How To Practice Gratitude When You Have Depression

How To Practice Gratitude When You Have Depression How To Practice Gratitude When You Have Depression

Like we often talk about at The Depression Project, practicing gratitude is rich with benefits, including, among other things:

  • Reduced levels of stress1;
  • Higher self-esteem2;
  • Higher levels of optimism3;
  • Improved peace of mind4;
  • A willingness to be more helpful5;
  • Increased ability to be patient6;
  • Strengthened relationships7;
  • Higher levels of emotional resiliency8;
  • Decreased likelihood of experiencing burnout9;
  • Reduced rumination4;
  • Improved quality of sleep9;
  • Improved physical health9;
  • Reductions in depression and anxiety10;
  • Improved life satisfaction9.

However, despite its immense benefits, for various reasons, practicing gratitude can be rather challenging when you're fighting depression. And, for this reason, we've put together this blog post, in order to teach you:

  1. How to practice gratitude when you're in the "Storm Zone" of the Storm To Sun Framework - i.e. when the symptoms of your depression are severely intense.
  2. How to practice gratitude when you're in the "Rain Zone" of the Storm To Sun Framework - i.e. when the symptoms of your depression are moderately intense;
  3. How to practice gratitude when you're in the "Cloud Zone" of the Storm To Sun Framework - i.e. when the symptoms of your depression are only mild.

We're really looking forward to getting started with you, so as soon as you're ready, let's begin!

How To Practice Gratitude When You're In The Storm Zone

Like we just touched upon, you can be said to be in the "Storm Zone" of the Storm To Sun Framework when your depression is at its worst – i.e. when it feels like there’s a storm raging in your mind. When you're in this Zone:

  • Your negative thoughts are at their most catastrophic, at their most constant, and you’re at your most attached to them (i.e. you believe them to be true more so than at any other time).
  • The painful emotions that are associated with depression like misery, overwhelm, worthlessness, hopelessness, etcetera, are at their strongest.
  • Your ability to function will be at its lowest - and as a result, fulfilling your day-to-day responsibilities can feel unmanageable (and often are), and simple tasks like getting out of bed or having a shower may feel like climbing a mountain.
  • Faking a smile and pretending to be “OK” may be impossible.
  • In the “Storm Zone”, it’s common to feel so miserable, broken, and hopeless that you’re unable to envision the storm ever passing.

Now, sceptics of practicing gratitude would argue that you can’t do so when you’re currently feeling this depressed - because your symptoms are too intense for you to feel grateful, and because if your ability to function is so compromised that it’s a struggle to get out of bed for instance, then you can’t possibly have the emotional capacity to do a gratitude exercise.

At The Depression Project, we respectfully yet strongly disagree, however:

  1. We do believe that certain gratitude exercises which require less emotional capacity are more appropriate for the Storm Zone than other ones which require a higher mental capacity;
  2. We also believe that even these “easier” gratitude exercises should be done in a way that takes into account the intense severity of your present symptoms.

With that in mind, we'd now like to share with you two simple yet powerful gratitude exercises that we believe you’ll find really helpful when you’re in the Storm Zone!

Storm Zone Gratitude Exercise When You Have Depression #1: Write A List Of All The Things You're Grateful For (Storm Zone Edition)

The notion of making a list of all the things you’re grateful for is one of the most well-known gratitude practices there is – however, it can be difficult to connect to a lot of the things you would otherwise be grateful for when you’re in the Storm Zone. For example, if you live in a country with democracy, then while this is something to indeed feel gratitude for when you consider the impact that living in a democratic country has on your quality of life, it’s not something you may feel particularly connected to in the moments when you’re curled up in a ball on the couch feeling miserably depressed, for instance. Consequently, democracy (among other things) may be something that’s too far removed from your depression for you to be able to feel grateful for it when you’re in the Storm Zone.

For this reason, when you are in the Storm Zone, it’s our belief that you’ll find this exercise most helpful if you focus your list of “things to feel grateful for” on what you can best connect to at that moment in time.

