Gratitude Is the Most Important Practice I Use to Manage My Depression

Science says it may work for you, too.

Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

I’ve struggled with depression my entire life. At times, it’s really hard. Luckily, I’ve been blessed with some wonderful education and therapy that’s helped me better manage my symptoms by myself. Through over a decade of therapy, I’ve learned quite a few coping techniques; however, only a few have made a major impact on my mental health.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, gratitude has been, without a doubt, the most positive technique I’ve learned in my mental health journey. However, I feel it’s not used as often as it should be because:

  1. Gratitude seems so common that it’s lost its meaning
  2. Gratitude seems very small and ineffective at first glance

I want to share this technique with you today for many reasons, the first being that for many, therapy is a luxury that may be unavailable and/or unaffordable. Secondly, I want to reinforce the importance of gratitude because it’s so easy to brush it off for the reasons listed above. However, practicing gratitude has literally changed my life for the better and made me a kinder person along the way.

This practice was essential in bringing me from a place of despair and defeat to a place of hope and progress. Hopefully, if you’re in a low place, these words can comfort you and give you ideas for ways to manage your mental health.

Please note: I’m not a doctor or a therapist; this is purely based on my own experiences and backed up with research. If you’re struggling with your mental health, check with your care provider first, and prioritize their suggestions.

On Gratitude

This is something that almost seems like a mental health buzzword at this point because of its popularity, but I promise you, gratitude has the potential to make a lasting positive change in your life, the way it has in mine. In fact, according to a piece in Psychology Today by Amy Morin, LCSW, scientifically-backed benefits of gratitude may include:

  • Opening the door to more relationships
  • Improved physical and psychological health
  • More empathy and lessened aggression
  • Better sleep, self-esteem, and mental resilience

While I have no idea what sleep is or how to reach the elusive state of REM (this is a very slight hyperbole), since I began practicing gratitude, I have experienced the other positive effects in this list. I’ve made more (and better) friends, I’m healthier in every way, I’m more empathetic than I’ve ever been and I rarely get upset, and I have noticeably increased my self-esteem and mental strength.

Bear in mind that I’m just one example. However, there’s a reason why you hear about gratitude so often — it’s because, for many, it’s an important tool for having better days. In my life, I use gratitude in 3 primary ways:

  1. A daily morning gratitude practice
  2. Expressing gratitude verbally in my relationships
  3. To check my internal self-talk when it gets pessimistic or ungrateful

I’ll elaborate on each point a bit to show you ideas for using gratitude in your own life.

A daily morning gratitude practice

Every morning, I write down 5 things I’m grateful for before I do anything else. No phone-checking, no email-checking — I don’t even sit up sometimes before I make my list. Sometimes I say them in my head instead of writing them down, though if you’re just starting, writing them down will help you stay accountable.

There are two main stages to this. The first is, when you’re just starting, to write 5 things you’re grateful for in general. For example, you might list your home or apartment, the tasty breakfast you had, your pet, or a friend who makes you smile. Try not to repeat things for as long as you can! This helps you broaden the definition of grateful.

Originally, I thought “gratitude items” had to be big and meaningful, like having a certain amount of money, getting recognition in my career, or getting good grades in school. However, this video by The School of Life suggests:

“It is extremely rare to delight in flowers, or a quiet evening at home, a cup of tea or a walk in the woods, when one is under 22. There are so many larger, grander, things to be concerned about: romantic love, career fulfillment, and political change. However, it is rare to be left entirely indifferent by smaller things in time.”

Which is to say: enjoying your morning cup of coffee is more than a sufficient thing to be grateful for. Don’t censor your small joys — they add up!

Second, once you’ve got a good grasp on writing things you’re generally grateful for, you may transition to writing things you’re grateful for that you’ve experienced in the past 24 hours.

The benefit of this is, from my perspective, I am always looking for things to be grateful for. My mind has been programmed to look for the good so I can write it down later. Consequently, I associate goodness and appreciating life with a small sense of achievement as well. Good things all around!

Expressing gratitude verbally in my relationships

In a Ted Talk about his Harvard-based study on adult development, Robert Waldinger says that “good relationships keep us happier and healthier.” Personally, I’ve seen my relationships flourish as I learn my loved one’s love language and show my gratitude for them in the way that makes them feel most loved.

However, even if you don’t know someone’s love language, you’ll struggle to find someone who won’t appreciate a sincere “thank you.” Greater Good Magazine of UC Berkeley suggests:

“A great deal of research has shown that gratitude helps us to initiate, maintain, and strengthen our relationships. Gratitude may make our romantic relationships closer and more satisfying, encourage us to feel more invested in friendships, and even cause us to be more helpful coworkers.”

To check my internal self-talk when it gets pessimistic or ungrateful

Finally, gratitude helps me to check my internal self-talk. You know that loop of thoughts running through your mind, especially the thoughts that address you personally? That’s your internal self-talk: the way you talk to yourself inside your own head.

Talking kindly to myself in my own head had a massive impact on my mental health in its own right; therefore, pairing it with gratitude naturally created a winning combo for me. When you feel your thoughts slipping into a downward spiral, try reminding yourself of something you love — something you’re so glad exists.

Personally, there’s nothing like a “gratitude check” to help me out of a downward thought-spiral, especially if you’re having a rough day. And hear me out: it’s okay to be sad. My therapists have made that very clear to me. The point is to not get trapped in a cycle of negative thinking and pessimism because once you are, it’s a lot tougher to climb back out.

Final Thoughts

Hopefully, this article gave you a few new ideas about gratitude that you can use to improve your life and help manage your mental health. However, the one thing I want you to take away, if anything, is this:

There is nothing too small to be grateful for.

Stop to smell the roses, figuratively and literally. You’ll need to remember their scent when the winter of life comes again. We all have our ups and downs; however, gratitude has helped me immensely in creating a life that has a lot fewer “drops.” For the most part, I’m content and grateful just being alive — and that’s one of the greatest gifts in my life.

Can you feel your heartbeat? Can you hear each soft breath drawn out through your nose? Can you look around the room you’re in and realize how lucky you are to have what some people will only ever dream of?

That’s purpose, that’s love, and that’s something to be grateful for.

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Content marketer. Author. #Actuallyautistic. Helping you define success on your own terms and design a joyful life. Tips and News: https://bit.ly/2KMozBI

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