“After 15 years of research, we know that gratitude is a key to psychological well-being. Gratitude can make people happier, improve their relationships, and potentially even counteract depression and suicidal thoughts. But might the benefits of gratitude go beyond that? Could gratitude be good for your physical health, too?” Summer Allen, Greater Good Science Center, University of California, Berkley
There was a time when I’d see a Facebook meme about gratitude and I’d roll my eyes. Like, really, you’re going to tell me to be grateful with a flowery meme? Do you know what my day has been like?
If I think about my state of mind during that time, it was not good. I felt hopeless, apathetic, and was in a place of functional depression. I could get up and go to work, take care of my family and do all the things I needed to do. And then out of sight, I was crying myself to sleep (if I slept at all), felt non-stop body aches and physical pain, sat in immense brain fog, couldn’t stop my mind from ruminating (literally saying phrases in my head over and over and over), and couldn’t get away from curmudgeony negative thoughts which seemed to take up the majority of my thinking time. It was changing who I was and my health was paying for it.
A huge part of what kick started this time of depression and angst was the start of perimenopause and massive hormonal shifts. Of course, I didn’t know it at the time. I also didn’t know that there can be 80 physical and mental health symptoms related to perimenopause and menopause. The more my health worsened, the more my menopause symptoms worsened and soon I couldn’t tell which chicken came before which egg.
And then I discovered gratitude as a practice.
It wasn’t the only thing I added to my self-care routine to pull me out of my hole. I had a great therapist and naturopath (still do) and I began practicing yoga again which I had put on a shelf for too long.
But when my health began to turn around, it was the gratitude bit that surprised me the most. I could feel it physically when gratitude was put into action. I felt lighter in my body, like I had put down a heavy box full of stuff I didn’t need. My heart rate calmed down. My stress lowered. I felt more equipped to take on my next thing.
Flash forward to now and my gratitude game is not only strong, it’s a part of my day in so many ways. I consider it a part of my wellness routine just like yoga and walking my dog Gus. Some gratitude practices are intentional and others just show up when I need it the most.
My gratitude practice includes the following:
- Journaling first thing in the am. If you bring Julie Cameron’s The Artist’s Way into your life (highly recommended), you can’t get away from her practice of “morning pages.” Write three pages, non-stop, without editing or thinking about it. Just get it on the page. The goal is to clear out the cobwebs and create a clean slate from which to create and be. For me, I’ve found this practice instrumental in clearing a path for gratitude to show up.
- Breathing deep in difficult conversations and being grateful for the challenge. Eckhart Tolle said, “Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it. Always work with it, not against it.” That acceptance of what’s happening, in the moment that it’s happening, can be a huge stress reliever and it opens the door for seeing what’s before you with a positive detachment and gratefulness. I don’t know why this works but it does.
- Telling people how much they mean to me. It takes two minutes to say, “Hey, I want you to know that who you are for me is _______, and I’m grateful to have you in my life.” I used to assume that people knew how much they mean to me, but they don’t. And when I tell them, I find that it lifts me up just as much as it does for them.
- Meeting anxious moments with intentional gratitude. Sometimes when I’m driving, I start building what I call my
“worry to do list.” I start thinking about this, that, and the other thing and, before I know it, I’ve got a to do list of things to worry about even though there’s nothing I can do about it in the moment. But I better get ahead of the game and do some worrying right this minute!! Oof. When I notice I’m doing this, I take three deep breaths and I turn up my music and sing, or I look around at the trees or houses or wherever I can find beauty. Before I know it, I’m enjoying the moment and I’m feeling relaxed and settled in my mind.
Gratitude puts you in the present moment. It’s unavoidable really. I guess one can be thankful for something coming up in the future, but that doesn’t feel like gratitude. That feels like excitement and hope. When I am grateful for something, it pulls me out of the future.
And, when you are in the present moment, you are in your body. The health benefits are something I feel every day and I can also feel those benefits building up over time.
In Allen’s article, she points to research that connects gratitude to healthy people. It’s not clear if healthy people have more gratitude, or if being grateful makes you healthy. Maybe it’s a chicken and egg thing.
I don’t actually care why it works or how, I just know it works. I’m a believer.
If I’m being honest, I still roll my eyes at cheesy gratitude memes. But, then again, who am I to judge? Maybe someone out there needs to see that meme. Maybe it helps them kick start their own gratitude practice. I hope so. And if they do, I want to hear about it and I want to know if and how it’s helped them with their own wellbeing.
Suzi Craig, Chief Strategy Officer, MHC
By sharing these stories in May, our hope is to encourage more conversations so that there will be a greater developed understanding for the individuality of each person’s mental wellness journey and that it will contribute to creating a safer and kinder state for our friends and neighbors in CT.
Thank you to everyone who has made a gift to support the #LetsFaceIt campaign. If you’d like to donate before the end of May, visit: https://mhconn.networkforgood.com/projects/188677-letsfaceit-2023-24