Many years ago I went through a particularly dark period in my life, I was extremely stressed and heading towards depression as a result of issues that were ongoing. I was exhausted but I couldn’t sleep, as soon as I closed my eyes my mind would start racing. I would toss and turn and only fall asleep when it was almost time to get up. My children were small at the time so opportunities to catch up on sleep during the day were few and far between. Needless to say I went around in a permanent state of exhaustion and desperation. Because I was so tired all my problems seemed magnified and life felt pretty desperate. A friend at a therapy group suggested to me that I try using a gratitude list. My first reaction wasn’t positive! I had grown up in a society where “ah sure, couldn’t it be worse?” was the stock answer to life’s problems. Of course, it’s true…things could always be worse but that can be cold comfort when you’re struggling. If we take it to its logical conclusion, none of us should ever be despondent because, someone, somewhere is bound to be worse off than us. So, I thought my friend was offering me this familiar panacea. “Look at all you have and stop focusing on your problems!” What she was suggesting was slightly different. She was suggesting that alongside my acknowledgement that life was a struggle I could try to search for the things that made life better for me, the things in my life that were positive and for which I was grateful. To begin with the list was fairly short, but the important thing was that I had things to put on the list; my children, my home, my family, my friends. I started to list these things out mentally each night when I went to bed and a strange thing happened…my mind began to slow down a bit and I found I got some respite from the racing thoughts. In time I began to find it easier to sleep and so daytimes became that bit easier to cope with. It was a very subtle change but I found myself beginning to actively look for things to be grateful for. Without realising it I had begun to develop a much more positive and balanced outlook on my life. Yes, I still had problems but somehow I was no longer defined by them, they were just one part of my story.
In time life improved for me and thanfully the challenges I faced then are no longer an issue in my life. Like everyone, life continues to throw challenges my way and I do my best to face and overcome them. Today, gratitude is something I continue to use on a regular basis in my own life. I also use it in my therapy practice, encouraging my clients to actively seek out the positives in their lives while we work together on the challenges. It sounds a bit twee and cliched but research backs up my experience, with scientists claiming that gratitude can provide a whole host of benefits:
- Stronger immune systems and lower blood pressure;
- Higher levels of positive emotions;
- More joy, optimism, and happiness;
- Acting with more generosity and compassion;
- Feeling less lonely and isolated.
A positive outlook won’t blow your troubles away but it can change how you view them. Often what we think affects how we feel and that in turn affects how we behave. It follows that changing your thoughts can have a very profound effect on how you experience life. Why not give it a try? You’ve nothing to lose but your misery!
Cover picture: http://kulraj.org/
©Marianne Gunnigan November 2016