Embracing Gratitude in Times of Uncertainty
Let me read you this article instead
For many Americans the practice of expressing gratitude occurs once a year around the Thanksgiving Dinner table. On this day Americans stop and reflect on the blessings in their lives. However, over the last few years, gratitude journaling has become increasingly more popular. Thankfully, gratitude journaling is not simply an enjoyable trend, it has actually been found to be beneficial for your overall well being.
Similarly, gratitude journaling has been found to be an effective tool for those who struggle with anxiety or depression. Which is good news given the increase in both anxiety and depression for many Americans in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
What is gratitude?
While there are many definitions of gratitude in the world, the American Psychological Association has created a definition that summarizes the depth of the meaning. According to the APA gratitude is “a sense of thankfulness and happiness in response to receiving a gift, either a tangible benefit given by someone or a fortunate happenstance”
Gratitude allows you to be grateful for time with loved ones, a small gesture from a friend, or even a beautiful day. Altogether, anything that brings you joy, comfort, or another positive emotion can fall under the umbrella of things you can experience and express gratitude for.
“When I started counting my blessings, my whole life turned around.”
— Willie Nelson
Why is gratitude good for you?
While gratitude has been found to be beneficial to one’s overall self reflected wellbeing, it has more specifically been found to have positive and scientific effects on one’s brain, mental well-being, and physical well-being.
In regards to physical health, it has been reported that grateful people are healthier people. While much of the evidence for this claim is self reported by individuals who claim to have fewer sleep disruptions, less frequent headaches, and lower rates of respiratory infections, there are some scientifically proven results as well.
Gratitude has been found to help lower the rates of heart health related conditions and in one study (Celano et al., 2017), gratitude was even found to help heart attack patients have better heart function in the first two weeks after a heart attack. Similarly, those who were more grateful were more likely to follow doctor recommendations which will lead to improved health as well.
In addition to the physical benefits of gratitude, gratitude has many positive impacts on mental health and well-being. Gratitude is an aspect of positive psychology and PositivePsychology.com includes a list of almost 30 ways graititude benefits humans. Their list is inclusive of research on the majority of their claims, which provides more scientific evidence for incorporating gratitude into one’s daily life.
PositivePsychology notes benefits including, but not limited to the following: gratitude can increase happiness and self esteem, increase our perceptions of others therefore improving our relationships (especially during times of stress), increase our optimism and engagement in giving behaviors, and gratitude can decrease the symptoms of depression and anxiety (by reducing the stress hormone levels in one’s body) that individuals may experience.
Similarly, PositivePsychology also notes how gratitude can improve work environments due to increased moral and effective management while also increasing one’s commitment to a personal workout regime.
Overall, there are many benefits of gratitude and when combined and examined it is undeniable that these benefits can help alleviate some of the burden of depression and anxiety. Anxiety and depression are both improved with diet and exercise, both of which were self reported to be “better” in individuals who practice gratitude. Similarly, lower levels of stress hormones allow for a decrease in neurological roots of these conditions. Higher levels of self esteem and improved interpersonal relationships have also been noted as helping to combat both anxiety and depression.
These benefits do not only help individuals navigate their depression and anxiety, many of these benefits act as protective factors against suicide as well. The Suicide Prevention Resource Center notes that effective behavioral health management, connection with others, positive self esteem, sense of purpose, and life skills are all factors that help decrease someone’s suicide risk. Given that each of these factors is a byproduct of gratitude, it can be understood that practices of gratitude may possibly lower one’s risk for suicide.
Why we need gratitude more than ever before:
As Americans deal with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic there has been a rise in both depressive and anxiety disorders. CNN recently reported that an estimate 75,000 Americans are at risk for overdose or suicide related deaths due to despair related to the pandemic.
CNN continued to note that during the economic recession there were increases in both suicide and drug related deaths as a result of increased despair and anxiety due to the effects of isolation, job loss, and other impacts associated with a struggling economy.
With similar patterns arising in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers are noting the need for effective treatments for individuals struggling with their mental health.
Similarly, The Hill, reported that the Journal of the American Medical Association is expressing concern about the possibility of an increasing rate of suicide in our society. Helplines have been receiving higher volumes of calls since March when the pandemic first hit America and many helplines are reporting that callers are noting isolation as a main contribution to their depressive and anxious symptoms and suicidal ideation.
The Hill noted how in the past Americans have often come together during times of national struggle which has often lead to a decrease in suicide related deathers. However, they continued to note that this pandemic is drastically different in that regard, as isolation and stay-at-home measures are a legal requirement at this point in time in many parts of the country.
While there has not yet been a documented increase in suicide rates in America as a result of the COVID19 pandemic, many professionals are calling for mental health to be included in public health plans in order to combat the mental health crisis that COVID19 has created and the suicide spike that may follow.
