top of page

Alternative to gratitude practice with all the health benefits for chronic illness: Savouring


Savouring in action (what is it?)

This one quality (attitude/approach) is a fundamental necessity for all other healing efforts to hit the spot. One of the first and most subtle indicators of change I see in therapy, no matter the therapeutic goals, goes something like this:


Me: How was home practice this week?

Client: It’s actually been a really difficult week. I didn’t get a chance to do it that much. I’ve been spiralling a little about whether I’m going to be able to do that thing I have planned, that I’ve really been looking forward to.

Me: Tell me a bit more

Client: Well it’s the usual fears and I can see that a bit more clearly now, although in the moment it’s really got me down. But you know what, I was able to go to see that play I wanted to. And I really enjoyed it. I was knackered afterwards for a bit. On the night though, it just felt so good. The atmosphere and just being in the theatre again. The play itself…

Did you see it? The bit that shows that subtle change? It can be hard to see without the prior comparisons, but maybe you see it anyway.

People often come to therapy when there is something to change. It is rarer (at least in the UK) for people to come to therapy for “maintenance” or a gentle exploration without an emphasis on a specific intervention. And for that reason, therapy sessions are often oriented around the target i.e. “the problem”. Unsaid and unconscious for both therapist and client may be that if we do not focus our efforts there, we are not sufficiently tackling the problem.

And yet this is not quite so accurate. In fact, I have to consistently remind myself of the importance of staying with and amplifying the things that are going well. We can learn a lot from these things! We do ourselves a disservice for skipping over those moments of good- whether that be pleasure, achievement, satisfaction, fun or anything else. These are powerful grounders and counterbalances that allow us to more adequately tackle the difficult stuff.

So, to go back to my example therapy excerpt: Here the client is deliberately amplifying the good. They are not so much in a rush to redirect back to the problem, with the subconscious sense that it is a waste of therapy to spend a little time on the pleasure they experienced. They are almost reliving the pleasurable moment and with that savouring it live in session. When I see this happen, I vicariously feel the pleasure of my clients. It is a beautiful thing. I also feel excited because they are now automatically savouring. And savouring is something that has multiple health benefits in itself.

Health benefits of savouring

Savouring can dampen the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis stress response in the body [1], reduce inflammatory biomarkers in the blood stream and improve sleep [2]. However, the power in savouring, I believe, is in what it allows to happen in our mood and our broader experiences. When we savour, we experience increases in motivation [3], in optimism [4] and positive affect [5]. Not only do positive affect and optimism themselves have direct associations with positive health outcomes [6-8], they are fundamental facilitators for engagement. If we lack motivation, we may not engage in the thing that will help us (health behaviours). If we feel pessimistic about the outcome of something, we are less likely to do it, or even if we do, we may not reap the benefits of it. These attitudes and feelings are therefore so important in our health journeys. This too is reflected in the research [9]. In short, the more able we are to be with and really experience the positive, pleasurable and satisfying, the more we feel empowered and reinforced to meet health challenges.

Beyond gratitude

When exploring this topic with clients we often run into the “g” word… Gratitude. Now this can be a loaded one for a lot of people because quite frankly f*** gratitude when your health is failing you and people have been sh**** and it seems like the stressors are piling up. That can become its own brand of toxic positivity. Now I am not anti-gratitude practices. Far from it. And if people have established practices that make them feel good, that is great and only helpful. I always want to hear how people are applying their gratitude practice and watch out for signs of turning to things to be grateful for when having “bad thoughts”. This tends not to be as helpful, because it can become a form of thought and emotion suppression. And sometimes it is important to acknowledge the bad or sad thoughts and not minimise or seek to erase with gratitude.

All that being said, savouring is NOT gratitude practice. Although the two practices may complement each other. Savouring is more of an experiential affective practice, whereas gratitude can be a more cognitive or at least cognitively led practice. Let’s tease out the difference.

A common gratitude practice might involve you naming things that you are grateful for. That involves you deliberately thinking (i.e. cognitive) about what you are grateful for and trying to elicit emotion from that thought. It is here where gratitude practices can break down for many because there is a division between the thinking brain and the feeling brain. Cue “I know I should feel lucky because x, y, z, but I still feel awful.” And that might be followed by some guilt. This guilt or shame can make gratitude go sour.