For example:

  • The couch you’re lying on – which is a comfortable place for you to curl up when your depression’s really intense and you just want somewhere to rest.
  • Streaming services on your laptop – which you can switch on any time you want to distract yourself from your depression.
  • The creamy mug of hot chocolate you’re going to drink while you watch your favourite show.
  • Food delivery services – which mean that instead of having to cook when you’re feeling really depressed, you can have a delicious meal delivered straight to your door.
  • Your partner – who’s always so sweet, loving and caring towards you.
  • Your best friend – who you know will always be there for you as well.
  • Self-help books – which are teaching you the strategies you need to know in order to overcome depression, so that you won’t have to live like this forever.

Of course, not all of these examples may apply to you, but next time you’re in the Storm Zone, if you’re able to come up with your own list of things to feel grateful for in that moment, then it will likely give you a lift.

Storm Zone Gratitude Exercise When You Have Depression #2: Keep A Gratitude Journal

Along with making a list of all the things you’re grateful for, keeping a gratitude journal is arguably the most renowned gratitude exercise there is. The idea is relatively simple: every night before you go to sleep, write down three things that you’re grateful for that day. An example of what this might look like when you’re in the Storm Zone could be:

  1. I’m grateful for my dog – who loyally lay down beside me next to my bed until I could gather the strength to pull myself out of it.
  2. I’m grateful for my brother – who called me to see how I’m feeling, and spent half an hour reassuring and encouraging me.
  3. I’m grateful for chocolate ice-cream – because the two scoops I had after dinner made me feel a little bit better.

Keeping a gratitude journal like so is a great exercise for the Storm Zone, because it’s relatively easy to do and can really help you find light in your darkest days when you need it most. To make sure you get all the benefits you can from this exercise, though, we recommend that you bear in mind the following:

A) Try To Be As Specific As Possible

Notice how in the above examples, we didn’t just write something shallow like “my dog” or “ice-cream”, but instead dug deeper and recalled the specific moments the subject was grateful for? Doing this builds more gratitude, since it involves you reflecting upon-, savouring- and appreciating those moments comparatively more.

B) Write It Down

It can be tempting to just try to recall your grateful moments to memory without writing them down, and if that’s all you have time- or the emotional capacity for, then it’s certainly still better than not doing so. However, actually writing down the three things you’re grateful for will tend to result in you being more engaged in this exercise – which of course, will lead to you getting more out of it than you otherwise would. Not only that, but writing your grateful memories down in a diary also gives you the opportunity to read over them at a later date as well – which can give you an additional boost then, too.

C) Find A Frequency That Suits You

While we’ve encouraged you to keep your gratitude journal daily, if you find doing so to be too overwhelming, then try keeping it every couple of days, or even just once a week. Keeping a gratitude journal isn’t meant to be an added burden on your life, so if you don’t feel up to keeping it every day, then simply stick to a timeframe that suits you better :)

How To Practice Gratitude When You're In The Rain Zone

To cultivate gratitude when you're in the Rain Zone, we encourage you to do two things in particular:

Firstly, Continue Practicing The Gratitude Exercises That You Found Helpful When You Were In The Storm Zone

The reason we encouraged you to try the previously mentioned gratitude exercises in the Storm Zone is because they’re generally possible to do even with a low ability to function – NOT because the Storm Zone is the only time when they’re effective. In other words, writing a list of things you’re grateful for and keeping a gratitude journal can really help you to cultivate gratitude in the Rain Zone as well – so if you’re finding these exercises helpful, then keep on doing them! Additionally, when you’re in the Rain Zone, you can also expand their scope a little bit, and therefore use these exercises to cultivate even more gratitude. In particular, because your depressive symptoms are less severe in the Rain Zone and you have a higher ability to function, you’ll in all likelihood be able to connect to more things to feel grateful for than you were able to when you were in the Storm Zone. For example, if you spent the whole day inside while you were in the Storm Zone because you didn’t have the energy to leave the house, then you probably wouldn’t have been able to muster much gratitude for the blue-skyed, sunny weather outside, let's say. However, when you’re in the Rain Zone and feel up to going for a walk outside, then this beautiful weather is something you can indeed feel grateful for. In this way, doing the exercises that we mentioned in the Storm Zone module of this Bootcamp when you’re in the Rain Zone will likely result in you cultivating even more gratitude than beforehand, and will therefore likely have an even more positive effect on you.

