Today was a particularly busy day for me, laden with layers of anxiety and prefaced by a restless sleep. So, as I sipped my jasmine tea this morning, I turned my thoughts to gratitude. I listed the things I was thankful for: the capacity to do the work required of me, a dedicated team of co-workers, helpful and understanding roommates, a fantastic new apartment to move into—I mentally moved through my schedule, thanking God for the aspects of my life that made each part of my day possible. And after just a few more tastes of tea, the miracle happened: I felt better. My stress level fell and my face slipped more naturally into a smile.
I have heard the benefits of gratitude touted by everyone from my mom to the Dalai Lama, and while I believed them, I often thought that maybe I just wasn’t grateful enough. Creating lists of things I was thankful for hasn’t really had an effect on my overall mood, except perhaps to make me feel guilty for feeling bad because look at all these things I have to be thankful for!!!! That is, until this morning.
I could think up a variety of theories to explain why my gratitude list was so helpful today, but a likely candidate is that my depression is the most under control I believe it has ever been in my adult life. Gratitude is often upheld as an important antidote to depression, and while I do believe it is a necessary practice, I don’t know how effective it is against a severe depressive episode.
Practicing gratitude might be a little like eating a nourishing salad—it is undoubtedly beneficial to your health, but it’s not going to do you much good when you’re having a heart attack. Sure, eating a salad during a heart attack probably isn’t going to make things worse, and most assuredly eating a diet rich in nutritious vegetables will contribute to your heart’s overall health. But when you are experiencing the acute distress of a heart attack, you need specialized medical attention before eating a salad will have a noticeable effect on your general wellbeing.
Now that the acute distress of my severe depression has been lifted through a network of interventions, gratitude can take its full place as a meaningful practice to maintain my mental health. In moments of stress, being thankful releases my being’s innate healing capacity and connects me to God’s renewing presence. I’m glad I practiced gratitude in the midst of my hardest depression—you don’t stop eating salad just because you discover you have a blocked artery, after all. But I’m also delighted that, when my health is strong, being thankful can actually make a marked difference to my experience of the day.
So be ever thankful, my friends. But also be ever mindful of the webs of care you might need to hold you up and help you to flourish. If you’re having a heart attack, don’t beat yourself up because your salad consumption isn’t making a difference. Get the immediate help you need, and then keep eating all the salad you want.