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October 01, 2014
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community living

Thanksgiving and mental health; Gratitude helps diminish the darkness

By Paul Matwiow M.Div., LMHC, CASAC

As Thanksgiving is approaching I’ve gotten to think about the role that gratitude has played in the mental, spiritual and/or physical growth of the many people I have journeyed with in my practice through the years. When I speak of gratitude, I am speaking of a feeling or a state of mind that arises when one gives focused attention to the things that one values, both within oneself and in the world at large.

My observation is that clients who are addressing all sorts of mental health issues—be it depression, anxiety, grief, anger, self esteem, relational issues, etc.—and who are able to access gratitude, have more favorable outcomes. I am not suggesting that “just putting on a happy face,” or “just counting your blessings” is the antidote to these serious mental health issues, nor am I in any way advocating pushing away or minimizing the painful realities that we wrestle with. What I am suggesting is that being able to give attention to the things that we value, which co-exist at the same time with our difficulties, raises our awareness of our larger personal reality. This can give us clarity of the larger picture of our life within which our difficulties exist.

This is not an advocacy for Pollyannaism but a consideration of one’s fullest personal reality; often this larger picture offers balance and relief. I recall a young mother who lost her husband suddenly in a car accident. She was seeing me for grief counseling. In one session, she spoke deeply and powerfully of how much she missed him. Through her tears, she also spoke of how grateful she was that she has a beautiful little daughter and that they had spent playtime together in the park that very day. This was a good sign that she could have deep grief and gratitude simultaneously, one informing the other. Her gratitude tuned her into her larger personal reality, to see that her life contained both grief and beauty at the same time. This did not take her grief away; that’s not the point, nor is it the goal, but she left the office feeling a bit more balanced. She began to frame her grief and depression differently; it was not the totality of her experience, utterly dark and hopeless, but as she put it, “I see many lamps of light in this very large, dark, depressed place that I’ll be living in for awhile.”

There is some interesting recent research that has looked at the relationship between gratitude and a sense of personal well-being. One study took a large number of people, who when surveyed said they had a “moderate” sense of well-being. They were then divided into two groups and asked to journal for three months, 30 minutes each morning, with one group writing about things they appreciate in themselves and in life, and the other group writing about their worries and hassles. At the end of the three months, the group that consistently wrote about what they appreciated had an increased sense of overall well-being. The opposite was true for those who had written each morning about their worries and hassles; their sense of well-being lessened.
There are times, however, when we can find ourselves in such a dark, hopeless state of mind that alone we cannot consider the larger reality of our life, which includes things we are in fact grateful for. Darkness has rendered gratitude invisible. It’s still there, we just aren’t in touch with it, and we can spiral deeper and deeper into the darkness. At those times others—good friends, close family members, counselors—walk with us until we regain a sense of our larger life.

So again, this consideration of gratitude is not to deny, minimize, or even take away difficulties, but to have us consider our larger personal reality, the larger picture of our life. Seeing things realistically is one definition of good mental health.

So may we each take time this Thanksgiving to do just that—give thanks. Whatever the difficulties and challenges we each have in our life right now, we can each take the time to ask ourselves and deeply consider, “What do I have to be grateful for in my life right now, right this moment?”

Have a blessed Thanksgiving.