Secondly, In The Rain Zone, You'll Also Find Some Additional Gratitude Exercises Helpful As Well!

After all, due to having a higher ability to function in the Rain Zone than you had in the Storm Zone, some really powerful gratitude exercises that were likely beyond your capacity then will in all likelihood be doable now. These new exercises will help you to cultivate even more gratitude, and to cultivate that gratitude on a deeper level than you were able to do previously.

On that note, we'd now like to share with you two new gratitude exercises that we think you’ll find helpful when you’re in the Rain Zone!

Rain Zone Gratitude Exercise When You Have Depression #1: Cognitive Reframing To Turn Negative Thoughts Into Positive Thoughts

An extremely powerful way to build gratitude is to try to reframe negative thoughts which fuel depression into more positive thoughts which uplift you. In order to do this, a helpful starting point is to ask yourself a question that's rooted in cognitive behavioural therapy11:

Is there a more positive, grateful way that I could be viewing the situation or circumstance that I’m in?

To see how this strategy can help you cultivate gratitude, let's look at the example of the thought “It’s so unfair how _______ really hurt and betrayed me – I feel so miserable”.

However, a more positive, grateful thought that this one could be reframed into may be:

“I’m really fortunate that _______ is now out of my life; that my awful experience with them has taught me a LOT about relationships; and that moving forwards, I’ll be able to use this newfound wisdom and experience to have much healthier, happier relationships in the future."

Try It Yourself!
  1. To cultivate more gratitude, start by writing down each of the negative- and/or depression-fuelling thoughts you’re currently experiencing.
  2. For each of your negative- and/or depression-fuelling thoughts, ask yourself: Is there a more positive, grateful way that I could be viewing the situation or circumstance that I’m in?
  3. Then, try to reframe your negative- and/or depression-fuelling thoughts into more positive, grateful thoughts in the same way we showed you in the example above.

Rain Zone Gratitude Exercise When You Have Depression #2: Make A "Different Kind Of Comparison"

A contributing factor to a lot of people’s depression is feeling miserable, unfulfilled or jealous as a result of constantly thinking about what they don’t have, instead of feeling grateful for what they do have. This problem is often further exacerbated by social media, which leads many people to negatively compare their life with others’, and become dissatisfied when they feel as if their own doesn’t measure up. So, in order to overcome this problem, rather than negatively comparing your life to someone else’s and/or focusing on what that person has that you don’t, we encourage you to make a different kind of comparison – where (if it isn't too triggering for you) you instead think about the things you do have in your life, and imagine what it would be like to not have those things. For instance:

  • To continue with our social media example, if you’re on social media, then you presumably have either a smartphone, a laptop, and/or a tablet. Now, ask yourself: what would life be like if I wasn’t lucky enough to have these things? How would it make me feel to not have access to a smartphone, a laptop or a tablet – in the same way that so many other people in the world don’t?
  • You probably have access to food and water, as well as a comfortable place to sleep at night. Now, ask yourself: what would life be like if I wasn’t lucky enough to have these things? How would it make me feel?
  • Now think about someone you love – like your mum, your partner, or your children for example – and if it isn't too triggering for you, think about: what would my life be like if I wasn’t lucky enough to have them in it?

We encourage you to ask yourself this question for everything in your life that you value – both the “big” things (such as your family, the roof over your head, and your job, for example), and also the “small” things (such as your favourite television series, your favourite sports team, and your favourite food, for example). We're guessing that if you really think about what your life would be like without any of these things you value, that you’ll find yourself feeling much more uplifted, positive, and fortunate for the fact that you do have them – as opposed to feeling dissatisfied, jealous and unfortunate when you focus on what you don’t have and negatively compare your life with somebody else’s.

