Can Gratitude Change the Cycle of Depression?

An attitude of gratitude?

In a world where the pressure is on to be perfect, it feels like every time we turn around another one of us has fallen prey to mental illness. A friend of mine commented to me the other day over coffee that “these days” everyone seems to have something wrong with them. Which led to a discussion about whether modern society causes mental illness. My friend was firmly on "team modern society" is the cause, while I was on "team modern society" is not the cause. Her main argument was that “in her day” people didn’t have all these things wrong with them and apparently everything that is wrong with society today can be summed up by the word selfie.

In my view, mental illness might be more prolific now, but I don’t think it is to the extent that many people seem to think it is. I believe that as a society, as well as our medical profession, we have become a lot better at spotting mental illness. It is something that has always been with us; it’s just that 40 or 50 years ago more people went undiagnosed.

My Experience

I was diagnosed with high functioning low mood and anxiety a few years ago, and had I been my age 40/50 years ago I doubt I would have been diagnosed at all. After all, high functioning low mood and anxiety is, by its very definition, difficult to spot.

I have a professional career that I don’t take time off from (mostly because my insurance noted my pre-existing condition and refused to provide cover for time off due to it without making premiums unaffordable, yay insurance). I also maintain a couple of side projects or side hustles as it is now trendy to call them. I keep a handful of social connections, thank god for Facebook, a long-standing romantic relationship, and even go out socially a couple of times a month.

Overall, I’m not what one thinks of when they think of someone with low mood and anxiety. In fact, I doubt even I would have realized anything was wrong with me had I been suffering this 40/50 years ago.

One of the benefits of living in a society where mental illness is far less stigmatized than it was several years ago is that the variety of help available has increased. You are no longer restricted to therapy or drugs (having tried both I can confidently say that there are advantages and disadvantages to both, it depends on what you're looking for). The literature available on these subjects is extensive, and I spend some of my free time in the evening reading articles, studies and opinion pieces on how to cope with depression and anxiety.

Attitude of Gratitude

One of the things that I have seen more and more of lately is the concept of gratitude. How your attitude can affect your perception of the world. This put me in mind of the “cycle of depression” an idea that one of the therapists mentioned. The cycle being made up of three elements

1. Mood

2. Thoughts

3. Actions.

In a nutshell, your mood affects your thoughts, which in turn affect your actions, which in turn affect your mood and so on and so forth. But if you can change one part of that cycle then you change all of it. So, if you change your actions then your thoughts will change, and your mood will change, or if you change your thoughts then your actions will change, and your mood will change.

I have been trying to do this for years and sometimes I’ll manage it and have a few good weeks/months and sometimes I won’t.

Picking what to change initially was a struggle. Usually, I will try to change my actions, as those are things I physically control. I might feel completely overwhelmed and like the world is crushing me, but I can make myself smile. I might not want to smile, I might not feel like smiling, but physically I can smile, it’s just challenging.

I’ve tried to change my thoughts a few times. Whenever I catch myself thinking something negative I stop myself, usually through distraction—again, Facebook is a life saver, but so were mobile games for a while. This worked sometimes but not that often, as I would never feel like I was fixing the problem, the negative thoughts were still there, I was only distracting myself from them. Kind of like a child cleaning its room by pushing everything under the bed, the mess is always there, you’re just hiding it.

When I read about gratitude, I saw the opportunity to change my thoughts for real. I liked the idea of this, it felt like a real step forwards, a proper solution. Reading article after article gratitude sounded like a magical cure-all, it fixes sleep problems, raises your immune system, increases your energy levels (probably by helping you sleep) and decreases your risk of depression. The fact that gratitude was being portrayed as some super cure set my skepticism into overdrive, but despite this, I resolved to give it a try.

Initial Struggles

I went out and bought myself a gratitude journal. The primary task being that you must write three things in each day that you are grateful for. Apparently, if you can do this every day for a month, you will form a habit of looking for positive things in the world. This sounded bloody amazing, and I was eager to try it despite the cynical part of me rolling its eyes.

I started on the 1st of January 2017, and initially, it was easy. I had a lot to be grateful for over the holiday season, and it was nice to be reminded of these things.

But after a few weeks, I started to struggle.

I started to feel worse than I had before I started, mostly because I felt guilty. I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t feeling grateful for anything. I had lots in my life that I should be thankful for. I have a ‘good’ job, a good relationship with my family, friends who care about me, interests that I enjoy, food in my cupboards, heat in my flat and I can pay my bills. That’s something to be grateful for, but for some reason, I wasn’t. I was miserable, I complained about everything.

I noticed my struggle quickly thanks to the gratitude journal, sitting there one morning staring at a blank page for so long I was nearly late.

Turning Things Around

I sought advice as to why my attitude of gratitude was apparently broken. Mostly I was met with a plethora of "just be grateful tobe" and "don’t be grateful for things in your life, be grateful for life." Gee thanks, that was helpful advice. Merely telling me to love life does not make me love life. All these comments only made me angry as not one of them offered any real practical advice on how to do this.

I nearly threw the journal away.

But I stopped myself (I can’t throw a book away, it feels wrong). I wondered if the problem was me and decided that it probably was. So I gave a lot of thought as to what I was doing that was stopping me feeling grateful and eventually decided that the "be grateful for being alive" crowd might have a point, despite not articulating it particularly well in my opinion.

I had to shift my focus; I had to stop focusing on what I wanted and what I had. Instead, I tried to focus on the moment. So, I started meditating. Taking ten minutes each day to just sit and breath and not think helped me focus. It took me a while, a good six months, but after some time I was able to appreciate moments rather than things.

I also started looking at the things that made me unhappy differently. The extra pressure at work was a demonstration of how other people saw me. They came to me for help and trusted me to manage tasks and requests, they had faith in me. One of my side projects not being an instant success was a learning experience; it was an opportunity to learn from my mistakes and become better for it. Demands from people to do things were opportunities to do something fun with people I liked.

Again, this wasn’t easy. Turning negatives into positives isn’t straightforward or easy and genuinely seeing failures as opportunities was perhaps one of the hardest things I have ever done. But again, after doing this for a while it started to happen naturally, and it helped. I still get annoyed, frustrated and upset but I get over it faster, and I’m less likely to spiral down because of it.

Final Thoughts

Overall, I don’t believe there is one magical thing that will cure everything.

Instead, I have come to realize that it takes a few things. I might have started with gratitude, but I quickly expanded into meditation as well. Meditation led me down the path of gentle regular exercise (well actually I do vibroplates for ten minutes every day, but it helps keep my weight down). Regular exercise led me to improved diet; I make a conscious effort not to eat junk food and have almost cut sugar out of my diet altogether.

All these things combined have helped me get a handle on my emotions.

But even all of the above isn’t an impregnable shield against low mood and anxiety. I still have bad days/weeks, but there has been an undeniable improvement. It’s bad days/weeks, not bad months anymore. I am also able to deal better with the bad days/weeks. Lastly, things that might have broken me before (having to move house with almost no notice, money worries, illness in the family, etc.) now just hurt me, they do not destroy me the way they would have only a year ago.

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Can Gratitude Change the Cycle of Depression?