The “practice” of gratitude is one of the most powerful things you can do to overcome depression. Genuine gratitude includes both a thought and its emotional correlate. Thoughts usually carry an emotional valence: it’s a nice day, you feel glad; the partner likes your work, you feel competent; your child earned good grades, you feel proud; you’re going skiing, you feel excited; a snowstorm is coming, you feel annoyed. Because gratitude is a positive thought, it always carries a positive emotional valence.
Your thoughts and their emotional correlates do not occur in a vacuum. They occur in your body and influence biochemical processes. The mind-body connection is a well established fact. The most obvious examples are the connection between a happy, purposeful, socially connected life - and health and longevity; the connection between stress - and heart disease; the connection between the practice of meditation – and improved mood, concentration, and general health; the connection between the belief that you can’t do something - and attempts to do it that somehow fail.
You are energized or enervated by your thoughts. Prove it to yourself. Think back to a time when you felt really grateful for something. How is that thought affecting you physically right now? Do you feel a relief of tension? Increased energy? Greater lightheartedness? How about emotionally and mentally? Are you, even briefly, less anxious or worried? More hopeful? Happy? Joyful? More emotionally available? Prove it further: tell yourself right now, “I am grateful that I am loveable and competent.” Repeat it several times, letting the meaning sink in. How are your mood and your body responding?
Gratitude is as automatic for some as negative, depressed thinking may be for others. The automatically grateful perhaps have had life experiences that gave them sufficient reason to believe that they were good and deserving and that life would unfold favorably enough if they just did their part. Lucky them. For others, life experience may have tipped the balance toward less optimistic beliefs and expectations, against the odds of which they seem to continually struggle in order to achieve at least partial success and happiness. We are all somewhere on that continuum, and those for whom gratitude is not automatic may have to work harder, with real commitment and determined practice.
If you are not among the group of “automatically grateful,” how do you become more grateful?
· Commit yourself to practicing gratitude. (If you pray, pray for the gift of gratitude.) Making the commitment alone begins to change your energy and your ability to follow through. There are an infinite number of things, past, present and future, for which you can be grateful.
· Short-stop negative thoughts with statements of gratitude, ideally, a statement that reformulates the negative thought into a positive thought. Example: “I wish I didn’t have to get where I have to go by walking in the rain.” Re-formulation: “Thank you that I have two legs and the ability walk. Thank you that I can see where I going. Thank you that I have an umbrella and a hand to hold it. Thank you for water. Thank you for the way rain enriches the colors of nature. Thank you for the sun and its eventual return. Thank you for the opportunity to practice gratitude.” Another example: “At this rate, I’ll be broke before I find a job.” Re-formulation: “Thank you for the job I last held, and for all the jobs I’ve held previously. Thank you for all the knowledge and experience, friends or mentors I acquired through them. Thank you for all my opportunities for education and training, and for my many abilities. Thank you for the people who come into my life who contribute to my search. Thank you for the creative ability to make the most of what I have now. Thank you for ‘the sun in the morning and the moon at night.’”
· Reinforce gratitude by keeping a gratitude journal. Write down the things for which you are grateful (and notice what happens to your mood and body in the process).
· Make a mental list as you go to sleep of the things for which you are grateful that day (and notice how quickly you fall asleep). Do the same when you awake, before getting up. If you awake at night and have trouble returning to sleep, resume thoughts of gratitude, perhaps beginning with having a safe, warm place to sleep and the ability to relax into it and enjoy it whether or not you’re sleeping, for the ability to breathe unassisted, for a comfortable pillow, etc. etc., etc.
· Remind yourself to be grateful. One person (referenced in the very helpful book, The Mindful Way through Depression) did this by carrying a small smooth stone in his pocket to remind him throughout his day to think grateful thoughts, setting it next to his bed at night, ending his day and beginning his next day with grateful thoughts.
· Practice. It does take practice to develop any new habit, including a mental habit. Making a habit of gratitude is a great on-going, practically failsafe defense against depression; the two cannot co-exist for long. This “attitude of gratitude” is a key element practiced by 12-step program members who over time find themselves surprisingly and wonderfully transformed. You will, too.
The practice of gratitude is a deliberate mental practice that carries a positive emotional valence which helps correct negative thinking, relieves potentially damaging stress to the body and generates increasing levels of energy, enabling you to see and respond to new previously unnoticed possibilities. As it builds, with your continued practice, you will find yourself regaining and consolidating your power, and depression losing its grip.