Additionally, if you’d like to cultivate even more gratitude for some of the things you have, then try abstaining from them for a while. For example, try going a day without using your mobile phone, a week without watching television, or a month without eating your favourite food. This period of abstinence will really highlight just how lucky you are to have those things in your life, and then when you do get them back, you’re almost guaranteed to feel more appreciative and grateful for them than ever!

How To Practice Gratitude When You're In The Cloud Zone

So thus far in this blog post, we've talked about some of the most effective ways that you can practice gratitude when you're in the Storm Zone or the Rain Zone - which means that last but not least, in this module of the Bootcamp, we're going to cover practicing gratitude when you're in the Cloud Zone!

Now, when you have depression, the Cloud Zone is a good place to be, since when you're in this Zone:

  • The symptoms of your depression are only mild (or perhaps even non-existent) - as compared to “very severe” in the Storm Zone and “moderately severe” in the Rain Zone.
  • As a result of your depressive symptoms being only mild (or perhaps even non-existent), you’re able to think at your clearest, and your ability to function is also at its highest.

Additionally, the Cloud Zone is when you can cultivate the deepest, most long-lasting levels of gratitude as well. This is because:

  1. You can “connect” to more things to feel grateful for in the Cloud Zone than at any other time. Consequently, the gratitude exercises that we recommended you try in the Storm- and Rain Zones are often even more powerful when you try them in the Cloud Zone.
  2. Due to being able to think at your clearest and function at your highest capacity, you’ll be in a position to try the most in-depth – and therefore the most profound and enriching – gratitude exercises (which unfortunately, often tend to be beyond your capacity when you’re in the Storm Zone or the Rain Zone).

On that note, we'd now like to share with you two gratitude exercises that we think you'll find helpful when you're in the Cloud Zone!

Cloud Zone Gratitude Exercise When You Have Depression #1: Writing An "If We'd Never Met" Letter To Your Partner / An "If You'd Never Been In My Life" Letter To The People You Love

It’s important to never take your loved ones for granted, and instead, to always feel grateful and appreciative of them. On that note, when you’re in the Cloud Zone, we encourage you to try arguably the most profound gratitude exercise there is – which is to write an “if we’d never met” letter to your partner, and/or an “if you’d never been in my life” letter to the people you love. In this letter – as the name suggests – you would candidly tell your partner / loved one all of the ways your life would have been different if you hadn’t been lucky enough to have them be a part of it. In particular, we encourage you to think about and consider including in your letter:

  • How you would feel emotionally if that person had never been in your life;

  • The wonderful memories that you would not have made;

  • The things they taught you that you may not have otherwise learned;

  • The achievements you may not have managed without their assistance;

  • The difficult times you may not have gotten through (or gotten through as well) without their help;

  • All the other positive impacts they’ve had on your life.

After you’ve written such a letter, you can of course give it to your partner / the loved one who it's about if you'd like. However, if for whatever reason you don’t feel comfortable doing so, then we still encourage you to thoughtfully write it – because the mere act of doing so is still likely to fill you with an immense amount of gratitude for that person.

Cloud Zone Gratitude Exercise When You Have Depression #2: Cultivating Gratitude For Your Stage Of Life

A powerful way of cultivating gratitude for the life you have is to try to appreciate the stage of it that you’re currently in, and to embrace it for all of its (often unique) opportunities. For example:

  • Being 25 has many advantages over being 65 (for example, being in the physical prime of your life). However, being 65 also has lots of advantages over being 25 (for example, having more wisdom, being less prone to making reckless mistakes, perhaps being more financially secure, maybe having the relaxation of retirement, etcetera).

  • Being in a relationship has lots of advantages over being single (such as the benefits of companionship, having someone who (hopefully) understands you really well, having someone who’s there to support you, etcetera). However, being single also has lots of advantages over being in a relationship (for example, having more freedom / time to explore your interests, to pursue new hobbies, to travel, to meet new people, etcetera).

