Anxiety and depression are serious conditions. Whether you feel anxious or depressed from time to time, or have been diagnosed with a clinical disorder, the prospect of trying to break free of those negative feelings can be overwhelming.
But what if there was something relatively simple that could help you through it?
In the song “My Favorite Things” from the musical The Sound of Music, some of the lyrics read:
When the dog bites, when the bee stings, when I’m feeling sad
I simply remember my favorite things, and then I don’t feel so bad!
That might be true for Fräuline Maria and the von Trapp children, but what about when your problems are a little bigger than dog bites and bee stings? Can remembering the things you love and are grateful for help you get through the truly hard times in life?
Turns out, Rogers and Hammerstein may have been on to something. Modern research is showing that gratitude can have a positive impact on your mental and physical health. Which means that remembering your favorite things may actually help you work through your negative feelings, even feelings of anxiety and depression.
Which brings us to the gratitude journal.
Gratitude journals are becoming more popular as people start to realize the power of not only feeling gratitude, but expressing it.
Keeping a gratitude journal is fairly simple: you keep a written record of things you’re grateful for. This can range from small things like hot showers or your favorite dessert, to bigger things like your relationships or your health. One of the great things about gratitude journals is that you can make them whatever you need them to be. It doesn’t matter what or how much you say, as long as you’re expressing gratitude.
Gratitude journals are appealing because they are:
- Private: you can write whatever you want without fear of criticism from others. (Raindrops on roses? Whiskers on kittens? No judgement here.)
- Flexible: write on your own terms, in your own time. Write as much or as little as you want. Keep it in a notebook, or in a digital format.
- Inexpensive: All you need is a notebook (or computer), your brain, and a few minutes of your time. It’s cheaper than therapy, is all we’re saying.
- Available for reference: when you’re having a bad day, you can look back through your gratitude journal to remind yourself of the things you’re grateful for and lift your spirits.
- Effective: writing things down (rather than just thinking the thoughts) helps to cement them more firmly in our minds. In the case of a gratitude journal, this reinforces the gratitude we feel and will likely make it easier to feel that gratitude more frequently.
These are the reasons why you might consider trying a gratitude journal, but what about the bigger benefits you’ll experience? How can a gratitude journal help you combat feelings of anxiety or depression, like we talked about earlier?
How a gratitude journal can combat anxiety and depression
There are some big ways that a gratitude journal can help in both the short and long term. Here are a few.
It helps you focus on the positive.
Today’s world is filled with a whole lotta negative. Scroll through news headlines for about 5 seconds, and you’ll likely see more than one story detailing something that is going wrong in the world—from natural disasters to political scandals to criminal activities.
It’s not surprising that such events and circumstances would create feelings of anxiety or depression, even in people who don’t necessarily suffer from actual disorders.
That’s why it’s beneficial to take a minute to focus on the positive. Listing out the things you’re grateful for in your gratitude journal helps to bring these things to the forefront of your mind. And, once you get in the habit of recognizing and acknowledging the things you’re grateful for, you’ll start noticing more of them on a daily basis.
The negativity around us does not mean that we ourselves need to be negative. By directing our thoughts toward the things we are grateful for, we create our own realm of positivity in an otherwise negative world.
It forces you to be present.
The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said, “If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the present.”
Depression often causes people to dwell on the past—on the things that went wrong, on the mistakes they made, on the things that have always been bad and will never get any better. Anxiety, on the other hand, is more likely to cause distress about the future—the terrible things that could happen, the mistakes that might be made, the risks that could lead to catastrophe. Either way, depression and anxiety often keep people from living in and enjoying the present moment.
Gratitude, however, is all about the present moment. When you’re listing things in your gratitude journal, you’re writing down what you are grateful for, right now. You’re slowing down, guiding your thoughts, and allowing yourself to exist in the now.
Giving yourself a break from dwelling on the past or worrying about the future can help alleviate your feelings of anxiety and depression, and the more you practice being present through gratitude, the more easily you’ll be able to do it when the need arises.
It improves self-esteem.
When you’re grateful, you’re more likely to recognize not only the blessings around you, but also the ones within you. That is, you’ll find it easier to recognize your strengths and the contribution you make to your life.
One study ties gratitude to increased self-esteem in athletes. Other findings show that people who are grateful are less likely to compare themselves to others, a common practice in people with low self-esteem.
Low self-esteem often goes hand in hand with both depression and anxiety. So, learning to increase your self-esteem could help you combat the effects of these conditions.
Gratitude leads to hope.
Hope is a necessary baseline for change and for happiness. Without hope, why would you ever try to make something better (least of all yourself)? In this way, hope is absolutely essential when it comes to managing anxiety and depression. In fact, hopelessness is often considered one of the main symptoms of depression. Depression isn’t just being sad all the time; it’s being sad and thinking that you’ll never be happy again—that there’s no hope for you to move past this dark time in your life.
When you practice gratitude, however, you are creating space for hope.
If you are only able to see everything that is going wrong in your life, and you aren’t able to recognize anything you’re grateful for, it follows that hopelessness would set in. You’re only able to see the problems in front of you; you aren’t able to see the tools you have at your disposal that might help you overcome those problems.
Being grateful brings the good things in your life to mind. It inspires the feeling that things could get better, or that maybe they aren’t as bad as they seem to be.
It gives you control over your thoughts.
Rumination is something that propagates anxiety and depression. Rumination, as explained in this study about rumination, depression, and gratitude, “is a mode of maladaptively coping with distress; it involves repetitively and passively focusing on problems rather than actively solving them (Nolenhoeksema et al. 2008).”
In other words, rumination, which is common in depression and anxiety, causes tunnel vision. It allows you to focus only on your problems.
Gratitude, on the other hand, forces you to do the opposite: to think about things that are going well, or that make your life better. In this way, gratitude disrupts the rumination cycle. It gives you back control of your thoughts and allowing you to direct your own line of thinking.
The truth is: you are in control when it comes to your thoughts. You can shape them, guide them, and direct them toward anything you want—but not without a little effort.
It helps you become more self-aware.
What sort of things are important to you? Does your life reflect those priorities?
You might think those are easy questions to answer, but for most people, they’re not. A gratitude journal, however, can make it easier to answer questions like this.
When you name the things you are grateful for, you are listing the things that are important to you. You are deliberately recognizing the things that bring you joy, purpose, and meaning. As you do this, you’re increasing your own self-awareness. You’re teaching yourself about yourself—about the things you love and value.
These lessons can help open your eyes to the parts of your life you’re unhappy with. They may even lead you to some answers concerning things that cause or inflate your anxiety or depression.
If you write in your journal that you’re grateful for music, but then realize that music has not been an active part of your life for some time (which makes you sad), that could help instigate a positive change, one that pushes you back toward a hobby you love. Acknowledging that you feel gratitude for your spouse or children could help you the next time you start to feel angry or annoyed with them.
Taking the time to specifically list what you’re grateful for will help you evaluate whether or not your actions reflect your priorities. This will greatly benefit you when you are working to design a life that makes you feel fulfilled and at peace.
Keeping a gratitude journal may not be the solution to your anxiety and/or depression. However, it is a simple practice that can help you focus on the positive and nurture hope. It can help you define, design, and create a life you love—one that’s full of peace and meaning.
And that’s something to be grateful for.
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