Thanksgiving has passed, but the holiday sets off a chain of holidays, all of which can be made easier and more joyful by practicing gratitude. Setting up a gratitude practice now and seeing its benefits will motivate you to maintain it during the holidays and throughout the year.
Why Does Gratitude Matter?
When you’re faced with a mental health disorder like depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder, it can be hard to imagine how something as seemingly “fluffy” as being thankful can make you feel any better. How could a list of three things you’re grateful for combat the powerful chemical reactions in your brain that lead to intense distress?
Let’s start by saying that in the face of severe mental illness, gratitude alone will not suffice. Mental health disorders require professional intervention, often in the form of inpatient or outpatient treatment that involves a combination of medication and therapy, with a continued protocol after treatment ends.
However, research into gratitude shows how powerful it can be in navigating mental health and as a regular self-care practice. Studies reported by the Greater Good Science Center have revealed that gratitude directly affects the brain, increasing activity in areas related to “emotional processing, interpersonal bonding and rewarding social interactions, moral judgment, and the ability to understand the mental states of others.”
Research has shown that gratitude lessens depression and helps shift attention away from the more toxic emotions, like jealousy or bitterness, that can plague those who suffer from mental health conditions.
What Exactly is Gratitude?
Dr. Robert Emmons, a psychology professor and leading scientific expert on gratitude, defines two components of gratitude:
- Gratitude is an affirmation of goodness. We acknowledge that there is goodness in the world and that we personally have benefited from this goodness.
- Gratitude recognizes that the benefits and gifts we have received come from sources outside ourselves – other people, a higher power, the universe, etc.
So, when we recognize that we have benefitted from other people’s gifts to us (or God’s gifts to us, if you’re spiritually minded), we feel a sense of thankfulness. Gratitude strengthens our connections to other people and makes us want to give back.
How to Make Gratitude Part of Your Mental Health Plan
Gratitude is a simple, no-cost way to improve mental health, but the trick is to practice it regularly. According to an article on the neuroscience of gratitude, expressing gratitude releases dopamine and serotonin, both of which temporarily boost our mood and make us feel “good.” By practicing gratitude consistently, we strengthen these neural pathways, and “ultimately create a permanent grateful and positive nature within ourselves.”
Here are some ideas for making gratitude part of your daily life:
- Notice when you say “thank-you.” You probably say it automatically many times each day, without necessarily connecting it to any real feeling of gratitude. The next time you feel the urge to say “thank-you,” pause first and consider. What exactly are you thankful for? Connect to a real feeling of gratitude, then say “thank-you.”
- Start a gratitude journal. In a notebook or computer file or phone app, jot down three things you’re grateful for each day. On days when depression or anxiety weigh heavily, do your best. Did someone say something kind? Did a cat meme make you smile? Was your bed warm and comfortable? Everything counts.
- Write a letter to someone in your life to whom you feel especially grateful. Describe in your letter how much you appreciate what the person does or says to make you feel good. You don’t have to send the letter–just writing it will put you in a state of thankfulness that enhances your mental health.
- Instead of using a journal, create a gratitude jar. Write down what you’re thankful for on slips of paper and “feed” the jar each day. On days when feeling thankful feels like pulling teeth, pull a piece of paper out of the jar and read it. Remembering how grateful you were for something in the past is almost the same thing as feeling grateful for something in the present.
The Benefits of Gratitude
As you continue to practice gratitude, you’ll likely experience the following benefits, in addition to improvements in mental health:
- Better immunity and physical health
- Better sleep
- Greater optimism
- Improved relationships
If you’re in a place where mental health struggles make gratitude seem impossible, reach out for help. Our team at Raleigh Oaks in Garner, NC, would be grateful for the chance to develop a treatment plan that fits your needs. We serve adults and seniors with compassionate, professional inpatient treatment.