In contrast, savouring is experiential. It eradicates the need for thinking. It is an attitude or a quality of approach to something being experienced. For example, if I am sitting on my couch listening to some music, rather focusing on intentionally thinking “I’m so grateful to be sat here with the time to listen to music”, I move my attention to how it feels to sit here on my couch listening to music. The softness of the textures around me. The comfortable temperature. The melodies and volume as the music meets my ears. How I can reposition my body to lean into the comfort more. This moment of turning towards the experience might last seconds, or minutes. The beauty of savouring is that there is no minimum time threshold in order for it to be good for you. Multiple mini-moments of savouring are like shots of safety being fed back into your nervous system. We cannot feel threat when we feel peaceful or playful or pleasure. Sure, we can feel pleasure and then feel threat again but they don’t happen simultaneously. And the more we can counterbalance threat with safety via savouring, the more our nervous systems have the chance to “rewire” in the direction of balance rather than hypervigilance or shutdown.

Practicing savouring

Not only is savouring good for you, it feels good. And as there is no minimum time threshold for benefit, there is zero pressure. So here is the invite for you today.

Think of your week ahead. List out some of the things you do that you might be able to make more enjoyable if you savour it. I’ll kick you off with some of my favourites but come up with your own that fit.

Examples:

Morning sip of coffee, opening the curtains and seeing the garden, stroking a pet, showering, mid-morning movement, closing the laptop, eating dinner, getting into bed and getting comfortable.

Hopefully these demonstrate the momentary nature of savouring. It’s not big chunks of time like “going to the cinema” or “seeing a friend” although there may be lovely chunks you can savour when doing these things too.

Now once you have listed out what you intend to savour, set the goal to drop in at the end of each day, to jot down what moments you savoured and how it felt. You may like to use the emotions wheel to help with that, but if you feel that it’s easy enough to identify emotions freestyle it.

At the end of the week, reflect on what you’ve noticed.

If you found this interesting and you are intrigued to start your own practice, you may be interested in Body Mind Connect membership. An introductory offer will be available to those who have signed up, so if you haven’t done so already, click the button below.


References

[1] Speer, M. E., & Delgado, M. R. (2017). Reminiscing about positive memories buffers acute stress responses. Nature human behaviour, 1(5), 0093.

[2] Jans-Beken, L., Jacobs, N., Janssens, M., Peeters, S., Reijnders, J., Lechner, L., & Lataster, J. (2020). Gratitude and health: An updated review. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 15(6), 743-782. [3] Chun, S., Heo, J., & Lee, Y. (2023). Savouring the ordinary moments in the midst of trauma: benefits of casual leisure on adjustment following traumatic spinal cord injury. Leisure Studies, 42(2), 253-267.

[4] Biskas, M., Cheung, W. Y., Juhl, J., Sedikides, C., Wildschut, T., & Hepper, E. (2019). A prologue to nostalgia: Savouring creates nostalgic memories that foster optimism. Cognition and Emotion, 33(3), 417-427. [5] Bryant, R., Dawson, K., Azevedo, S., Yadav, S., Tran, J., Choi-Christou, J., ... & Keyan, D. (2023). Positive affect training to reduce mental health problems during the COVID-19 pandemic: a proof-of-concept randomised clinical trial. BMJ Ment Health, 26(1).

[6] Schiavon, C. C., Marchetti, E., Gurgel, L. G., Busnello, F. M., & Reppold, C. T. (2017). Optimism and hope in chronic disease: a systematic review. Frontiers in psychology, 7, 2022.

[7] Krittanawong, C., Maitra, N. S., Virk, H. U. H., Fogg, S., Wang, Z., Kaplin, S., ... & Levine, G. N. (2022). Association of optimism with cardiovascular events and all-cause mortality: systematic review and meta-analysis. The American Journal of Medicine, 135(7), 856-863.

[8] Cohen, S., & Pressman, S. D. (2006). Positive affect and health. Current directions in psychological science, 15(3), 122-125.

[9] Bassett, S. M., Schuette, S. A., O'Dwyer, L. C., & Moskowitz, J. T. (2019). Positive affect and medication adherence in chronic conditions: A systematic review. Health Psychology, 38(11), 960.

Comments


bottom of page