  • Being employed has lots of advantages over being unemployed (such as more financial security). However, being unemployed also has some benefits over being employed (for example, having more time to spend with your family, and to do the things that you’d previously been putting off doing while you were too busy working).

So, to cultivate gratitude for the stage of life that you’re in – whatever it may be – we encourage you to really consider where you’re at in terms of your age, relationship status, job status, where you live, etcetera, and rather than focusing on where you aren’t in your life, to instead take some time to think about- and appreciate the benefits of where you are. After all, this may be the only time in your life when you’re in this particular position, which means that in the future, some of the advantages you have from being where you’re at now will be gone. So, please try your best to be grateful for those opportunities and to make the most of them!

Conclusion

Like we said at the start of this blog post, practicing gratitude has many, many benefits, including:

  • Reduced levels of stress1;
  • Higher self-esteem2;
  • Higher levels of optimism3;
  • Improved peace of mind4;
  • A willingness to be more helpful5;
  • Increased ability to be patient6;
  • Strengthened relationships7;
  • Higher levels of emotional resiliency8;
  • Decreased likelihood of experiencing burnout9;
  • Reduced rumination4;
  • Improved quality of sleep9;
  • Improved physical health9;
  • Reductions in depression and anxiety10;
  • Improved life satisfaction9.

And, now that you've read this blog post, we hope that you're in a better position to start realising these benefits :)

All our love,

The Depression Project Team.

References

Wood, A. M., Maltby, J., Gillett, R., Linley, A., & Joseph, S. (2008). The Role Of Gratitude In The Development Of Social Support, Stress, And Depression: Two Longitudinal Studies. Journal of Research in Personality, 42(4), 854-871.

Chen L.H. & Wu C-H. (2014). Gratitude Enhances Change In Athletes’ Self-Esteem: The Moderating Role Of Trust In Coach. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 26(3), 349-362.

Huffman, J.C., DuBois, C.M., Healy, B.C., Boehm, J.K., Kashdan, T.B., Celano, C.M., Denninger, J.W. & Lyubomirsky, S. (2014). Feasibility And Utility Of Positive Psychology Exercises For Suicidal Inpatients. General Hospital Psychiatry, 36(1), 88-94.

Liang, H., Chen, C., Li, F., Wu, S., Wang, L., Zheng, X., & Zeng, B. (2018). Mediating Effects Of Peace Of Mind And Rumination On The Relationship Between Gratitude And Depression Among Chinese University Students. Current Psychology, p. 1-8.

Bartlett, M.Y. & DeSteno, D. (2006). Gratitude And Prosocial Behavior: Helping When It Costs You. Psychological Science, 17(4), 319-325.

Dickens, L. & DeSteno, D. (2018). The Grateful Are Patient: Heightened Daily Gratitude Is Associated With Attenuated Temporal Discounting. Emotion.

Emmons, R. A. & Mishra, A. (2011). Why Gratitude Enhances Well-Being: What We Know, What We Need To Know. In K. M. Sheldon, T. B. Kashdan, & M. F. Steger (Eds.), Series In Positive Psychology. Designing Positive Psychology: Taking Stock And Moving Forward (pp. 248-262). New York, NY, US: Oxford University Press.

Fishman, MDC. (2020). The Silver Linings Journal: Gratitude During a Pandemic. Journal of Radiology Nursing, 39(3), 149-150.

The Greater Good Science Center. (2018). The Science Of Gratitude. Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.

Cregg, D.R. & Cheavens, J.S. (2021). Gratitude Interventions: Effective Self-help? A Meta-analysis of the Impact on Symptoms of Depression and Anxiety. Journal Of Happiness Studies, 22, 413–445.

Clark, D. A. (2013). Cognitive Restructuring. In The Wiley Handbook Of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, S.G. Hoffman (Ed.).

P.S. If you'd like to learn more ways of cultivating gratitude when you have depression, then we think you'll find our Gratitude Bootcamp extremely helpful!

The Depression Bootcamp: Gratitude Edition

Access to this Bootcamp and lots of others are included as part of our Depression Bootcamps Membership Platform - which you can learn more about by clicking the button below.

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