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November 10, 2023 6 min read

In the labyrinth of human emotions, depression often casts shadows that seem to darken every corner. Yet, there exists a gentle, radiant light with the power to pierce through this gloom—gratitude.

Understanding and harnessing the strength of gratitude, especially during periods of depression, can be transformative.

Express gratitude when you're feeling negative emotions and be present in the moment.

What is gratitude?

Gratitude, often seen as a simple act of expressing thanks, is profoundly more intricate and transformative in its essence.1

Rooted in the Latin word "gratus," which means "pleasing" or "thankful," gratitude is a deep, affective state wherein individuals recognize, acknowledge, and appreciate the positive aspects of life.2 This can range from immense occurrences, such as achieving a milestone, to the ordinary yet impactful, like the gentle warmth of sunlight on a chilly morning.

The power of gratitude lies in its ability to shift our perspective, turning our attention from what's missing or challenging to the abundant blessings and beauty that permeate our existence.

The Feelings of Depression

Depression, unlike occasional bouts of sadness, is a persistent and engulfing cloud of desolation that significantly affects one's thoughts, emotions, and actions. It's not just about feeling "blue"; it's an intense sense of despair, worthlessness, and fatigue that often seems inescapable. 3

There are different ways to practice gratitude when you're depressed.

This emotional abyss can lead to physical symptoms, from disruptions in sleep patterns and appetite to a lack of energy and concentration.

One of the most insidious aspects of depression is its self-perpetuating nature, where negative thoughts feed the emotional turmoil, which then reinforces these thoughts, creating a vicious cycle.4

The Benefits of Practicing Gratitude While Feeling Depressed

In the gloomy world of depression and anxiety, gratitude can serve as a beacon of hope, casting rays of positivity and perspective. Here's how to practice gratitude when depressed:

  • Counteract Negative Bias: Depression often amplifies the brain's negative bias, making it difficult to notice or remember positive events. Gratitude nudges the mind towards recognizing these moments, gradually altering this bias.5

  • Elevate Mood: Reflecting on positive experiences can stimulate the brain regions associated with pleasure and reward, providing a temporary respite from the suffocating weight of depression.

  • Strengthen Social Bonds: Depression can create feelings of isolation. Gratitude, especially when expressed towards others, can foster connections and create a supportive environment essential for recovery.

  • Promote Coping: Recognizing and appreciating life's blessings can enhance coping mechanisms, making it easier to navigate through challenging times and reducing feelings of hopelessness.

The Science Behind Gratitude and Mental Health

Recent strides in the domain of neurobiology and psychology have illuminated the potent impacts of gratitude on mental health. At its core:

  • Brain Activation: Gratitude practices have been shown to activate the medial prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain associated with learning, reasoning, and decision-making. Activation in this area is linked with feelings of reward, moral cognition, and perspective-taking.6

  • Neurotransmitter Stimulation: Engaging in gratitude exercises can increase the production of serotonin and dopamine, neurotransmitters closely associated with happiness. Notably, many anti-depressant medications work by enhancing the availability of these chemicals in the brain.7

  • Reduced Cortisol Levels: Chronic stress elevates cortisol levels, which are intricately linked with mood disorders. Conscious effort to express gratitude can serve as a natural stress reducer, thereby decreasing cortisol and potentially counteracting depression's effects.8

  • Enhanced Brain Connectivity: Gratitude can foster better functional connectivity within the brain, particularly between regions responsible for emotion regulation and mood processing.9

Why Practicing Gratitude May Be Challenging While Feeling Depressed

Depression, by its nature, can cast a veil over one's perspective, making gratitude seem like an uphill task:

  • Pervasive Negative Bias: Individuals with depression often have an inherent negative bias, meaning they are more attuned to negative stimuli and experiences, making it difficult to recognize and appreciate positive moments.

  • Cognitive Fatigue: The cognitive load of depression can be exhausting. With limited mental energy, initiating a new practice like gratitude can seem overwhelming.

    It may be challenging to practice gratitude and find things to be grateful for when you have negative thoughts and depressive symptoms.
  • Perceived Inauthenticity: The dichotomy between the current emotional state and the act of seeking positive elements can make gratitude practices feel forced or inauthentic.

  • Isolation and Withdrawal: Depression often pushes individuals into self-imposed isolation,10 making them less likely to engage in communal gratitude practices or share positive moments.

How to Practice Gratitude When Depressed

In the midst of depression's stormy weather, practicing gratitude may appear as a daunting task. However, integrating this practice into one's daily life doesn't necessitate grand gestures; it's often the small, consistent acts that forge the most significant impact.

Start Small

The journey towards cultivating gratitude begins with a single step. It's not about acknowledging grand moments but recognizing even the tiniest blessings. On a particularly challenging day, finding gratitude in the warmth of a blanket, the taste of a comforting meal, or a fleeting moment of tranquility can be monumental. Over time, these small recognitions can accumulate into a substantial repository of positive memories.

