Gratitude: The Missing Link to Mental Health

woman's hand on her chest

Reviewing the available resources on gratitude can yield many different definitions. Some people refer to gratitude as an attitude saying that “an attitude of gratitude” can pull you through the darkest times in your life. Others call gratitude a habit, something you include in your daily life to stay out of negativity. For others, gratitude is a moral issue that can make people who struggle with it feel like they’re failing in some way. 

For our purposes, gratitude is the ability to appreciate what is enjoyable and positive in your life, even when not everything is going swimmingly. This blog will detail the benefits of practicing gratitude and give you practical tips to add to your mental health toolbox to help you enjoy the benefits of living in gratitude. 

Health Benefits of Gratitude

In this blog, we are focused on improving your mental health through gratitude, but gratitude can do much more than that. Practicing thankfulness and focusing on the positive things in your life can help improve your relationships and overall well-being and may even have physical health benefits. Here’s a non-exhaustive list of the ways gratitude can improve your life.

Gratitude Helps You Manage Negative Emotions

We’re bound to experience negative emotions as we move through life. Loss, death, illness, and even dropping coffee grounds on the floor can cause a flood of sadness, fear, and anger that can overwhelm you. Keeping gratitude in your mental health toolbox can help you overcome these negative experiences. For example, framing the loss of a pet as gratitude for the joy they brought to your life can help you better manage grief.

Practicing Gratitude Can Deepen Your Experience of Positive Emotions

person holding a heart toy

Frequently, we feel afraid to embrace joyful moments because we know they can be fleeting. We hold back from fully experiencing a kiss from our partner because we’re thinking about everything we need to get done before bedtime. We notice all of our children’s toys on the floor instead of feeling the joy of being able to provide such an enriching environment for them. We feel the sting of our teenager’s normal withdrawal from us instead of feeling grateful they’re comfortable becoming independent. Practicing gratitude can help you experience more positive emotions, such as happiness, love, and peace.

Gratitude Helps You Stay Focused on the Present Moment

Have you ever gotten to the end of a holiday celebration and felt exhausted instead of recharged? When you’re letting your mind wander to all the undone tasks, the expectations of others, or the unrealistic expectations you have for yourself, it can be easy to exhaust yourself during a time when you should focus on connection instead. This year, take deep breaths and notice the rooms around you full of family and friends. Gratitude can keep you present with those who love you most.

Gratitude Improves Relationships

None of us are easy to be in a relationship with. We bring history, baggage, trauma, and quirks to every friendship and romantic partnership we form as well as our parenting relationships. When you focus more on the positive aspects of your relationships and are grateful for all the joy your people bring to your life instead of how they’ve let you down, you build stronger, more resilient relationships.

Gratitude Can Reduce Anxiety and Depression Symptoms

When you have anxiety or depression, it is easy to focus on all the struggles in your life. When managing mental health conditions, gratitude practice becomes a weapon against worsening symptoms. Even if all you have to be grateful for on a given Monday is sunshine and a cup of coffee, focusing on that may get you through another day at the job you can’t stand.

Gratitude May Improve Your Physical Health

There’s often a debate about whether having good health makes gratitude easier or if gratitude actually improves health. It appears that both may be true. For people who struggle with sleep, gratitude journaling or a sleep ritual involving gratitude can help them drift off easier and sleep better. Gratitude may also help improve heart health by managing blood pressure.

Ways to Practice Gratitude

Some of us are naturally grateful people, and others walk around with a naturally pessimistic view. Even if you struggle with gratitude, there are some simple things you can incorporate into your day to benefit from this mental health and wellness practice. These tips for expressing gratitude in your daily life are mini gratitude interventions that you can add to your mental health toolbox.

Three Good Things

happy and smiling woman

This practice involves listing three good things about your life that can be used in various situations. Some people find it helpful to list three good things at any point in the day when they wallow in negative emotions or self-talk. For example, if you yell at your kids and launch into a self-talk dialogue that says, “I’m a terrible parent. I never do anything right. My kids are probably going to hate me.” You can prompt yourself to list three good things about your parenting, “I always try to do the right thing. I give my kids plenty of affection and praise. I remembered to microwave the chicken nuggets instead of serving them frozen.” This strategy can turn off the negative spiral and get you refocused on your day. Some people ask a friend or loved one to prompt them to list three good things after any conversation where they launch into complaining about their life.

Many people find “three good things” helpful in encouraging healthy sleep habits. Saying three good things about your day before sleeping at night can help you avoid a hamster wheel of thoughts about what you should be doing, need to be doing, or any mistakes you made during the day. You can do this alone, with your partner, or even as you tuck your children into bed.

Gratitude Journal

If you already keep a journal, try writing about something you’re grateful for every day at the end of your typical journal entry. Sometimes our journal is the space where we vomit negativity onto the page, and that’s necessary sometimes. But, try to end your writing session with gratitude because then you move on to your next task in a positive mindset.

If you’ve never journaled before, keep a notebook next to your bed to record something you’re grateful for each day. Some days it will be easy to find gratitude, and you’ll fill a whole page. On other days you may just be grateful for a soft pair of socks.

Give Thanks For the Little Things

notebook with writing that says I am grateful for

When someone does something for you, responding with gratitude can help you stay focused on all the good in your life. Little things could be your spouse filling your coffee mug for you, your child bringing home a drawing they made for you, or a friend reaching out to you via text message. Those small gestures are how we show love to others and express gratitude if someone is giving them to you.

Gratitude meditations: Any meditation can help you improve your mental health by helping you focus on your body and your breath and calm negative emotions. Gratitude meditations take this a step further and infuse positive emotions into your day. If you’re new to meditating, start with guided meditations using an app or YouTube. You’ll eventually find you’re able to meditate on your own.

Write a Letter of Gratitude

Write a letter (or email) of appreciation to a loved one or yourself each week. This letter can be for something the person did for you or for being present. You might thank your best friend for always listening to you or the secretary at work for the way she handles the office needs. Writing a gratitude letter to yourself can be incredibly powerful, especially when struggling. Focusing on all the great things you do to take care of yourself, even if that’s just never quitting on yourself, can improve your self-esteem and help stop negative self-talk.

Therapy Can Help You Develop Your Gratitude Practice

person meditating at work

If you struggle with feelings of gratitude and find yourself overwhelmed by negative emotions and negative self-talk, it may be time to talk to a mental health professional. The practice of gratitude is a skill, and you can learn to appreciate the little (and big) things in your life so you can enjoy the transformative power of gratitude. Our providers at SMPsychotherapy and Counseling Services will listen to your worries and help you through the hard times by empowering you with tools to build resilience and improve your mental health. If you’re ready to see how gratitude can change your life, reach out today to schedule an appointment.

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