Thursday, July 2, 2015

Gratitude & Mental Illnesses

       There are very few things that relieve the symptoms of my mental illnesses as fast as exercise. One of the things that does is to make a gratitude list. I was skeptical of the process, so I didn't try it until I was in a very deep, dark depression. 

       At that time, I honestly didn't believe I had anything to be grateful for. I know that comparing yourself with others is a big no-no in the world of mental illness, but desperate times call for desperate measures. I decided to compare myself with someone living in a war torn area, at that time, where the people didn't know if they were going to eat or even survive the night. In an instant, I started writing down ideas, which I would have never thought of otherwise. 

       I spent well over an hour writing. When I finally laid my pen down, I was astonished. I felt better. I felt much better. I was still depressed, granted, but there was a light at the end of the tunnel. I put the list on my nightstand and was finally able to get out of bed. Then, I took a shower and was able to eat a little something. I was sold, and I haven't looked back since. 

       When I sense things in my life might be going downhill this is often my first line of defense, because I can't always drop everything and go exercise. I can, however, start writing down things that I am grateful for. If things have gotten bad and I am too lethargic or anxious to exercise, I immediately turn to the gratitude list strategy. So far, that simple act has always improved my mood just enough to allow me to go for a run/exercise. Then, I have my symptoms on the ropes. 

       This is a well-researched area of psychology. In a series of experiments that were detailed in a 2003 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, daily exercise practices and listing off the things that you are thankful for were linked with a brighter outlook on life, a greater sense of positivity and a significant reduction in depression symptoms. 

       Two psychologists, Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, and Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami, have done a great deal of the research on the topic. In one of many studies, they asked participants to simply write one sentence at the end of their day that stated something that they were grateful for. After ten weeks, the participants scored significantly higher on the optimism scale and reported feeling better about their lives. Surprisingly, they also exercised more and had fewer visits to physicians than they had reported before the test. 

       Writing down things that one is grateful for also improves sleep, according to a 2011 study published in Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being. Simply spending just 15 minutes jotting down a few things that one is grateful for before bed can significantly help him/her sleep better and longer. 

       A 2003 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that gratitude was a major contributor to resilience after the terrorist attacks on  9/11.  Recognizing things that one has to be thankful for, even during the worst times of life, fosters resilience. 

       I could list hundreds of studies, but you get the picture. When someone writes down things that he/she is grateful for, it is highly likely that their psychological wellbeing will improve. That has certainly proved to be true for me. 
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As always I wish you wonderful mental health and great successes eating healthy meals. If you, or someone you love, is severely depressed or anxious, please click the link to the right and you will be directed to the International Association for Suicide Prevention. It is a great resource and is staffed by wonderful people. 
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