Depression is so much more than feeling sad and blue: The overwhelming sense of hopelessness that pervades every aspect of life feels like it will never change and the mind becomes so attuned to its state, that it distorts life’s experiences to perpetuate a sense of powerlessness in a world that is dark and empty.
To say, “look on the bright side” and you will feel better is easier said than done. It’s a bit like taking to ice carving with a disposable fork – its just not going to cut it.
So how did gratitude help me heal this illness?
Gratitude is the feeling of being thankful. It’s the ability to count your blessings and notice the simple things, acknowledging them and everything you receive. Research shows the practice of gratitude makes people happier and more resilient. It strengthens relationships, it improves health and it reduces stress.
So how do we cultivate a sense of gratitude when everything seems so hopeless?
1. Look for the good
Practicing gratitude changes the brain. Regularly looking for the good things for which we are grateful, creates new neural pathways. In a depressed mind, the brain is very skilled at seeing the negatives; the downside; the bad news; the lack and what’s missing.
In fact, the mind attunes its focus to search for the down side. Like a telescope, it hones in on experiences and sees them through a lens that is dark. By practicing gratitude, we flip our awareness and start to focus on the positives; the up-side; the good news; the abundance and what we do have.
And each time we choose to think a different way, we are retraining the brain and developing new ways of experiencing our life. It can feel very false and inauthentic at the onset, but with perseverance, the brain starts to change and so too does the way we feel.
It starts to flow naturally, with more ease.
2. Time to Let Go
Practicing gratitude increases the skills of observation. When we actively start searching for what’s good, the mind becomes more alert and aware of what’s happening right now, all around us.
For many sufferers of depression, much time is spent in the mind, ruminating over things that have troubled them in the past. The mind loves to go over and over and over the tale of “what if” and “I should have”…
When we shift gear and move into gratitude, the mind’s churning is silenced. The focus of being thankful for what we had then, brings a closure, allowing us to move on.
3. Be Here & Now
Projecting worry and hopelessness into the future is a common symptom of depression. When the mind is troubled by the uncertainty of the future, it creates a dream like story in which the darkest possibilities exist.
However, we can only be thankful for what has been given, that which is tangible and real. Gratitude becomes an accomplice to escaping the darkness of this nightmare. Because tokens of gratitude can only be found in the here and now, the practice brings us to the present moment with a fresh awareness, not tainted by the past or the future. It's here we start to enjoy life as it unfolds.
4. Get Back into life
When I realised that the way I was thinking was creating my depression and that I could change it by practicing another way, everything changed.
Aware of my habits of seeing the lack, I started to focus on celebrating the abundance. But the biggest shift took place when I realised that this too was a trap: The trap of all or nothing thinking that things were either good or bad.
In each moment I was forced to make a choice between the two, which meant a sense of winning or losing. Realising the power of my ability to make the choice was a massive step in the healing process. But what happened after that was remarkable.
Armed with this new power of choosing to actively be in the driver’s seat of my mind, I chose to step out of seeing things in black or white… to just seeing them as life. Each and every event, neither good or bad, just an experience of being alive.
I continue being grateful for everything without assessing its worth. I forget and then remember, it's a practice that continues every day.
I've developed more acceptance and a deeper gratitude for the opportunities each day brings to be here on this planet, experiencing what it means to be human.