive?
I’m in psychiatry, so I am a huge believer in all the tools: healthy selfcare, psychotherapy, and mental health medications whenever they can be helpful. What works for one person in a vulnerable place — say, reaching out to call a friend, may feel too hard or the opposite of what’s needed for another. One quick practice that seems to work for most people, if we can remember to use it, is to take a breath and at least a moment of space. We are all better when we can “pause and respond” rather than “react and attack.” And remember, we are all enough, just where we are, every moment, doing the best we can.
Do you have any favorite books, podcasts, or resources that you would recommend to our readers to help them to live with gratitude?
If people want gratitude journals that help them through prompting questions, they can search for those, and a lot of people find them helpful. If you simply Google “gratitude resources,” there is a plethora of websites, podcasts, prompts, and practices. As I mentioned, The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, by the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Abrams is also great. Not only because it offers ways to be grateful, but because it normalizes the problems and sufferings that all of us — even the Dalai Lama! — have. That can be comforting, whereas I think some resources devoted to gratitude run the risk of making people feel there’s something wrong with them if they’re not grateful about everything all the time. That’s just wrong.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
On an individual level, I’m passionate about teaching people simple ways to improve wellbeing, one minute at a time. On a collective level, I’m passionate about nurses and nurse practitioners as the best-kept healthcare secret. Though nurses are the most trusted profession for 19 years running, a recent study (the Woodhull Study) reaffirmed nurses’/nurse practitioners’ expert health and mental health knowledge is consistently underrepresented in the media. I think this is because nurses/NPs are still a predominantly female profession and our society is still quite implicitly sexist. Nurses and nurse practitioners should be at every healthcare table — their knowledge, skill, and compassion can transform our bloated, broken healthcare system in a way that could take better care of us all!
What is the best way our readers can further follow your work online?
On Twitter: https://twitter.com/DianeSolomonOR
Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!