Amy Sullivan, PsyD, ABPP is the Director of Behavioral Medicine & Research in the Mellen Center for MS, Director of the Neurological Institute Engagement and Wellbeing, and is the Chair of the Institute’s Diversity Leadership Development. She presented on Zoom January 5, 2023 for Yoga Moves MS’s Giving and Gratitude Challenge kick-off event.

The Giving and Gratitude challenge runs the entire month of January and it’s not too late to join us as we embark on generosity as a way of life. Here’s what to do:

  1. Spend a few minutes journaling on our gratitude prompt of the day. (We have included a list of prompts for the month of January and you can follow along on our Facebook or Instagram)
  2. Perform an act of giving each day. (We have included a list of suggestions, most of which cost nothing and require no special skills or equipment.)

Interact with others challenging themselves on our daily social media posts and “in person” during our virtual yoga classes. Building a life of generosity and gratitude is a practice. If you miss a day, don’t beat yourself up, just begin again.

Watch the entire presentation

At the kickoff event, Dr. Sullivan wore her mantras on her wrist in a stack of bracelets. They are her daily reminders to cultivate gratitude, love, joy, strength, hope and grace. Dr. Sullivan’s friend sells the customizable bracelets on Etsy

Key takeaways from Dr. Sullivan

Get to joy through gratitude 

Gratitude changes your spirit, thoughts and how you approach the world. We all go through peaks and valleys. It’s during the downtimes we learn the most. When I’ve been through difficult times when you question “Why me?” Or “this is not fun, this is scary, it’s anxiety provoking.” 

Going through difficult situations you become a more empathetic person, you love more deeply. We all go through some rainstorms, but we can always look up for that rainbow. 

What a giving and gratitude practice looks like 

I teach this in my practice and model this for the people I live with. Through Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), we realize our thoughts create behavior and that could be a negative, but looking at the positive psychology of gratitude starts with thinking “maybe there is something I’m grateful for that I can focus on more.” The behavior follows. Talking to people or journaling about how grateful I am becomes a practice because it feels so good. Start small: “I’m grateful for this soft blanket, to have this great book to read.” LIke your yoga practice, each time you use a muscle you get stronger. The brain, the feelings, and the practice of gratitude grows stronger, and the more grateful you are, the more joyful you are. 

What are some ways to start living in gratitude? 

No matter what situation we’re in, some people have easier lives, others have more difficult lives with bumps in the road. Each and every person has something to be grateful for. I was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 37, and dissected my carotid artery when delivering my children. It was very difficult for my family to face. When I was going through those situations, I had to figure out how to find joy in my life despite these other things going on. I worked on journaling: “These are the things I’m grateful for today…” Then I would tell the people I’m grateful for, “thank you for being in my life and helping me in this situation.” It became verbalized gratitude. It made me feel so good, and it made them feel so good. It brought me joy to share how grateful I am for people.

What studies show that gratitude has health benefits?

  1. A University of California study asked participants to write a few sentences each week. The first group wrote what they were grateful for during the week. The second group wrote about daily irritations, and the third control group wrote about any events that happened that week. After 10 weeks, those in the first group were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. They also exercised more and had fewer doctor’s visits. 
  2. Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania tested the  impact of various positive psychology interventions on a large group through writing about early memories. He had participants personally deliver a letter of gratitude to someone who they’d never properly thanked. They increased in happiness scores, and the benefits lasted a month. 
  3. John Gottman, a family and couple’s therapy counselor, instructed one spouse to do something nice for their partner each day for 30 days. The other spouse didn’t know about the intervention. Both spouses’ happiness increased by the 15th day, and the other spouse started doing very nice things back unprompted.

These studies don’t prove cause and effect but they do show an association between well-being (both psychological and physiological) and gratitude. 

Benefits from a gratitude practice include:

  • Intensifying experience of joy and gratitude 
  • Calming the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight response), which is especially helpful for MS patients, as stress and MS are so closely related. 
  • Engaging the parasympathetic nervous system (rest, relax, recover), which can’t be engaged at the same time as the sympathetic nervous system
  • Decreasing stress, depression, and anxiety 
  • Physiological benefits including better sleep, more energy, better digestion, and increased overall wellbeing 

How often should a person do their gratitude practice? 

Think about the time you have, the strength of your intention and factor in any mood disorder or mental health issues you’re dealing with. Ideally your practice should be nothing less than hourly. It’s crazy to hear that, but when you get into this practice, gratitude is an all-day-long thing. I wake up with gratitude to do my daughter’s hair or pack my son’s lunch. I’ve been at the Cleveland Clinic 15 years and I’m in awe. I get to work with the most incredible colleagues and patients. They are so vulnerable with me and I’m so grateful for them. For me it’s every hour; it’s all the time. It’s a lifestyle I choose, 

Recommended strategies for building a gratitude practice 

  • Have an accountability partner who wants to practice with you 
  • Remember, your response dictates how people will respond to you. Be kind.
  • Google gratitude quotes and put them in your phone, on your mirror, or in your car
    • “It’s not joy that makes us grateful, it’s gratitude that makes us joyful” 
    • “The more grateful I am, the more beautify I see” 
    • “The greatest source of happiness is the ability to be grateful at all times.” 
  • Say what you’re grateful for out loud 
  • Write a handwritten thank you card and send it
  • Reach out to someone who may be lonely 
  • Donate to charity (Amy’s daughter founded Annie’s Sweets and Goodies and has donated $1000 in proceeds to Cleveland Clinic Comprehensive Breast Cancer Research)  

Amy Sullivan, PsyD, ABPP is the Director of Behavioral Medicine & Research in the Mellen Center for MS, Director of the Neurological Institute Engagement and Wellbeing, and is the Chair of the Institute’s Diversity Leadership Development.  

Dr. Sullivan’s work has focused on mental health in people with chronic diseases and their family members, as well as physician burnout and diversity empowerment. Her work in academic medicine intersects with teaching, mentoring, programmatic development, and strategic initiatives. She is an expert in group dynamics and curriculum development as well as psychological factors impacting multiple sclerosis. Her most recent work has been in transforming clinical practice with telemedicine and COVID-related stress. She has made over 100 media appearances and over 250 national and international talks. She has also contributed over 30 times to the literature and book chapters. Dr. Sullivan is an invited member of a select group of wellness researchers through the National MS Society and she and her research team were the recipient of the Robert J. Herndon award for most outstanding IJMSC article. Dr. Sullivan was most recently the 2021 recipient of the School of Medicine Faculty Mentor of the Year award, she also received a Scholarship in Teaching Award through the School of Medicine, and she was also the recipient of the Outstanding Early Career Psychologist award by the Cleveland Psychological Association. She was honored to receive the Extraordinary Graduate of St. Bonaventure University Award and named a Women of Outstanding Leadership in Healthcare. In addition to her clinical and teaching role, she is passionate about physician self-care, burnout, diversity in leadership and psychological health and is the Director of the Neurological Institute Engagement and Wellbeing Office where she works to improve physician well-being in her institute. 

Prior to her medical career, she was a Division 1 basketball player for St. Bonaventure University and played in the prestigious Atlantic-10 conference. Dr. Sullivan has learned the skill of work-life balance with both of her passions: her family (boy-girl twins and her husband) and her career. Please follow her #NormalizeNotStigmatize hashtag on twitter @DrAmyBSullivan