THRIVING THROUGH THANKS: Gratitude as Mental Health Game Changer THEME: GRATITUDE AND MENTAL HEALTH

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20 November 2022
 
Writers: Abby Alvarado
Researchers: Abby Alvarado
Editor: Rafael Reyes
Graphics: Mitz Sabellano, Krystle Mae Labio, Jacklyn Moral, Sarah Mondoy

Holidays vs. Mental Health

Time passes by so fast that there’s only two “Ber” months before 2023 arrives. Every holiday season raises hopes for a warm and joyous time of year. Not all is bright in the holidays, as for others, it is a time of melancholy, fear, or depression [1]. Other factors to holiday sadness include social isolation and social pressure to attend events. The American Psychological Association states that holiday stress can result in physical illness, despair, anxiety, and substance abuse [2]. 

These “Ber” months are the time of the year when we most give and receive love and presents with our loved ones. ‘Tis the season we say “thank you” more than any other month of the year. The key to uplifting the holiday spirit and beating the blues is already upon us: being grateful. 

Gratitude and Mental Health

Dr. Robert A. Emmons and Dr. Michael E. McCullough spearheaded a noteworthy study on thankfulness [1]. In said study, participants wrote statements of gratitude on a variety of topics every week [1].

One group wrote about the week’s events for which they were grateful. Another group wrote about experiences that had influenced them, regardless if it was positive or negative. A third group wrote about daily annoyances or things that had made them unhappy. Those who wrote about gratitude were more upbeat and felt better about their lives after 10 weeks. They also exercised more and visited doctors less often than those who concentrated on sources of irritation. 

The study shows that if a person has a daily goal of finding something to be thankful about, it pushes their attention towards more positive things. Those people tend to appreciate the good in the little things, which results in tremendous changes in life experiences [3]. Gratitude has the capacity to uplift people’s spirits, strengthen bonds with others, and even prevent sadness and suicidal thoughts [4].

One common trait among the wide spectrum of anxiety and depressive disorders is the presence of negative thinking processes [3]. People with anxiety and depressive disorders have a tendency to concentrate on the negative or problem area (also known as negativity bias) and undervalue the positive (“yeah but”-ing away any positive component or occurrence) [3]. These moments of conflict when gratitude can be helpful.  

Science of Gratitude

High levels of gratitude enhance one’s positive emotions, leading to improved self esteem [5]. From a scientific standpoint, practicing thankfulness at the end of the day causes the synchronized activation of several brain areas, including the hypothalamus [6]. Gratitude, in other words, increases serotonin levels and causes the brain stem to release dopamine, our brain’s pleasure chemical [6]. 

This finding shows how our brains process positive and negative thoughts, and how it affects us afterwards. You will feel exhausted if you often say or think “I am tired”. If a student believes they are awful at math, then it’s likely that they won’t perform well in mathematics. Affirmative statements like “I am confident” or “I am appreciated” activate our prefrontal cortex, leading to optimistic behavior and improved performance [6].

Ways to Show Gratitude

Good thing is, gratitude can be learned and strengthened. These are the following ways to express gratitude [7]. 

  1. Each day, think of three things you’re thankful for. 
  2. Start a gratitude journal.
  3. Thank someone new every week,
  4. Meditate. 
  5. Focus more on other’s intentions. 

Gratitude Backfire

“I don’t have a right to be sad. I have so much to be grateful for. What’s wrong with me?” We sometimes find ourselves in situations where such thoughts cloud our minds. Gratitude can backfire and become a fuel for guilt. This is when we use gratitude to belittle what’s supposed to be valid pain. The guilt that follows is unwarranted and unjustified. We must be clear that your feelings of worry and melancholy are not caused by your lack of gratitude. Instead, consider adding thankfulness to your arsenal of coping mechanisms. Gratitude doesn’t negate pain. We can be in pain and grateful [3]. 

It is best to keep in mind that gratitude can be used to aid us as we are drowning in the sea of negative mental habits. Gratitude can be used as a competing response towards negative thoughts.

There is a treatment for eliminating unwanted habits, called Habit Reversal Training [3]. The use of a competing reaction, or an action that is incompatible with the habit you are trying to break, is a crucial aspect of HRT. For instance, if you’re trying to kick the habit of chewing your nails, you can clasp your hands instead when the temptation strikes. You’ll find that clasping your hands and biting your nails at the same time is challenging. Utilizing a competing response on a regular basis teaches your body to switch out the undesirable habit for the new one. We can take this approach towards negative thoughts as well. We can use gratitude to break this destructive spiral of negative thinking. 

As the “Ber” months nears its end, our emotions are more likely to overflow and get the best of us as well. Practicing gratitude can keep us afloat through the sea of feelings and the coldness of the final months of the year. ‘Tis the season to be thankful!

If you or someone you know needs mental health consultation, kindly refer to our directory for mental health facilities, services, and organizations around the Philippines: https://mentalhealthph.org/directory/

Pre-session Activity: What or who are you most thankful for today?

Guide Questions:

  1. How does being thankful affect you?
  2. What’s a trait or characteristic that comes with being grateful?
  3. Why do we need to be grateful?

 Post-session Questions: How can one learn to be grateful?

 

References

  1. Giving thanks can make you happier. (2021, August 14). Harvard Health. https://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/giving-thanks-can-make-you-happier
  2. Guide to Managing Mental Health Around the Holidays | McLean Hospital. (2022, November 15). https://www.mcleanhospital.org/essential/mcleans-guide-managing-mental-health-around-holidays
  3. Smith, A. (2021, November 8). Gratitude – A Mental Health Game Changer. ADAA. https://adaa.org/learn-from-us/from-the-experts/blog-posts/consumer/gratitude-mental-health-game-changer
  4. Slowe, J. (2021, November 19). Practicing Gratitude for Better Health and Well-Being. University of Utah Health. https://healthcare.utah.edu/healthfeed/postings/2021/11/practicing-gratitude.php
  5. Szklut, J. & Minsky, A. (2021, January 4). The Best Attitude Is Gratitude. South Shore Therapies. https://southshoretherapies.com/b/the-best-attitude-is-gratitude
  6. Gratitude and the Brain: What is Happening? (n.d.). https://www.brainbalancecenters.com/blog/gratitude-and-the-brain-what-is-happening
  7. What Is Gratitude? 5 Ways to Practice Being Thankful. (n.d.). https://www.betterup.com/blog/gratitude-definition-how-to-practice

 

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