Mental Mondays #4: The Power of Gratitude

When we left off last week I was in a state of total collapse. I’d been depressed for months, and it had finally gotten to the point where I felt suicidal and could no longer care for my basic needs. I don’t think I’m being dramatic when I say I truly believe that I would have died if no one intervened.

I'm Joy, and I'm living with bipolar disorder

I’m Joy, and I’m living with bipolar disorder

Fortunately, my apartment manager did. I had met her through my ex-fiancee’s church (which I joined), then moved into the apartment complex she managed. Despite my breakup, she and I became friends. So when I stopped coming and going, she got concerned. It had been a few weeks since I’d talked to her or stopped by, and she noticed that I hadn’t left my apartment.

Intervention

She came to check on me – may have even let herself in. I don’t remember the details very well, I was in such a haze. I do remember her telling me I had to take a bath, and thinking how I would just slip under the water and never get back out.

I know we must have talked, but I don’t remember the conversation. What I do remember is her dealing with the practical things: Getting me cleaned up. Opening the curtains. Making me eat. Calling my job.

It was a turning point for me. Maybe because she came and did things that made me feel better whether I liked it or not, maybe because seeing how low I’d sunk through someone else’s eyes was humiliating, I decided I wanted to feel better.

Without that flicker of desire to feel better, what came next would have been impossible.

First Strategies for Recovery

My mom had given me a copy of a little book called How to Be Happier Day by Day. I don’t know if these ideas were in there or not since I’ve long-since lost the book, but I do remember reading it. It put me in the mind to try doing a little something each day to make myself happier.

Smiling

Back in 6th grade, I had a teacher I could not stand. One of the more obnoxious things she insisted on was making us smile for 30 seconds every single day: bright, wide, lips apart, teeth-baring, cheerleader-esque smiling was required.

For some reason, I remembered her rationale. She said smiling made you feel good whether you liked it or not. Despite having been infuriated by smile therapy as an 11 year old, I decided to make myself try it. There was no feeling worse, so why not make myself miserable in the hopes of feeling better, right?

Giving Thanks

I also decided that every day I was going to give thanks for something. It started off pretty hard. I’d think of something I should be thankful for, it would infuriate me, then I’d shame myself over it. This doesn’t sound like a recipe for true gratitude, but in time, it worked.

One thing I’ve learned is that emotions aren’t just things we feel. They are also things we practice. And when we practice, we don’t always get it right the first time. That’s OK.

I’ll never forget my first act of thanks. I said out loud:

“I am thankful for clean water. Even though if I didn’t have clean water I could catch a horrible disease and die. But other people who don’t want to die are dying from lack of clean water so it’s unfair of me to wish I would.”

Some thanks, right? But over time, I did find things to be truly grateful for. I began to see that my life was not over, even if my relationship was. I went back to work, and going through the motions of a regular life started to restore my will to live.

Turns out I’m not the only one who has noticed a correlation between gratefulness and well-being. There have been a number of studies over the past decade showing that gratitude can help alleviate depression and bring on a whole host of other positive benefits.

Using These Tools Now

I believe there are physical causes to most mental disorders, and that our understanding of them is far from perfect. The disorders and syndromes that the DSM describes are often just lists of symptoms. Giving depression or bipolar or OCD or autism or ADHD or schizophrenia a name does not uncover the root causes or light our way to the best treatments.

While we strive to understand and eventually treat what underlies our mental symptoms, we must also cope with those symptoms.

These three tools (intervention, smiling, gratitude) weren’t a magical solution to my depression. I know I can’t just walk up to a depressed person, tell them to smile and say thanks, tell them to get to work, and expect everything to be alright. For many of us, depression is a full body experience, and sometimes it starts up even without an emotional trigger. It can be purely physical completely overtaking us.

Once that happens, our thinking becomes confused (though it can feel more accurate) and it’s much harder to decide to try to feel better. I have an especially hard time to accepting that reality may not be what I feel it is in the moment. (I’ll get into that more in another post). I know I can’t always count on a friend intervening in the perfect moment, or on wanting to feel better once I’m down.

Recognize the Earliest Signs

But I have learned to use my past experience of creeping out of depression to help me avoid going there so deeply in the first place. The key is to notice it early, before it completely takes over, and to set up a support system that can kick in when you start to fall.

What I’ve done is noticed the earliest signs, and made some deals with myself and the people in my life. What are the signs you are starting to get depressed? For me they include:

  • Avoiding responsibilities (with reasonable excuses)
  • Sleeping more than usual
  • Pleasure seeking and escape – sugar cravings, cheese cravings, wanting more sex, never being able to eat enough, tv watching
  • A hard time focusing on things I need to do
  • Feeling very low energy
  • Putting a negative spin on everything that happens (my perception seems true, but I have learned to recognize this pattern)

To figure out your earliest signs of depression, look back to how you felt a bit before things went noticeably downhill. These earliest signs don’t always look the same as full-blown depression. If I’m not paying close attention, I will rationalize them away. When I do that, they will get worse. But if I acknowledge them, I have the power to change course.

