The word "gratitude" has a tendency to elicit subtle eye-rolls. Perhaps because it has been touted as a "cure all," which is always a surefire way to turn people off. Gratitude does not cure anxiety or depression or any other ailment, but it certainly is a way to move the needle.
That being said, gratitude is deeper and more meaningful than a "cure all" or trend—it has the power to transform your outlook on life.
Our brain evolved to have a negativity bias. This serves us in many ways. We are slow to trust others, which protects us. We constantly scan for dangers, which keeps us safe. We see the bad in situations, which keeps us from moving too fast. However, all this negativity seeps into our daily life and starts to weigh on us.
Try this experiment. Think of all the things you don't have: the house you want, the car you want, the clothes you want, etc. Notice how that makes you feel. To me, it feels heavy and burdensome, like I'm climbing up an endless mountain. Now think of all the things you are grateful for: the people in your life, the level of health you have in this moment, a pet you love, etc. How does that make you feel? I automatically feel lighter and brighter. More things seems possible.
Gratitude helps us confront our negativity bias and starts to train the brain to take a more neutral or positive stance. We still need to be cautious, but we can be cautiously optimistic.
Here are some ways gratitude can improve your mental health:
1. Gratitude for "waiting for the other shoe to drop" thinking.
One of the biggest challenges for people who are anxious is "waiting for the other shoe to drop." It is a huge barrier to contentment, because the moment you touch into good feelings you are immediately anxious that they will not last. Then, you start bracing for the other shoe--when is something bad going to happen and destroy this feeling of happiness?
The uncertainty of anxiety is a constant pull into some dystopian future. We think we are protecting ourselves by worrying—a Jedi mind trick of superstition. The truth is, the future will be what it will be whether or not we worry about it, so we need to learn to bring ourselves back to the present moment when things are usually okay.
The best way to do this is gratitude. I think of gratitude as the antidote to "waiting for the other shoe to drop" thinking. When you hear your inner dialogue drifting into the "what ifs," reign it in with 3 things you are grateful for in the present moment.
When I start to worry about things that are fleeting, I think about what is steady in the moment. I am grateful to have a place to live, I am grateful to live near nature, I am grateful to have what I need right now...
2. Gratitude is neuroscience.
In somatic therapy, we talk about the different neural states: optimal arousal, high arousal, and low arousal. When we encounter a stressor, we tend to leave optimal arousal and gravitate toward a heightened state or completely shut down. However, there is a small window of opportunity to notice the early warning signs of leaving optimal arousal and push the pause button on the stress response.
Start to learn your early warning signs: muscle tension (especially in the jaw, shoulders, stomach, and back), heart rate quickening, sweating, holding your breath. Each person will have different signs.
When you notice the stress response amping up, think about the things you are grateful for in your life. When you do so, your brain releases dopamine and serotonin, two of the feel good neurotransmitters. It also counteracts cortisol, the stress chemical. This can move us from the beginning stages of low or high arousal into optimal arousal in a matter of seconds.
3. Gratitude for vitality.
Ruminating on what we don't have puts us in a low aroused state, in other words, makes us feel sad, hopeless, and defeated. Calling to mind what we are grateful for is uplifting, it inches our mood up toward optimal arousal.
Vitality is the feeling of being alive. Think about the things that make you come alive, likely those are also things to be grateful for: the sun on your face, cooking a fragrant meal, petting your dog, laughing with friends, writing, drawing, singing…
Even just bringing our awareness to the things that give us vitality, helps us feel more alive. Amplify these feelings by noticing where you feel them in your body or if there is a color, image, or sound that represent the feeling.
4. Gratitude as a daily practice.
Shifting things in the present moment is one strength of gratitude, but moving the needle on pessimism, depression, and anxiety takes a more consistent gratitude practice. How can we incorporate gratitude into every day? There are hundreds of ways, but this is a good place to start. These are my 2 concrete gratitude practices:
-I have a note saved on my phone that I read every morning reminding myself what I have to be grateful for: this life I am living, a brand new day, my breath...
-Every night before bed I write a short journal entry about the day and then list a few things I am grateful for. I don't hold myself to a specific number, I just write down what comes to mind as I recall the day.
By using these 2 practices to bookend my days, I slowly shifted my mind towards optimism and gratitude. It didn't happen overnight and it was a challenge at first. It was even a bigger challenge when I was in poor health, but slowly, over time I have arrived at a place where gratitude is my default setting.
You may not feel ready to start a gratitude practice right now and that's okay. But keep in mind that this is a helpful tool that is available to you anytime.
"Gratitude turns what we have into enough." - Unknown
I'm Kerry (She/Her/Hers) and I am a licensed therapist, writer & speaker. This is a positive space focused on how to thrive in any situation and the transformative power of suffering.