Depression is Not a Lack of Gratitude
Articles abound online about gratitude and depression. They tout gratitude as a prevention and a cure for depression. And they sound a little like this: “If you would only focus on what you are grateful for, you wouldn’t be depressed.” In short, it’s all bullshit. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for gratitude. I write what I am grateful for every single day and have been for nearly five years. I created this website and a facebook group for sharing gratitude. I teach workshops on it and guide people individually to find the good in their lives. So, yeah. I believe in gratitude. But I also know its limitations. It is not a magic practice that will prevent and cure depression. It just isn’t.
Because Depression Is Not a Sign of Weakness
Depression is not just a fleeting emotional state like sadness. It is not a sign of personal weakness and it is not something that sufferers can just change their minds about. It is a complex mood disorder that affects the biology, chemistry and physiology of the brain and the rest of the body. People who are suffering from depression need to see a doctor or mental health provider for treatment which may involve medication, therapy and/or alternative treatments. If you are worried about someone who is depressed, ask if there is anything you can do to help. Ask if they are getting the treatment they need.
People suffering from depression need compassion, not judgment. They need good listeners, not people trying to fix them. They need you to trust that they are taking care of their needs. They need the autonomy to make their own choices. They do not need people telling them that they should stop being so negative … that they should be grateful for all they have.
If you are depressed, a gratitude practice can be a tool in your toolbox to help you through. Gratitude helps us to see things from a different perspective, even for a brief moment. Because even when things are going really badly, and even when we are depressed, there is still gratitude to be found. It may not be easy and the gratitude that emerges might even sound a little dark. That is OK. Actually, that is great because it means you probably found some real authentic gratitude. Not something you think you should be grateful for but something you really are.
I do not personally suffer from depression and I wanted you to hear from people who do. So this week I am honored to have two guest writers, Matt Parsons and Elizabeth Brown-Shook, who are both involved in our gratitude community and who live with depression.
Gratitude as a Coping Skill for Dealing with Depression
by Elizabeth Brown-Shook
Elizabeth runs a nonprofit that gives free and low-cost music lessons to children in need in the Elmira, New York area. She is married with two daughters and one son. She can be reached at email@example.com
I’ve battled depression on and off since I was nine years old. That’s the first time I remember seriously contemplating trying to kill myself. I grew up in a house with impossible standards that no child could ever hope to live up to, and it started to take its toll on me early. Two of my aunts had mental illnesses – later I found out that they have bipolar disorder (it was called “manic depressive disorder” back then) – and it wasn’t talked about in front of the children. It was downplayed as much as possible, like it was some sort of disease worse than the plague or something. So admitting that I might be going through something similar and might need help was super-scary. It was only after I had lost both my parents and was so upside-down with my bills I was on the brink of complete disaster that I finally reached out.
From that rock-bottom, it took a lot of two steps forward, three steps back to get to a true level of basic functionality again.
How Gratitude Entered the Picture
Luckily, in college, I had bought this poster called “How to Be an Artist.” The artwork was by an author who called herself SARK (I later found out that that stood for Susan Ariel Rainbow Kennedy, which is still one of the most beautiful names I’ve ever heard). As I was plunging toward rock-bottom, I found her Journal and Play! Book in my local Borders Bookstore. In 2003, I discovered the Marvelous Message Board on her website.
There was a regular poster there who went by the screen name “halogirl.” She started a regular gratitude post where we were all encouraged to post things for which we were grateful.
It’s really hard to find things to be grateful for when you’re wallowing in the muck.
But the things on that post made the people who posted them sound happy. And I so desperately wanted some happy. I hadn’t seen or felt consistent happiness in so long that the word itself – happy – was beginning to lose all meaning. So I took the plunge and started trying to post five things a day that I was grateful for. What was the worst that could happen?
Spoiler alert: the worst didn’t happen. In fact, something wonderful did!
Focusing on Gratitude Magnifies Gratitude
There’s this book and movie called The Secret. I’ve neither read the book nor seen the movie, but a lot of my SARK friends did, and I learned from them that the basic premise of the movie was this: What you think about, you bring about. In my life, I have found that to be true, even though I didn’t necessarily want it to be, because it basically said that my depression and anxiety was my fault. When I’ve focused on the muck (which is very easy to do when you’re surrounded by it), things didn’t feel like they were getting better, they felt like they were getting worse.
But oh, when I focused on what I was grateful for?
I found life presenting me with more opportunities to be grateful! It was amazing!
Gratitude is Not a Cure-All
When I first started practicing the recording of gratitudes, I was trying to manage my depression on my own. No meds, no therapy, no doctors, no clinics. Just creativity and a lot of hard work to surround myself with positive energy.
