Are you feeling down and not particularly grateful this Thanksgiving?
Well, you’re not the only one who can’t muster that grateful feeling. Depression, sadness, grief, and loneliness can make it difficult to do much of anything at times. When you’re depressed, you tend to focus on the negatives.
Perhaps you’re out of work or dreading seeing your high-conflict family. Or maybe you’re grieving or struggling with physical or mental health problems. You may be worried about terrorism and the general unpredictability of our world. Unfortunately, our problems don’t just disappear because it’s a holiday. When things are going wrong and you’re struggling, it’s hard to feel thankful.
Why bother practicing gratitude?
Finding something to be grateful for can feel like an awful lot of work. So, why bother?
Gratitude won’t cure chronic depression or a broken heart, but it may help ease your pain just a bit. Gratitude can provide hope. According to John Harrison, MA, LPCC, “Gratitude in moments of despair might simply be an awareness that your despair isn’t going to consume you.” And Jennifer Owens, LCSW, LMT, CPT, adds that “Gratitude reminds you of what you still have left and takes your mind off (if even for a moment) the pain you are suffering.”
I decided to consult mental health and relationship experts to provide you with some strategies for practicing gratitude when you’re feeling depressed. They each offer a different perspective and I hope at least one of them will spark your interest in gratitude as a useful part of feeling better.
1. Find something that doesn’t hurt
Shifting your focus away from your physical pain can provide a different source for gratitude. “When you are feeling physical pain (like body aches with depression or stomach aches with anxiety) find one part of your body that doesn’t hurt and tell it thank you! Repeat the phrase out loud, ‘I am grateful for my big toe, that doesn’t bother me and helps me to walk,’ ” recommends Owens.
2. Connect with others
Harrison suggests that instead of specifically focusing on gratitude, you can “make a conscious effort to connect to others: people you love, family, a trusted friend, a support group. Just focus on connecting and being present with them without an expectation of any result.”
3. Remember a time when someone was kind to you
“Think about a few times people have helped you and shown you true kindness,” encourages Ruth Spalding, LMSW. “Maybe you remember the time you had a rough day and someone was very kind to you in helping you navigate some bureaucratic process and you can still remember how relieved you felt because you were on the verge of tears. Maybe you remember a teacher taking time out of their lunch hour to go over an assignment when you were a kid and really struggling.”
4. What can you learn?
We all know that growth can happen as a result of struggle, but that doesn’t make it any easier when we’re in the middle of something overwhelming or painful. Lorena Duncan, LMFT, challenges you to change your thinking when dealing with negative or toxic people. She says, “I’ve found it helpful to reflect on them as my Noble Adversaries and ask myself, ‘What are they here to teach me? What am I supposed to learn?'”
5. Express it
You can also give your mood a boost by expressing your appreciation for others. Owens suggests, “Call, text or email someone you are close to just to tell them to have a good day or that they are an amazing person. You could even thank them for being alive or compliment them on something you admire.”
Expressing gratitude for your ex is a tall order. Nicol Stolar-Peterson, a child custody evaluator, encourages parents to send videos or pictures of their child to the parent who doesn’t have visitation that holiday. She finds this can “build upon empathy, for not only the sake of the child, but for the sake of the parent. Gratitude for another parent, even when things have gone horribly wrong, creates an opportunity for growth.”
6. Focus externally
Renee Beck, LMFT, provides this useful mindfulness exercise: “I’m grateful for this hot cup of tea. What is right in front of you? Chances are, there is something on your desk that holds some beauty. I am grateful for the texture of this old, wood desk. No? Nothing catches your eye? Look further. I am grateful for the small ray of sunlight coming in the window. No sun? Look out the window, or open the door. I am grateful for the smell of fresh air. Are there any plants or trees nearby? I am grateful for that shade of green. Is it cold? I am grateful for the warmth of this blanket around my shoulders. Most gratitude exercises ask you to write three to five things you are grateful for; we just wrote six. Done! Our gratefulness can be accessed by little things throughout the day.”
7. Pay it forward
Even in your struggles, you probably realize there are people less fortunate. Angelica Shiels, Psy.D. shares her personal experience: “When I was in college, feeling sorry for myself because the only things I could afford were my disgusting apartment and ramen noodles, I drove across the country to volunteer (and live) in a homeless shelter for ten days. Suddenly I became very grateful.” Even if you can’t give that much of your time, volunteering for a couple hours or buying a homeless person a hot cup of coffee on a cold morning is a win-win.
Now it’s your turn. How will you stretch beyond your depressed mood and try to practice gratitude?