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 had my first article published on Additude, a fantastic website I recommend to anyone who has ADHD. They publish informative, compassionate articles on every topic related to ADHD.
In an effort to continue sharing information on body-based therapy for trauma, I wrote this article about trauma and ADHD.
You can read my article here:
ADHD and Trauma: Untangling Causes, Symptoms & Treatments
Feel free to share your thoughts about the article.
"If you understand how your own unique ADHD brain wiring works, you won't suffer, you will learn how to thrive." - Unknown
Globally, we are at the highest peak of uncertainty we will see in our lifetimes. We can feel the palpable uneasiness of every single person on the planet.
There is no question our collective mental health is suffering. We were pulled out of our daily lives and told we can go nowhere and see no one. Many of our coping mechanisms: socializing, going to the gym, dining out, and going to parks were abruptly taken away with no good replacement.
Our nervous systems extend outside of our body. Think of the difference between sitting alone in a room and when someone you care about walks in. We can literally feel the other person’s presence through our nervous system. Then, imagine there are 8 billion people on the planet all with nervous systems extending outside our bodies. All of humanity is experiencing some level of anxiety and uncertainty. So many nervous systems in high activation all communicating with each other without talking.
Now imagine something that you know to be true. For example, I know that at this moment I am safe and healthy. This could change in the future, but for this very moment I am safe and healthy.
Teachers of mindfulness would remind us that the present moment is all there is. The present moment is the only constant, but it is also ever changing.
Let’s broaden that understanding to COVID-19. We only have the present moment and that is ever changing. As our circumstances are changing moment by moment, we can acknowledge that this time is different than any other time in our history. Try to not characterize today's problems to a normal day. These are not normal days. Also, remember that COVID-19 is temporary. I do not know how long this will last, but I know it will not last forever.
History will look back on the year of 2020 as the year everything shut down. There was no baseball, no concerts, no crowded beaches in the summer (at least they are not supposed to be crowded), and we couldn't leave our homes for months except to go to the grocery store. We will be held up as pinnacles of strength and endurance, while we will be the only ones who know how hard it really was.
Think back on the 1918 Flu Pandemic. What do you think the mental health of people was during that time? What would you expect they were doing during that time? When I imagine it, I think they were just getting by.
We will get by. There is nothing you need to accomplish. We cannot change what is happening around us. There is only this moment.
Here is a poem about not resisting what is:
by Mark Nepo
I’ve been watching stars
rely on the darkness they
resist. And fish struggle with
and against the current. And
hawks glide faster when their
wings don’t move.
Still I keep retelling what
happens till it comes out
the way I want.
We try so hard to be the
main character when it is
our point of view that
keeps us from the truth.
The sun has its story
that no curtain can stop.
It’s true. The only way beyond
the self is through it. The only
way to listen to what can never
be said is to quiet our need
to steer the plot.
When jarred by life, we might
unravel the story we tell ourselves
and discover the story we are in,
the one that keeps telling us.
Sending loving thoughts for the highest good for all during this time of great transition.
"Instructions for living a life:
Tell about it." - Mary Oliver
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.