Edit: I just found this video about early recognition of states and building tolerance for the triggers that send us out of control. This is something I have planned on sharing a lot about over the next few weeks, but I want you to be able to see it right away!

Get Help

Once I’ve recognized depression is creeping in on me, I tell someone in my life who has already agreed to help me. This creates intervention – someone to be accountable to, and who can look out for you. If you don’t have a friend or family member who can fulfill this role for you, it’s time for a therapist, your doctor, or a call to a crisis line. I like to go both routes – I tell someone in my life, and I also seek out professional help when possible.

Take Action

Then, I do the tricks which have helped me climb out of depression in the past. I give myself the space to continue to feel bad, but I do the tricks anyway, as much as I can. If I can’t do them, I tell myself I will do them when I can. Often, I am able to head off a fall into major depression through this simple awareness and action approach.

Back in the day, I only had gratitude and smiles to help me. They were enough to pull me out of depression, but not enough to stabilize my bipolar disorder. Now I have more tools. I’ll get to them in more detail in future posts, but here are a few:

Give Thanks

It doesn’t really matter who you thank or what you’re thankful for, so long as you cultivate the attitude of gratefulness. If you believe in God, you may give thanks in prayer. But if you don’t believe in God, you can still practice gratitude. Here are some ideas for practicing a grateful spirit:

  • Start or join a Facebook group where you and friends post something you are grateful for every day. (If you miss a day, don’t sweat it!)
  • Say thank you to a stranger who does something for you. It can be a normal part of their job – doesn’t have to be anything special. Just thank them for it.
  • Thank a family member or friend for something good which they did a long time ago.
  • Express gratitude for something amazing in the natural world.
  • Count your blessings – express gratitude for the things that have been given to you in life, for things that have come easily, for things you have accomplished against all odds, and for the opportunities you have been presented with.
  • Thank yourself for taking a step to improve your own mental health!

I’m thankful that *you* have visited The Liberated Kitchen and read or skimmed this post. What are you thankful for today?

Remember, I am not a doctor of any kind. I am not giving medical or therapeutic advice, and I do not recommend stopping any medications which your doctor has prescribed based on the experiences I share. I am just a person with some life experience I’d like to put out into the world for consideration. If you are inspired to try something I’ve tried, please consult about it in person with qualified health care practitioners before making any changes!

This post is part of Fat Tuesday, Scratch’ Cookin’ Tuesday, Traditional Tuesdays, Real Food Wednesday, Monday Mania

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12 comments to Mental Mondays #4: The Power of Gratitude

  • jo

    hi am thankful for this post, it has given me the inspiration to book an appointment with my gp. My first step.

    • Joy

      Wonderful! I’ll be thinking good thoughts for you :)

      I recently started seeing a therapist for the first time in years because I could feel things slipping again and it has been great.

      Then I went to my GP for another reason and it turns out she has moved to an office full of naturopaths who specialize in mental health!!! I couldn’t believe the coincidence.

      Help is out there… you just need to reach for it.

  • Joy:

    You are doing great things that will help a lot of people.

    You have a gift for writing, too!!

    Have a lovely Thanksgiving.

  • I am really enjoying this series. Your “smile therapy” made me remember when I was 29 and on the low fat diet. I was also into bodybuilding and I *hated* working out. I had a bench with dumbbells and I made myself do a workout almost every day (upper body one day, lower the next) and I just literally hated it the whole time through. I remember I put a poster of some lovely bodybuilder woman on the ceiling so that I could aspire to be like her, and at one point I remember making one of the rules that I *had* to smile throughout my workout because it was supposed to make my subconscious recall working out with fondness and joy. LOL. I dunno how much it helped. I did lose weight and build some pretty feminine muscles. Sometimes I think back fondly on those times but right now I’m not working out because I’m trying to heal from adrenal fatigue and I find I’m pretty grateful that I don’t have to workout. :-) Thank you for sharing your story with us.

    • Joy

      Ha! You made me laugh :D
      My therapist asked me last week why I do things that I hate when we were talking about my sensory stuff. Kelsy has asked me that before, too, about jobs or whatever. It’s because I want the result, or I want the experience, or I enjoy some other aspect of the thing that also drives me crazy! Honestly, if I never did anything that bothered me I’d never do anything at all. I’m sensitive like that :)

  • Mary

    Joy,

    I’m thoroughly enjoying your posts on depression and also reading through your site. Praise you for being so open and honest about your struggles….I truly believe we help others when we’re honest. Just a quick question, though, what do we do when we don’t have someone who “might” intervene? Do we just continue to be sucked into the black hole until someone in our life realizes we’re not responsive to anyone?

