How a gratitude journal can help with anxiety and depression
I woke up to a phone call about a month ago, the worst you can imagine: “The doctor says I almost definitely have breast cancer,” she moaned, sobbing audibly. “They’re going to do a biopsy, but he said it looked so bad he was almost one hundred percent sure.”
I don’t remember much of the call from there. I’m sure I did my best to calm her down, but I don’t think we’ve talked for too long. I just remember getting out of bed, putting on ironed khaki pants and a light blue shirt, and giving up my fake Birkenstocks for the first time in weeks. I don’t know why I did all of this – I was working in the privacy of my living room that day, like every day. But I guess I felt, even though I had no idea how to fight the terror that my partner might have cancer, hell, I should at least watch the game.
When she arrived home later that day, dazed and in tears, she explained that her doctor had told her it would be a “marathon, not a sprint.” We sat together on the couch, visualizing the ungodly weeks and months that lay ahead, and I thought, How the fuck am I going to write in my gratitude journal tonight? But I did. Not because I’m the type of exuberant person who claims to see the bright side of everything, but for the same reason that I dressed to work from home: because if there is nothing happy at all in your situation, sometimes going through the gestures is enough.
The basic concept of the gratitude journal, as cheesy as it sounds, is to write down three things that you are grateful for every day. Of course, expressing gratitude at a moment like this sounds a bit sociopathic, I admit. But the gratitude journal doesn’t have to be all about the big picture. In fact, I often find it more satisfying when I focus on the random joys of my day. On June 18, I wrote, “I fought – and won – with Spectrum over the phone over our Internet bill. One week later: “Better bake chocolate chip cookies”. Sometimes my entries are longer, like April 27, when I wrote an entire page about the unexpected healing power of our weekly Zoom Family Chat. Sometimes they are as short as two words: “I voted! or simply “Pulled pork!” ”
Why am I doing this other than the rare opportunity to pop my face out of my phone for five minutes? I write in my gratitude journal every night because about two years ago I learned that there is a science behind the act of expressing gratitude that says it can reconnect our spirits hungry for happiness. And especially after my partner’s horrible visit to the doctor – with the world crumbling around us every day – I knew my brain was going to need some serious tune-up. So in the weeks leading up to his biopsy results, I relied more than ever on my gratitude journal. Night after night, the positivity I found in my journal entries helped keep the ground from falling under us.
The coronavirus not only created a global health pandemic, it also triggered one of the worst mental health crises in modern history. According to a study reported by the The New York Times, anxiety symptoms last June were three times more common among American adults than they were a year ago. The depression has quadrupled. NBC News reported in July that Americans were less happy than they have ever been. People across the country are trying to alleviate the trauma by engaging in new hobbies, be it functioning, Assembly Lego sets play Animal crossing, or pastry bread. Journaling, it seems, is just one of the many forms of relief that people rely on to keep some semblance of normalcy intact.
I first heard of comedian Louie Anderson’s gratitude diaries, which I treasure. He was speaking about Marc Maron WTF Podcast in 2016 on comedy, his long-standing struggles with depression and weight loss when he mentioned The advantage of happiness, a 2010 book on the psychology of happiness. Louie brought up the book many times in the interview – and he continues to speak of gratitude even now. I was between therapists and struggling with an unpleasant breakup while listening to the podcast, so I decided it was worth it. And I found, almost immediately, that Louie was right. The advantage of happiness, unlike most “self-help” books I have read (such as Smash your brain and The body keeps the score, which are both very good), is accessible, simple and full of science, offering clear psychological advice for everyday life.
Written by expert and lecturer in “positive psychology” Shawn Achor (discover his TED Talk; yes, he’s a TED Talker), the book breaks down seven principles for living a happier life. Achor’s principle of gratitude is called “the Tetris Effect. ”He cites a study which found that after playing Tetris for hours a day, subjects began to see life in the form of Tetris blocks. The game literally created neural pathways in the subjects’ brains, as they suddenly noticed how all the ridges and slopes of reality could fit together in neat little squares. Seeing Tetris blocks in your cereal may be functionally unnecessary, it helps to think of the mind this way. “Everyone knows someone stuck in some version of the Tetris Effect, ”writes Achor. It means getting stuck in a “worldview model” – a model that, he says, is often focused on negative and evil, on always seeing “the one thing to complain about.” So like the subjects who were playing Tetris all day and started to see the world through Tetris blocks, The advantage of happiness argues that by making gratitude part of our daily diet, we can actually train our brains to perceive the world in a more positive way.
I’m not going to pretend that a positive attitude can cure depression. Of course not. And Achor doesn’t go that far in his book either. But having suffered from depression and anxiety for as long as I can remember, I can tell you that after writing in my gratitude journal every night, I started to feel different in my everyday life. . The depression was still there – it still is – but instead of rushing home and only focusing on the six things that pissed me off about the day, I started to relax in my apartment. after work and smiling at the funniest mistakes I made. , the tastiest food I had eaten, the miraculously subway transfer I had made, or the stray cat that meowed me. It’s not like I’m wearing rose-tinted glasses, I’m just learning to recognize the good parts of my life, which apparently are many.
I am not always aware of the newspaper. It’s hard. Day in and day out, expressing gratitude can make you feel like you’re lifting dumbbells with your brain. But being positive never, ever feels bad, even on the worst days. And, between the spooky doctor visits and the ever-present fear of losing a loved one to COVID-19, we’ve had more than a few here. It’s not always about reframing; I don’t think there is a way to reframe a fear of cancer into something positive. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t think of other little things of the day – all the moments of joy or relief – to build some kind of positivity fisherman’s net that all the scary bad things can fall into. completely safe.
The night my partner was told by her doctor that “there is a very small chance” that she did not have cancer, I wrote in my gratitude journal: “I had a nice walk in the park. I saw a grown man get stung by a bunch of bees while his daughter ran around him laughing and screaming.
The day the pandemic hit New York and we were forced to cram into my little studio for months: “We decided to live here for a while. It will be nice to be together.
And then: “I mixed all the whiskeys in my apartment tonight. The corona mix! “
A month after being isolated from all our loved ones, far from the joys of everyday life that we had sworn never to take for granted again: “My pen is fading. It means that I wrote a lot!
A few days after we left my little studio, where several people in the building had died from the coronavirus: “moved into our new home. I have a real dining table now ??
And then two weeks after that initial diagnosis, those horrible weeks when we had every reason to believe that the doctor was right, that he had seen something so glaring, so outrageously ugly on the ultrasound that he felt necessary to make a phone call even before doing a biopsy, I wrote in my gratitude journal: “I finally got the results from the new oncologist… he said it was only the second time that this occurred in 17 years in the profession, but, SHE HAS NO CANCER !!“
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