As we previously discussed, the COVID19 pandemic has created a “perfect storm” for exacerbating preexisting mental health conditions and the inherent consequences associated with job loss, social distancing and stay-at-home orders only increase the risk of anxiety, depression and substance use disorders. All of these conditions are known risk factors for suicide.
“Suicide doesn't end the chances of life getting worse, it eliminates the possibility of it ever getting any better.”
In order to combat the effects of the current state of affairs in our society, we need to begin finding effective ways to alleviate overwhelming anxiety and depressive thoughts. While gratitude will not cure mental health disorders, it has been found to alleviate anxious and depressive symptoms in those who regularly practice it.
Similarly, as noted above, many of the benefits of gratitude are protective factors for lowering suicide risk and tendencies. While gratitude may not eliminate all of the risk factors an individual experiences, it may allow for more protection against suicide which can be necessary and life saving, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect mental health and society.
Throughout this article we have discussed the act of gratitude, meaning thinking, reflecting and focusing on gratitude and the joy associated with the things that allow us to experience feelings of gratitude.
While the state of mind of gratitude has undeniable benefits, practicing a behavior associated with an attitude of gratitude may be beneficial for many. In fact, researchers have found that writing in a gratitude journal several times a week, opposed to everyday, actually increases levels of happiness in individuals who regularly engage in the practice.
Even Harvard noted in a publication on how practicing gratitude on a regular makes you happier, that keeping a gratitude journal may be a beneficial manner for cultivating happiness and appreciation in your life.
“When you are grateful, fear disappears and abundance appears. ”
— Tony Robbins
What is gratitude journaling?
While Pinterest may cause you to think that you need to follow a specific format for gratitude journals, the truth is that the best approach to gratitude journaling is the one you find most enjoyable and effective.
Gratitude journaling can be as simple as writing a short list of things you experienced feelings of gratitude or appreciation for on a given day. On the contrary, gratitude journaling can also be designated to a specific gratitude journal (check them out on Amazon-the options are endless) or a pinterest inspired journal format. At the end of the day what is important is finding the manner that is most beneficial for you to record what you are grateful for each day.
By taking time to reflect on the things that have brought you joy you have the ability to slow down your thoughts. Journaling can be considered by some, a form of mindfulness which is the process of bringing one’s ability to the present moment to observe and understand what one is thinking, feeling or experiencing.
When you engage in gratitude journaling, you are able to slow down the rumination (excessive, problematic thinking on the same topic, thought, or theme to the point of impairment on one’s mental well-being) associated with anxiety and depression and make space for positive, joyful, appreciative thoughts in the present moment.
This act of mindfulness will allow you to have more clarity into your day, life, relationships, etc. which will bring forth more items or ideas to include in your gratitude journaling.
“As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”
— John F. Kennedy
Tips for Journaling
In 2015, during the early years of the rise in gratitude journaling, HuffPost released an article that included several helpful tips for maintaining a gratitude journal. Some of the recommended tips included setting an alarm to remind you to journal, keeping your journal in an easily accessible location, and eliminating the pressure to write something “deep” in your journaling efforts.
Our recommendation is not to put pressure on yourself to reach a quota of things that you are grateful for. While this is common in many of the mass produced gratitude journals available on the market, lists of goals can cause anxiety and avoidance for some people which may decrease the likelihood of practicing journaling. With time, a set list of five things you are grateful for each day may be helpful, however, if you are struggling with anxiety or depression a list of five things may seem like too many to consider.
Also, feel free to express yourself creatively. Gratitude journaling is not limited to written words. If you can best express your gratitude through collages, drawings, paintings, etc. consider keeping an expressive arts journal.
Use gratitude journaling to reflect on the good in difficult times. While each day may not be perfect, it is often possible to find something good that is coming from a difficult situation. An example would include noting how the stay-at-home orders are allowing for more time to invest in your family or hobbies you enjoy. Another example would be expressing gratitude in the midst of final exams at school for the self discipline you are learning even in the midst of test anxiety and studying.
Remember that new patterns take time. Do not hold yourself to a standard of perfection while attempting to start a gratitude journal. Allow yourself time to get into the rhythm. As HuffPost recommended, set an alarm if it will help you get into a new routine.
The practice of gratitude has too long been designated to specific holidays or specific acts such as writing thank you cards. Daily practice of gratitude has been shown to have positive impacts on the day to day well-being of individuals who stay grounded in gratitude.
So while gratitude and gratitude journaling may not alleviate all the symptoms of depression or anxiety, nor will it make the COVID-19 pandemic end sooner, it can provide beneficial improvements in mental, emotional, physical and relational health. Benefits that can allow for improved functioning, coping and experiences of positive emotions in the midst of challenging circumstances.
Maybe you will even find yourself reflecting on the appreciation you have for gratitude journaling and it’s positive impacts on your life in a future journal entry.
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