    This is what scares me most about battling depression and being alone. I do have family but they all live very far away and I know that many of my “friends” are tired of dealing with my depression. They can’t understand it, get offended when I don’t make the effort to call them, etc. Even though I’m seeing a therapist right now, I’m not sure how much it’s really helping. I continue to try and find more natural things that will help but they all cost lots of money over time and I’m presently laid off from work and have been for over 6 months.

    Anyway, just thought I’d see what your thoughts on these things might be…..or anyone else out there that’s battling with the same problems.

    Thanks for sharing, it does help.

    • Joy

      Hi Mary,
      Thanks for writing. You are absolutely right that I got lucky just in the nick of time, and mostly by chance. Unfortunately, that’s not something we can count on. I can also relate to my friends getting tired of dealing with my depression. When I was first heading into depression I’d practically hold my friends hostage talking to them about my troubles. I was sure my perception was 100% correct, but I was so negative. I must have been so hard to listen to day after day.

      Then, when I retreated, eventually they gave up on trying to get ahold of me or invite me anywhere. It was compounded by the fact that I’d been such a downer when I was around in the first place – who would want to work hard to be around someone who is acting so negative?

      I think this retreat/lose friends cycle can happen to anyone, even people who are not depressed and haven’t gone on at length about their problems. If you ignore calls or cancel plans or refuse invitations too often, people stop calling. When we’ve had busy periods in our lives this has been a problem for us, too.

      So the approach I’ve taken ever since is multi-faceted. Fortunately, I have had periods where I was not severely depressed or manic. During that time I made a plan which I can kick into gear when things start to go downhill (or up). You can make a plan with the help of your therapist even if you are not in a clear-thinking space.

      I plan to cover all this in a series of posts in a lot more detail, and haven’t written them all out yet. But for the moment here are some things to think about:

      1. Being very formal about what you need in a time of crisis (or for regular maintenance) and how you are going to communicate those needs in the moment is key. You will actually write down your plan and give it to the people involved. This can help them understand that you need their help and you are trying to change the situation in a new way. It makes them take the whole thing more seriously.
      2. Choose the people you know will be around – these do not have to be your best friends, it could even be a neighbor. If someone, even a close friend, can not agree to do it, that’s ok. This is serious, and if someone can not commit to helping you in this way you needed to find someone else. It does not mean that they were not a friend – just that they knew their limits.
      3. Write out your plan – how you will tell when you need help – what are the objective signs that should launch you into your plan?
      4. Figure out what the people in your life can do to help you, and ask them for that, specifically. Try to spread it around – maybe one person can be asked to bring a meal, and someone else can be asked to clean the house, and someone else can stay the night, or check in with you three times a day, or come take away all your sharp knives, or drag you out for karaoke.
      5. Use crisis lines rather than always relying on friends or therapist appointments you have to wait for if you need a lot of listening. One thing I’ve learned is depression is more physical than it is in the events or thoughts that triggered it, as much as it may seem the other way around in the moment. So now I try and focus on my physical state when I am depressed, and the details of my triggers when I am well.

      I hope some of this makes sense – I promise I’ll write a lot more about it over the next weeks.

  • Mary

    Hi Joy,

    Thanks for the detailed response…..a lot to digest and I`ll really be looking forward to the upcoming posts. I agree with you about sharing things with people who will be around…which is something I find hard at times. I really found that out when I had shoulder surgery last fall and needed more help than I thought I would. But that`s something I have to deal with and not for publicizing here on your comments…:-)

    Thanks again for your caring and I look forward to more posts.

    Mary

  • Thankyouthankyouthankyou for sharing your story! I know it must be hard to have to go back and relive some of this, but you could literally be saving a life. Mental illness runs very strong in my family – my younger brother committed suicide a little over 2 years ago, and I have struggled with depression myself. The more people who are open about their struggle, the less people will have to fight alone or live with mental illness and not know there is a name and a way out.

  • mom in NH

    my daughter is 17 and in the hospital with her first ever ‘break’ your blog has given me hope. May the Lord help me to understand her and to help her. I plan on doing the GAPS diet when she is finally stable and can be discharged. It has been almost 3 months and I cannot believe we are living this nightmare. we don’t even know how to talk to her through all of this and feel like we are walking through a very muddy river.
    thanks for listening.

    • Joy

      My heart goes out to you! I hope your daughter gets the help she needs and recovers from this break soon. It sounds like you are a very caring mother. I hope that you have someone in real life who you can talk to. Your daughter may be the one in treatment, but you need support, too!

      If you would like more one-on-one support with working with her health care practitioners and getting through this rough time with the help of GAPS or other dietary interventions I am available for coaching.

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