When living with the anxiety and depression that often accompany bipolar—and especially when times are tough—gratitude might feel out of reach. But research has found that digging deep and putting an effort into the practice of gratitude has a positive influence on our mood, outlook, relationships, and overall happiness. Here are some straightforward strategies to cultivate a sense of appreciation when we need it most.
#1 Unpacking Appreciation
What exactly is gratitude? What does it mean to appreciate something? Question what both feelings or states of mind feel like for you. Generally, having an appreciation, or respect, for what you have makes it easier to avoid getting lost in thoughts about what you may be lacking. Self-reflecting and digging deep to root out the aspects of our situation that might be considered positive—or even just neutral—can bring about a sense of calm. In turn, this can reduce feelings of stress and allow us to better manage or face our current struggles, whether they are related to our mental health specifically or life circumstances beyond our control.
#2 Paying Attention
A common practice to make gratitude-seeking a habit is to create a gratitude journal or list. Noting the moments, people, pets, places, simple pleasures, and basic amenities in life for which we’re grateful inspires us to pay attention. We find what we look for, and if we’re looking for something to appreciate, it increases our awareness of what we can add to our journal, whether in the moment or at the end of the day. Even the experience of gratitude itself, no matter how fleeting, may offer a dopamine boost that helps alleviate the heaviness of depression and internal commotion of anxiety.
#3 Counting Our Blessings
One way to get started with a gratitude journal is to practice the “three good things” exercise daily and keep a running list. Many people find putting pen to paper provides a necessary ritual-like experience that encourages an intentional focus on the day’s events. When journaling, we can document more details about the moments or interactions that made us feel appreciative—if we feel compelled to do so. By creating a growing record of the good, even in the midst of a difficult period, we can keep our eyes trained on the light instead of getting lost in the darkness. This encourages forward motion and reminds us of what we can control in times or situations that can often feel beyond our control.
#4 Make Alphabet Soup
If you’re seeking something a little different than keeping a list or a journal, why not try making an alphabet list? Note something, even if it seems small and simple, for every letter of the alphabet. Some find it helpful to keep a document in their smartphone or a small notebook so they can capture everything during the day. Focusing on finding a moment of gratitude for each letter keeps us looking for the good, no matter the circumstances.
#5 Sharing Thankfulness
One of the most popular and powerful tools for cultivating thankfulness is to say it out loud. When we speak about gratitude, instead of just thinking about it, we engage our parasympathetic nervous system. In effect, this increases serotonin and produces feelings of peace and calm. Many people make a habit of sharing the positive moments from their day while talking around the family dinner table or during a family phone call or video chat.
#6 Giving Thanks to Others
When times are tough, it can help to take our focus off of ourselves and make an effort to practice appreciating others. One way to do this is to regularly write thank-you notes, once or twice a week—whether cards, letters, texts, or emails. The act of telling another we are grateful for them creates connection and spreads a feeling of validation that, hopefully, will be paid forward to spread positive feelings even further than we might anticipate.
#7 Say It in a Picture
If you are more of a visual creative type, you could use physical reminders: Post photographs of loved ones or meaningful experiences in places where you can see them regularly. You could even create a gratitude wall in your home to act as a constant reminder, through good times and bad, to savor the wonderful people and moments in your life.
#8 Your Own Gratitude Style
The best route to success when searching among the stormclouds to find the silver lining is choosing a gratitude practice that fits with your preferences and style. What works for one person may not for another. Experiment with several until you find the strategies you find most feasible, enjoyable, and worthwhile. Consider your future self, who is sure to feel grateful that the present you made the effort.
#9 Make It a Habit
To count your blessings when in a state of depression or anxiety can be challenging, particularly in turbulent times. There is no denying that it takes a conscious effort. But by building this habit and making it part of your everyday routine, just like brushing your teeth, you will benefit from a helpful habit of looking for the good (or the less-bad on hard days). In fact, one other tip for making this habit stick is to associate the two daily routines, such as thinking about what you’re grateful for while brushing your teeth.
Originally published as “10 Ways to Use Gratitude to Help with Anxiety & Depression,” December 2016
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