Ask Dr. B: 6 Ways To Practice Gratitude When You Are Depressed
Dear Dr. B,
I’ve been reading your posts for a long time so I know you’ve both struggled with depression in the past, and encourage an “attitude of gratitude.” I have battled with depression for a long time, and it’s hard to be thankful when it seems like life is easier for everyone else and just doesn’t ever get any better. What do you suggest?
Wanting to be Thankful
We are all thankful for some things, and we can all improve with respect to our gratitude quotient! Give yourself credit for wanting to improve in this area. This aspiration alone pleases your Heavenly Father. “God loves a cheerful giver!” That includes one who will readily give thanks, gratitude and praise.
Depression makes it hard to do anything, and more often than not, we tend to focus on the negative. When life is challenging, it can be hard to feel thankful. An attitude of gratitude focuses on the positive and temporarily takes your mind off your suffering.
In my own life, rather than keeping my eyes on my circumstances, I intentionally praised God for who He was and what He had already done in my life. A significant change occurred when I determined to thank Him in advance for His answers. I trusted God to hear my prayers and be faithful to answer them, and thanked Him before I saw the outcome. I focused on keeping my eyes on Him rather than on my problems. I found it helped me maintain a joy-producing perspective, rather than a joy-defeating perspective, consistent with Proverbs 23:7 (NKJV), “For as he thinks in his heart, so is he.”
“He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not but rejoices for those which he has.” Epictetus
We must choose to focus on our blessings. If we focus on what we don’t have or what we wish we had, life will always feel incomplete. Zig Ziglar said, “The more you are grateful for what you have, the more you will have to be grateful for.”
How do you practice gratitude when you’re depressed?
1. Appreciate the Kindness of Others
-Think back to the times when you were struggling and others showed you acts of love and kindness that made a very real difference for you in the moment. A glance, a hug, a heartfelt prayer, a meal, a conversation…anything that conveyed you were noticed, you were important, you were cared about. Be thankful for that expression of kindness and consider showing a similar display to someone else.
2. Shift Your Focus Away From the Pain
-Depression is often accompanied by physical ailments. When you focus on the areas of your health that are unaffected by your depression, you take back some of the power that depression has stolen from your life. If the only area of your physical being unaffected by depression is your appendix, thank goodness you still have an appendix to be unaffected!
3. Be Thankful for The Learning Opportunities
-Experience is often our greatest teacher. While I know of no one who would volunteer to experience depression, it can teach us many things. In my own experience, it taught me greater compassion for others, increased sensitivity to the vast array of emotions God gave us, and greater kindness toward myself and those around me. Now instead of always hurriedly wishing trials away, I try to focus on what I might also learn through them and practice gratitude for the life lessons.
4. Focus Outside Yourself
-Depression has a way of forcing us to focus internally. If we aren’t careful, it reduces us to a never-ending cycle of self-pity. To decrease your negative propensity and increase your attitude of gratitude, focus your attention externally. Challenge yourself to write down five different things each day outside yourself for which you can be thankful. Here are some ideas to get you started: 1) The sunshine to warm your back, 2) A cup of hot tea to warm your toes, 3) A good book to read, 4) A stranger’s friendly smile, 5) A green traffic light to help you get to work on time, and 6) Flowers still in bloom in winter. There were six…see how easy that is?
5. Pay It Forward
-Depression focuses our attention on the have-nots. By doing for others who have-not, it extends hope to others and makes us more thankful for what we have. Look around yourself and see what small (or not so small) act you can do for someone else: buy a cup of coffee for someone else on a cold morning; bring in your neighbor’s trash can on a windy day; offer to walk your neighbor’s dog when you walk yours; offer a smile and “good morning” to a stranger. Some of the kindest acts cost the least, and end up improving our mood, and making us feel grateful for what we have in return.
“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity.” Melody Beattie
6. Do It Anyway
-Find something to be thankful for. Say it out loud verbally, “I am thankful for ____ (i.e. the flowers by the roadside, a break in the rain, enough gas in the car to make it to work, etc.)”, say a prayer and thank God for even if it is a quick 20-second “Thank you God for ___.” Start somewhere. The hardest part of any behavior is getting started. Then do it again tomorrow and again the next day. Ask God to make it easier each day. Then tell someone else about it. If you are thankful for the flowers by the roadside, tell someone at work about them –it’ll help you remember them the rest of the day.
What are you thankful for today?
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