How does thinking about things we are grateful for impact our mental health?
Most of us have heard about gratitude from self-help books, wellness bloggers, therapists, or people around us. I wanted to spend time discussing how gratitude plays a role in mental health healing.
When people are suffering from mental, physical, or emotional pain it becomes very difficult to focus on things that are going well. Our brains develop a negativity bias where all we can focus on is our suffering and what is going wrong. We also live in a society where other people’s successes and accomplishments are constantly being shown to us. All we must do is turn on the TV, open and app, or start talking with others to hear about all the success they are having, which is a big reminder of things that are not going for us. We live in a world where the fear of missing out (or FOMO) has become an epidemic. There are many negative impacts on our wellbeing when we are constantly bombarded with these reminders. Some of these impacts include strong inner critic towards us and the world, as well as feelings related to worthlessness, hopelessness, failure, not being good enough, anxiety and sadness.
One small step that people can take to counteract these impacts is practicing gratitude. When we practice gratitude, we are reorganizing neural networks in our brain that continue to reinforce our critics, feelings of inadequacy and self-sabotaging actions. Practicing gratitude involves finding small areas in our lives that are going well. This could include big things such as relationships, family, work, pets, fitness, health, etc. Or this can include the smallest of things. For example, one could appreciate that on their way to work they stopped and got themselves a coffee. This one act, although it may seem insignificant, is a form of self-care for many. One thing I constantly am grateful for is the ability to watch trashy reality TV shows. The one hour I may get to spend a day watching this show, provides an escape from my own stress.
If people are struggling with feelings of inadequacy or inner critic thoughts about their actions or the way they look, I encourage them to start a gratitude journal. In this journal they are challenged to find one thing they did that day that went well (or even okay). One time I assigned this task, I had a client come back with an empty booklet. They were frustrated and went on a rant about all the things that went wrong during the week. We spent the session working together to try and find a few small things that they could ground themselves in. Through discussion, we were able to identify their ability to show up to work daily, going for 5-minute walks with their dog, not exploding on their boss (even though they came close), having their favourite chocolate bar, their body for helping them function each day, and the effort they took to try the activity daily.
For this client, this activity was challenging for a while. With time, they were better able to identify things going well for them. This, along with other strategies put in place, helped them transform their view of themselves and the world around them. Their inner critic got quieter, and the negative bias shifted to one that was more balanced. It is totally okay if you need assistance in being able to practice gratitude. It is a lot harder than just “thinking positively”.
I encourage you to practice gratitude in a way that makes sense for you. Maybe it’s with a friend, partner or therapist, through meditation, art, or journaling, in nature, or a safe place with a pet.
I am always grateful for people taking the time to read these articles, and I hope that you can find one tangible thing to help you in your mental health journey.