Friday, November 25, 2011

An Attitude of Gratitude

Since it's Thanksgiving, it seems appropriate to talk about the role of gratitude in mental health. One of the ways that stressors take a toll on mood is through negative thinking. When we start to catastrophize ("This is awful! What am I going to do? I'll never be able to resolve this problem!"), magnify ("This part of my life is a mess, so my whole life is a mess"), label ("I'm a failure"), jump to conclusions ("I'm never going to get a job"), or engage in other cognitive distortions, we (unsurprisingly) feel discouraged and depressed. To add insult to injury, clinical depression, and other mood and anxiety disorders, cause changes in the brain that make this kind of negative thinking more likely.

Trying to catch these thoughts and reframe them using a more balanced (i.e., less negative) perspective can help - but so can intentionally thinking positive thoughts on a regular basis. False optimism isn't that helpful...but practiced awareness of and gratitude for the things that are positive in our lives can lessen symptoms of depression and anxiety, and contributes to overall resiliency in the face of life stressors. 

Sometimes that's easier said than done. When everything seems to be going horribly, and your brain is skewed in a negative direction, things to feel grateful for can be elusive. Everyone has something...but it really does take practice to identify. Enter the Gratitude Journal. Different people use a gratitude journal in different ways. In high school, my guidance counselor had me list five positive things about my life and five positive things about myself each day. When I first started, I couldn't come up with five, but over time I got better at it...and was therefore more mindful and aware of what was good in my life. Other strategies are listing three or five things you're grateful for overall, or that give you hope, or (if worse comes to worse) that could be worse but aren't. An online search will suggest additional options, and there are also gratitude lists published online that can help with brainstorming if you're stuck.

For example, I'm grateful for: my health, friends, a good job, a great landlord, safe and stable housing, my cat, my car, supportive colleagues, a sunny day, my down coat, hot chocolate, gingerbread, time off for Christmas.... I could keep going, but that seems like a good list for today.

What are you grateful for? How do you maintain an attitude of gratitude during difficult times?

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