If you have experienced the terrifying palpitations and out-of-control thoughts of a panic attack, or the impenetrable black fog of a deep depression, I completely understand if you feel somewhat sceptical as to whether gratitude could be of any use with these challenging mental health conditions. Which is why I want to say straight off the bat: depression and anxiety are complex, multi-factorial issues and there is no sweetness-and-light quick fix for them. Patience, time and a holistic approach that looks at many therapeutic interventions is necessary on the path to healing. Having said that though, there is some compelling evidence that gratitude (when practised the right way) can be one more tool helpful in changing the entrenched mind-patterns inherent in anxiety and depression.
UNDERSTANDING THE ANXIOUS AND DEPRESSED MIND
While anxiety and depression are quite different from each other, there are some similarities worth mentioning. Even in a “normal” brain (ha!), the default mindset, meaning what our brain does when we are not actively concentrating on something, tends to have a negativity bias. Meaning, when we are lost in thought, we are usually dwelling on something bad! From reflecting on all the things that have gone wrong in our live, or imagining all the things that could go wrong; to ruminating on all the things that are not working in our lives and focusing on what we find wrong in ourselves and other people. This is a natural mind-trait that evolved as a way for us to survive by constantly being on the look-out for danger.
In someone with anxiety and depression (or those who have been exposed to chronic stress or trauma) this part of the brain (the amygdala) becomes more sensitive and more reactive – in fact it can even grow bigger in size – meaning that the depressed and anxious person becomes more and more prone to negative or fearful rumination.
As they say in neuroscience, neurons that fire together, wire together – in other words the more one dwells on negativity, the more and more trapped in negativity the brain becomes in a self-defeating vicious cycle. What becomes crucial then, is to create new neural pathways within the brain via new thinking habits to “interrupt” these ingrained patterns and enable the default mindset to become more positive and calm.
As Dan baker writes in his book What Happy People Know, fear and gratitude cannot exist in the brain simultaneously. “During active appreciation the threatening messages from your amygdala [fear center of the brain] and the anxious instincts of your brainstem are cut off, suddenly and surely, from access to your brain’s neocortex, where they can fester, replicate themselves, and turn your stream of thoughts into a cold river of dread. It is a fact of neurology that the brain cannot be in a state of appreciation and a state of fear at the same time. The two states may alternate, but are mutually exclusive.”
BACKED BY SCIENCE
Recent scientific studies have shown that gratitude can help depression and anxiety in a number of ways. Dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward, is usually lower than normal in depressed people and in certain types of anxiety, and gratitude has been shown to actually increase the levels of dopamine in the brain.
Adequate exercise and sleep are two lifestyle factors crucial in managing mood and stress levels in depression and anxiety, and many sufferers struggle with being able to fall asleep or finding the motivation to exercise regularly. Interestingly, studies have also shown that gratitude is able to improve sleep and motivate people to engage in exercise, as well as reduce general aches and pains in the body and boost the immune system. These far-reaching and diverse effects are thanks to the effect gratitude has on the hypothalamus, a part of the brain responsible for many different bodily functions, from eating and sleeping to regulating metabolism and stress levels.
3 SIMPLE WAYS TO PRACTICE GRATITUDE
Sometimes, particularly with severe depression and anxiety, it can feel really difficult to look around and find things to be appreciative of. So one way of getting around this, is to start small and learn to really savour and appreciate the simple, tiny pleasures in your life (this will help to kick that dopamine in). Perhaps that’s taking a moment to really feel the sunshine on your skin, the fresh smell of the rain, the beauty of a flower, the taste of your favourite food or the warmth of a cosy blanket. You may have noticed that all of these things are also sensory experiences – tuning into your senses and appreciating the small pleasures they offer also enables the mind to momentarily let go of fear, worry and rumination (future and past-based thinking) and access the present moment.
Another common feature of anxiety and depression is feeling isolated, unsupported and alone, often despite having caring people around. There is at least a partial neurological basis to this too. The amygdala is closely tied to the parts of the brain to do with self-focus, meaning that people with highly reactive amygdalas can become more easily caught in a small world of their own and less aware of those around them and the support available to them.
A practical way of interrupting this brain-pattern, is to practice noticing any and every small amount of support and warmth you encounter from other people, to help you become aware of all the ways you are interconnected or supported.
For example, maybe your work colleague made you a nice cup of tea or stopped to have a friendly chat with you. Or the man in the supermarket let you go before him in the queue, or you got an invitation from a friend to go somewhere special (even if you don’t feel like going, you can appreciate the sentiment).
When someone hugs you, really feel it and take it in. If someone pays you a compliment, don’t immediately swipe it away, receive it graciously and really let it ‘land’ inside you.
Also, don’t just notice the kindness from others – express your gratitude to them, tell them specifically what and why you are thankful for them. Find ways to help others whenever you can and do kind, thoughtful things for others too, giving is a joy and will help to retrain the brain to break that bad habit of self-focus and isolation.
Every day (perhaps before you go to bed given that gratitude helps with sleep!) write down 3 to 10 things you feel grateful for. If you already keep a journal for your thoughts and feelings, keep a separate gratitude journal so that you can go back through it often and remind yourself of all the things you are grateful for. For those who are more visually inclined, you could also include drawings and photos as well.
HOW NOT TO PRACTICE GRATITUDE
It is really important when starting a gratitude practice, to do it effectively. Two common mistakes are, firstly, just listing things in your gratitude journal that you think you should feel grateful for. Don’t make it just a rote, cognitive exercise. For gratitude to be effective, it has to be felt. So only include things that you genuinely feel grateful for and take a moment to really savour those appreciative feelings when journaling.
Secondly, some people mistakenly think gratitude means looking around, making comparisons against those you consider to be ‘worse off’ than you and then being thankful you are not in their boat. This is not always a good idea because there is often the harsh notion underneath this idea that the anxious or depressed person doesn’t really have a right to be feeling how they are and should just ‘stop whining’, look around, and get over it. Also, anxious and depressed people are usually quite sensitive and observing the misfortune of others can lead to more feelings of guilt, fear and hopelessness.
I want to encourage anyone suffering from anxiety or depression to be really compassionate with themselves and acknowledge that their own pain and difficulties are valid and real. But it is also essential to understand how deep-seated the brain’s negativity bias is in these conditions and how through understanding how the brain works, you can also come to understand that this is not the totality of your reality, and through cultivating gratitude, you can begin to open yourself up to more support, peace and joy.
Have you tried practising gratitude before or are going to try it out? Share your thoughts and comments below, I’d love to hear for you!
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