Be Specific

Being detailed the ways you express your gratitude can deepen its effects. For instance, instead of being grateful for "good health," one might focus on "the ability to walk without pain today." This specificity in having a positive mindset can make the feeling more tangible and, therefore, more impactful.

Focus on the Present Moment

The heart of gratitude often pulses in the "now." By centering oneself in the current moment, free from the shadows of the past or anxieties of the future, one becomes more attuned to immediate blessings. This is where mindfulness converges with gratitude, anchoring awareness to present experiences and amplifying appreciation.11

Starting small and writing down grateful things in your life can be a great way to practice gratitude when you feel depressed.

Write it Down

The act of gratitude letter writing serves multiple purposes. First, it makes the feeling tangible, solidifying its presence. Second, on challenging days, revisiting these written affirmations can serve as a reminder of the many positives that continue to grace one's life. Whether it's a dedicated gratitude journal or sporadic notes, the very act of putting pen to paper can be therapeutic.

Share Your Gratitude

Gratitude grows in the fertile ground of sharing. Expressing gratitude to others not only magnifies its impact but also fosters connections, creating a ripple effect. It might be a simple "thank you" to a friend for their unwavering support or a note of appreciation for a stranger's kind gesture. Sharing gratitude radiates positivity outward, touching the lives of both the giver and the recipient.

In the tempestuous landscape of depression, gratitude stands as a beacon, a potent reminder of life's many blessings that, while they may sometimes be obscured, never truly wane. Practicing gratitude, even amidst the profound challenges that depression presents, is akin to igniting a lantern in the dark. While it might not dispel the darkness entirely, it provides enough light to navigate, to find a path forward.

By consistently recognizing, cherishing, and sharing these moments of appreciation, one not only strengthens personal resilience but also weaves an intricate web of positive experiences that can hold the weight of despair.

Embracing gratitude isn't about dismissing the realities of depression but about finding balance, anchoring oneself in moments of joy, and relentlessly pushing forward with hope.

Frequently Asked Questions

How to maintain a gratitude practice during really tough days? Even on challenging days, aim for just one moment of gratitude. Over time, this builds resilience and creates a foundation for more extended practices.

Can gratitude practice replace therapy? While gratitude is powerful, it's not a substitute for professional therapy. It's a complementary practice that can enhance overall well-being.

(1) Wood AM, Froh JJ, Geraghty AW. Gratitude and well-being: a review and theoretical integration. Clin Psychol Rev. 2010 Nov;30(7):890-905. doi: 10.1016/j.cpr.2010.03.005. Epub 2010 Mar 20. PMID: 20451313. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20451313/

(2) Emmons, R. A. (2007). Thanks!: How the new science of gratitude can make you happier. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

(3) American Psychiatric Association. (2017). What Is Depression? https://www.apa.org/topics/depression#

(4) Gotlib IH, Joormann J. Cognition and depression: current status and future directions. Annu Rev Clin Psychol. 2010;6:285-312. doi: 10.1146/annurev.clinpsy.121208.131305. PMID: 20192795; PMCID: PMC2845726. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20192795/

(5) Vaish A, Grossmann T, Woodward A. Not all emotions are created equal: the negativity bias in social-emotional development. Psychol Bull. 2008 May;134(3):383-403. doi: 10.1037/0033-2909.134.3.383. PMID: 18444702; PMCID: PMC3652533.

(6) Fox GR, Kaplan J, Damasio H, Damasio A. Neural correlates of gratitude. Front Psychol. 2015 Sep 30;6:1491. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01491. PMID: 26483740; PMCID: PMC4588123.

(7) Korb, A. (2015). The upward spiral: Using neuroscience to reverse the course of depression, one small change at a time. New Harbinger Publications.

(8) Folkerts, Stuart, "The Effect of Gratitude on Resilience, Mental Health and Stress" (2021).Senior Honors Theses. 1116. https://digitalcommons.liberty.edu/honors/1116

(9) Kyeong S, Kim J, Kim DJ, Kim HE, Kim JJ. Effects of gratitude meditation on neural network functional connectivity and brain-heart coupling. Sci Rep. 2017 Jul 11;7(1):5058. doi: 10.1038/s41598-017-05520-9. PMID: 28698643; PMCID: PMC5506019

(10) Brown V, Morgan T, Fralick A. Isolation and mental health: thinking outside the box. Gen Psychiatr. 2021 May 24;34(3):e100461. doi: 10.1136/gpsych-2020-100461. PMID: 34131627; PMCID: PMC8149428.

(11) Sawyer, K. B., Thoroughgood, C. N., Stillwell, E. E., Duffy, M. K., Scott, K. L., & Adair, E. A. (2021, April 12). Being Present and Thankful: A Multi-Study Investigation of Mindfulness, Gratitude, and Employee Helping Behavior. Journal of Applied Psychology. Advance online publication.