Gratitude: The Antidote for Depression
It seems counterintuitive doesn’t it? When you are feeling hopeless, left behind, discouraged and weak in spirit, being grateful isn’t at the top of your list. It feels better in that moment to wallow a bit, convincing yourself you have every reason to be down and depressed. While that may be true, we all have a choice to make. Do we allow the root of depression to grow deeper and stronger as we feed it with constant reminders of how life didn’t turn out the way we expected, or do we cut the root of depression at it’s core with the sharpe-edged axe of gratitude?
In my own personal life, I had a tendency to lean toward depression. This was based on a lack of self worth, feeling unloved and unlovely, insecure in who I was, and never feeling good enough for anyone or anything. I worked hard at “being” someone, but always had that sense of never hitting the mark. Never being enough. Always seeking the approval of others. Always judging myself on how much I weighed, how smart I was, whether or not I had friends and did they make me feel I belonged. Such a shaky and faulty foundation to say the least!
In my early thirties, I hit bottom. Waking up was difficult. The routine of life drained me. I felt I had no purpose and had just relocated back to New York from California, so I really didn’t have many friends, and became a bit isolated. I had my two young girls at home, but I was just miserable and exhausted all the time.
A friend of mine gave me a book that had a “Gratitude Journal” as it’s companion. I never read the book but I did like to journal so that intrigued me. Inside the book was a simple format to record 3-5 things at the end of each day that you were grateful for. Every day, without fail. Well, the first night all I could think of was that I was in fact…alive. Ok, good beginning. The second night I was thankful for my family and my daughters. The third night, the list got a little bit longer, and then something incredible happened in just the first week. I began looking for those moments, big and small, that I could write in my Gratitude Journal. Gradually, I had longer and longer lists of blessings I was thankful for every day. And guess what happened to my depression? The very act of changing my perspective and focusing on my blessings far outweighed the negative outcomes I was producing by my thoughts.
I began to pray and ask God to life the weight of depression off of me and committed to Him that I would seek to love Him more and serve others with His help. God’s word does say “It is better to give than receive”, so I would ask Him each day…”who can I be a blessing to today Lord?”. Even if was just a kind word, a small gift, a card…anything that helped me focus on others and get my focus off of ME!
Thoughts create neural pathways and the more thoughts on a subject the stronger that neural pathway becomes. Our brains have to automate most of our thinking just to get through the day so the strongest neural pathways are the default thinking. My nasty, sad, self pitying and angry thoughts had created a super highway and it was no wonder I couldn’t think about much else.
Dr. Caroline Leaf has spent a life time researching the effects of negative thought patterns, or positive thought patterns and how they can actually restructure our brain. This is because moment by moment of every day you are changing your brain with your thoughts in a positive or negative direction, depending on the choices you make. Every time you think and choose, you cause structural change in your brain. Our thinking changes our brain! Your thoughts impact your spirit, soul and body. So, as you think, you are literally doing your own “brain surgery!” You, as a neuroplastician, are able to change your own brain.
There is more to this than even science can speak for. The Bible has proposed worship as an antidote to mental conditions such as worry and anxiety. For instance, Jesus told us not to worry about the necessities of life, but to seek first the Kingdom of God, and all these things will be added to us . Seeking first the Kingdom of God involves worship. Paul’s cure for anxiety is prayer, supplication with thanksgiving . Much of the Book of Psalms is an intimate look into how to overcome mental anguish through worship. Do we see evidence of worship having a positive effect on the brain and therefore on the rest of the body? The answer is yes!
So, why do these gratitude experiences boost happiness and alleviate depression? Scientists say that these techniques shift our thinking from negative outcomes to positive ones, elicit a surge of feel good hormones like dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin, and build enduring personal connections. The insight and reflection of counting these moments is what makes the practice of gratitude so powerful. But the key to combating depression is making these positive experiences part of the fabric of your life.
So you don’t have to make major changes to your life, just little ones each day that will evoke a grateful heart, out of which joy can overflow.
Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. 1 Thessalonians 16-18