It’s nearing ten at night and you’re tired. More of an “overwhelmed ready for the day to end” than an “in need of sleep” tired. You can still hear the kids talking to themselves or arguing through the door you’re leaning against. Silently you beg them to just sleep.
You walk away once the voices drift into snores and your achy eyes take in the laundry you didn’t get to. You avoid the kitchen and the mountain of dishes that weren’t done today as you turn off lights. The living room you had cleaned up before dinner is now covered in toys. You just want to give up because it’s never-ending, right?
Well yes, but that isn’t the point. Instead of lying in bed and watching Grey’s Anatomy and eating leftover Halloween candy, you grab the journal that’s on your night stand and you open it up. You hunt down a pen, a broken crayon works too, and make a list.
The pages of this journal are special. There are no “Dear Diary” headers, just numbered lists with an assortment of random items, people, and events. This is your gratitude journal, and it is what keeps you from falling into the looming depression you feel.
What is Gratitude?
Gratitude is feeling or showing an appreciation of kindness. It’s being thankful. Having a grateful mindset can shift your attention from all of the negativeness and imperfections in your daily life to focusing on the positives. Gratitude can be a natural antidepressant, which is something I’ve found to be true firsthand. When we take time to focus on the positives and what we are grateful for, certain neural circuits are activated. Production of dopamine and serotonin increases and these neurotransmitters travel neural pathways to the “bliss” center of the brain — similar to the mechanisms of many antidepressants. Practicing gratitude, therefore, can be a way to naturally create the same effects of medications and create feelings of contentment
What We Put Our Attention On, Grows
According to Hebb’s law, “Neurons that fire together wire together.” Meaning the more times a specific neural pathway is activated, the less effort it takes to stimulate that pathway in the future. Because of this, what we put our attention on grows. If we are constantly picking out the negatives in our lives and searching for the next wrong thing to happen, the negative thinking neural pathways become stronger.
Our brains can’t easily focus on both positive and negative stimuli. It is like a small child: easily distracted. Once you start seeing things to be grateful for, your brain begins looking for more things to be grateful for. Even when they’re minuscule things like your pencil lead not breaking as you wrote your grocery list. Over time, our brains rewire to be more constructive. We water the flowers instead of the weeds. That’s how the virtuous cycle gets created.
Gratitude Practices can make us:
- Less stressed
- Sleep better
- Be more determined
- More optimistic
- More attentive
- More enthusiastic
- More energetic
- Less depressed
- Increase metabolism
- Hurt less
Practicing gratitude helps us to focus on positives. It helps you even if you don’t outwardly share it with others! You can write a journal or keep a mental list of things you feel grateful for and it will help just the same. I personally never share my gratitude journals with anyone, except Mom when she was alive.
Just keep in mind that it won’t be an immediate change in your mindset. Try not to be too surprised if you don’t feel dramatically better immediately after the writing. Be patient and remember that the benefits of gratitude might take time to kick in.
Putting it into Practice
There are a handful of ways you can start practicing gratitude. Journaling is the one that has helped me personally, so I’ll expand on that more. You can make a jar where you write one thing you are grateful for every day and on New Year’s open it up and read through them. You can also silently count your blessings, look for the things you have that you are thankful for. Expressing gratitude towards others by saying more “thank you’s” will help. You can go more in depth and write a letter to someone expressing why you’re grateful for them.
- Gratitude Jar
- Count your Blessings
- Express Gratitude- Say Thank You!
- Write a letter of Gratitude
- Pay It Forward
You can also pay it forward and do things for others: Putting money in a Redbox case, taping popcorn to a Redbox kiosk, holding the door for someone, and so on. Here is a link with a long list of ways to Pay it Forward.
When I was in junior high I struggled with depression. It followed me to high school and it was so damn hard to do anything. My mom bought me a fun journal and new pens and made me start a gratitude journal. Every single day I was to write out five things I was grateful for, but I couldn’t repeat anything in one month. This made is so I HAD to look for the little things. Some days my lists would look like this:
- My zipper didn’t catch when I put my coat on
- I didn’t write the wrong date on a single paper
- I didn’t sit alone at lunch
- This stupid pen isn’t bleeding through the paper.
- Cats when they aren’t turds.
Or less detailed lists like this:
- Kingsley(my cat at the time)
- My pillows
- A working car
Some days it was harder than others. There were some pretty random items on my list- usually towards the end of the month when I’d run out of stuff to list. But I did it. Mom would look over my lists and we would discuss the things.
Slowly, I started to notice the positives in my life more and more. I would be doing something and the thought would hit me “I can put this in my journal. This is something to be grateful for.” Over time (years for me) I stopped journaling but I kept the mindset. I met my husband and had the horses at the rescue to focus on and things got better.
Now, fast forward a decade, I’ve been feeling the reaching fingers of depression pulling at me again. We moved in June to a new state, have no close friends or family, the kiddos are at difficult stages in their development, housework is never ending, I’m always exhausted (but I can’t bring myself to give up the “me” time at night and go to bed early), and I have zero patience (that drives me nuts). It’s just all so hard. I hate feeling like this.
I find myself standing in the kitchen staring at the dishes but unable to make myself do them. I know I just need to start and get going but I can’t physically get my body to do it. So I stare for 25 minutes until the kids start fighting and I’m able to walk away. I’ll do them later. Then two days later, after another half hour of staring, they finally get cleaned.
It’s not that I have things I’d rather be doing than the dishes and that’s what’s keeping me from them. I mean of course there are, but it’s more that I just….can’t do the things. I recognize this, and I know what it is, but I’m not to the point where I can’t make myself write or watch the shows I enjoy. But because I’ve recognized these signs I started journaling again to combat it. Medications for depression can help, but when I tried them the last time everything was so much worse. I don’t want to try unless I absolutely have to.
I’ve been journaling for a month and it is helping. I’m able to regularly keep the house cleaner. It isn’t perfect, but with four humans and a cat it’s not going to stay completely clean and that’s OKAY. The house doesn’t have to be spotless. It’s a home, it’s lived in.
Lately my lists look like this:
- Coffee that doesn’t make me feel jittery.
- Cat snuggles late at night when I’m the only one up
- Friends who understand
- Kiddo giggles
- A working laptop-even if it randomly dies a lot
To recap, gratitude is a very important practice to be mindful of. It had numerous beneficial effects on your mind and body. The more you practice it, the easier it becomes to continue and over time it rewires your brain. There are numerous ways to actively exercise gratitude such as journaling, writing letters, paying it forward, and verbally expressing it with “Thank you’s” and “I appreciate you’s.”
Keeping a daily list of 5 things, people, or event you are grateful for will help you shift your mindset and rewire those neural pathways so you begin to find the positives in your life. It takes some time, so don’t be deterred without an immediate change. You don’t have to share your list with anyone, but you definitely can!
Now go forth and conquer! YOU got this.