When Gratitude Isn't Helpful
Updated: Aug 30, 2021
It may seem hard to argue with gratitude. What could be bad about being aware of the good in our lives and ourselves? I know many people who swear by their gratitude journal to recenter and navigate difficulties. Yet, as a mental health professional, I rarely find myself recommending a gratitude journal to clients. Why?
I have the privilege of regularly helping people experiencing depression and anxiety. We work to address symptoms ranging from hopelessness to panic attacks using a variety of strategies, but telling them to think of what they’re grateful for in the midst of these concerns feels… well, dismissive. It isn’t dissimilar from saying “just cheer up” or “stop worrying so much”, insinuating that if someone was more grateful they wouldn’t feel so depressed or anxious. This is actually a form of stigma.
Gratitude and mental illness aren’t mutually exclusive.
You can be grateful AND still feel depressed.
You can be grateful AND still feel anxious.
You can acknowledge the good in your life AND still want change.
You can acknowledge the things you’re blessed with AND face adversity.
Life is challenging AND not ignoring our challenges is important.
Life can be beautiful AND life can be tragic/ stressful/ disappointing.
If you have tried keeping a gratitude journal without benefit, you aren’t alone. While some studies have shown positive impacts on sleep, stress, and relationships when people express gratitude through writing (NPR), an evaluation of nearly 30 studies did not find these positive results were true for people facing depression and/or anxiety (Science Daily).
Instead of focusing on the positive, some of the most beneficial and evidence-based treatments for anxiety and depression help address the negative: unhelpful thinking, unwanted physical symptoms, and unproductive behaviors. As a Cognitive Behavioral therapist, I help people restructure their thinking, make a plan to break the cycle of depression, learn coping strategies to manage anxiety/panic, understand what is happening in their brain and how to take control of it again.
Some signs gratitude may not be the most helpful path for you:
You get stuck in looping, negative or worried thinking that feels hard to break out of
You have physical symptoms of anxiety (increased heart rate, sweating, chest tightness, fixation on health)
You struggle with low motivation or feel like things are much harder than normal
You have low energy or feel fatigued due to mood
You wake up in the middle of the night/early morning feeling anxious
You feel disconnected from yourself of those around you
I’m so sorry if you’ve ever been told to “tough it up”, “cheer up”, “be grateful”, or “change your attitude”. While keeping a gratitude journal or thinking about all of your blessings may not be the answer if you’re facing anxiety and/or depression, know that there are helpful paths for you to address these concerns.
You are tough.
This isn’t your fault.
You are not alone in addressing it.
Reach out for help if you are ready.