It didn’t work.
By 2008, I had married and had a daughter, and it was then that I had my first psychiatric hospitalization. In the aftermath of that experience, I came to peace with the realization that I was probably going to be in some form of therapy and on some sort of medication for the rest of my life. Gratitude became one of three things that I do – and, now that I’m a mom of three, have to fiercely protect – to keep myself stable. The other two are prayer and writing in a journal. If I neglect one of those practices, my mental health suffers. In fact, I had gotten away from all three of those practices this past summer during a time when my family and I were really hurting both financially and personally, and I ended up hospitalized again. What I learned from that hospitalization was that I need to keep focusing on those things that make me grateful. When I do, I’m a lot more stable.
Depression and Gratitude
by Matt Parsons
Matt is a Phoenix, Arizona based performance poet, story teller, stand up comic, and martial artist.
Depression Seems to Be My Constant Companion from Childhood Onward
Modern science says that depression is a symptom of inflammation of the brain. Considering my history of autoimmune issues this makes quite a bit of sense – my body is inflamed from a cornucopia of food and environmental allergies that have manifested variously as migraines, eczema, psoriasis, asthma, depression, and arthritis. Another major contributing factor is traumatic brain injury. Between the abuse I received as a child, the concussions as a young man, and the stroke in my early 20s my brain, at times, seems to be hard wired for depression.
A Record Stuck on Repeat
Repeated rumination is one of the primary habits that perpetuate depression. It is very easy to be stuck in a feedback loop that usually boils down to something like, Oh woe is me, life’s a drag. Previous explorations of other meditative paths allowed me to develop what I call “Thought Overwatch” – a sort of metacognitive monitor over my current state of thought and emotion. When I began practicing gratitude I decided to use Thought Overwatch to insert points of gratitude as counters for negative thought trends. This strategy has proven helpful in many aspects of my life. When the record is stuck on repeat for a self-defeating thought loop Thought Overwatch now fights back with gratitude saying, “Why yes, you have been chronically ill your whole life. How fortunate you are that medicine is advanced enough to keep you alive.” What an effective way to turn a loop into a new path for thoughts to move forward – I’m amazed daily at how much better things seem to go after breaking a thought loop.
I’ve talked with a number of friends who proclaim, “I don’t have that function in my head! I’m not that self-aware!” This is just how my practice works with my particular mental landscape – like many other endeavors in life I had to fake it to make it. The first practice which I really had to work on faking (and still do!) was metta. Metta’s goal is to cultivate compassion for oneself, others, and the whole universe, talk about a tough pill to swallow. Gratitude was much easier and I can recall thinking, Shit! I only have to find SOMETHING to be grateful for at this moment, I can do that! At the start even though I wasn’t feeling particularly grateful for a number of things going on in my life, I regularly made myself stop, breathe, think, and thank.
A Big Change in My Inner Theater
Being more grateful has affected many aspects of my life for the better. While I am still not the most effervescent of people (my sarcastic nickname at work is Mr. Wonderful) I have noticed a big change in my inner theatre. Others have recently commented that I seem to be one of the happiest people they know. While this is mind boggling to me, this change in how others perceive me is something I view as quite positive. I consider myself fortunate to have been introduced to Our Gratitude Collective. One of the things that is helpful about the community is the ability to share not only what we are grateful for but also what is challenging to us, without judgment.
Recently I reconnected with a few people who met me while I was mid-recovery after the stroke. From those who haven’t seen me in some time I often hear, “Wow! You’re all better! No cane, you’re talking fine, standing upright, what’d you do?” I have a phrase that I use when I talk about my health and I feel it applies to depression as well. My response is usually the same, “I’m better but still not well. Kung Fu: The Legend Continues.” Many people who don’t suffer from a mental or physical difficulty have very little perspective on living with it; the same can be said for depression. From an outside perspective I’m one of the happiest people many of my friends know. That doesn’t mean I’m at a place I can call anything close to full remission of depression.
Improving Quality of Life
Often there are underlying physical issues involved in our struggles that can lead to less than optimal mental health. Some of the biggest factors that have helped me fight depression can be very simple but can also entail massive lifestyle changes. Regular exercise (gentle if need be, I recommend qigong or yoga), improved diet (red meat, dairy, sugar need to go!), pursuit of hobbies (even through anhedonia), reduction of intoxicant intake (alcohol really gets me down), allergy management (tests for food and environmental allergies will help you be aware of your particular triggers), and pain management (this can be hard as the medicines are often depressants in their own right) are, in my experience, rather effective in improving quality of life.
Gratitude is a great tool to have and it really helps when we are aware and conscious of our whole being.
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