An illustration of a woman looking down

It was a beautiful day. The sun was shining. The transition from fall to winter left the ground covered with burnt orange leaves, which had so gracefully fallen from the trees. The temperature, a crisp 48 degrees, I was covered by the warmth of blankets, my head resting on a down-filled pillow. I was pursuing my dreams, living in an incredible city, engaging in deep friendship and contributing to the world in meaningful ways. 

There was so much light all around, but somehow, when I opened my eyes—it was dark.

Waking up to a flood of sadness, deeply grieving the loss of my dad who’d passed away six months prior, I was overcome by the mountain I felt I needed to climb in front of me. I was met by a deep desire to be further along in life—more established and successful, happier. My deep longing to fall in love, get married and become a mother felt so far from attainable. 

It felt impossible to get my two feet to meet the floor. The clouds of grief, loneliness and anxiety were hovering so closely that I couldn’t see any light at all. 

Mental Illness 

Mental illness stems from complex biological and chemical components fueled by genetics, culture, stress, trauma and loss. Today, in the United States, almost half of adults will battle some form of mental illness during their lifetime. Almost half of adults.

Anxiety, depression, bipolar, PTSD and eating disorders are among the top contenders out to steal every ounce of our joy. Since we all come to this life from a unique perspective and background, no two cases of mental illness are exactly alike. While the deep roots of a mental battle may vary, feelings of isolation can inevitably become its greatest weapon. There are ways to fight back.

Gratitude

I know what you’re thinking. “Gratitude, you’re kidding. You think the simple act of ‘being grateful’ is going to help my depression?” Well, yes. I do. Does gratitude cure mental illness? No, but gratitude certainly matters when it comes to improving our mental health.

Gratitude certainly matters when it comes to improving our mental health.

Being grateful has the powerful ability to reach inward to positively transform our minds and extend outward to transform the way we engage with the world. Naturally, as humans, we are prone to give greater attention to negativity than positivity. 

When my dad passed away and people told me to, “Think of all the good that would come from his passing,” it was not helpful. It honestly made me a bit angry. I didn’t want to think of the good or try to be grateful. I needed to be sad. 

The delicate dance between feeling sorrow and simultaneously practicing gratitude is an everyday battle. I’ve begun to realize that maybe I don’t need to be grateful for heartache or dismiss sadness, but more so that I need to stray from passively viewing my lack to actively recognizing more of the good right in front of my eyes

I need to stray from passively viewing my lack to actively recognizing more of the good right in front of my eyes.

Empathy has become a powerful tool for evoking gratitude. When I take time to look into another human’s soul, listen and become a safe space for them to feel seen, understood and loved, I feel grateful. Gratitude helps us to remain present. Something as simple as eye contact or a smile can also bring about a deep sense of gratitude. When we begin to recognize that we’re all enduring something, we begin to feel a little less alone. 

Another way to practice gratitude is through kindness or giving back to the world. We are hard-wired to contribute. When we shift our focus away from that which we lack and move toward another person’s needs, even if it’s momentary, it’s a powerful way to fight for our mental health. 

Practicing gratitude is a shift in mindset. It is hard work. It’s become a momentary active decision to see the good in each and every day. Gratitude is what gives our life purpose, and the absence of gratitude is the beginning of despair. There is a battle for our mind. If we’re not willing to ask for help or take a step in a positive direction, even if it’s a small step, then we will lose.

Practicing gratitude is a shift in mindset. It is hard work.

As I lay in my bed, I began to allow myself to recognize glimpses of good. I was brought back to the moments where gratitude won. I opened my eyes and allowed my feet to hit the floor. I went from feeling paralyzed to recognizing that though the clouds of grief, loneliness and anxiety will hover, they will not overcome. It was there where the day turned from dark to dim and eventually, I was able to see the light again. 

The hardest of moments and the darkest of nights are carving out even more space for gratitude to reframe your mind and allow you to see the light again.

Just as no one’s mental battle is just like yours, no one can contribute to the world in the same way you can. Your pain is real. Your struggle is real. So is the battle for your mental health. I hope you know and believe that you are worth every ounce of the fight.

If you or someone you know needs help, then visit National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or 211.

How has gratitude impacted your mental health? Have you instill any gratitude practices into your self-care routine?

Illustration via Scott David Laufer,  Darling Issue No. 14

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