Dealing With Depression: Practicing Radical Gratitude

Written by: Jorinde Berben
Image credit: Jorinde Berben

I’ve just returned from a walk in the forest (see picture above). It’s nice and sunny for the first time in days, and my parents took the children to visit my sister, so I have some time to myself.

I could use it, to be honest. Due to Covid measures, my children have been home from school a lot more. Usually, that wouldn’t faze me, but with my current mental state, I notice my stress levels and temper going through the roof. Yesterday we had a very long day. Our Saint Nicholas had visited at night, meaning the children slept really badly (and I only got in a few hours, too). After the initial joy of opening presents, the tension of the days leading up to that magical moment also found its way out, and by the end of the day, I was completely drained. I’d hoped the joy of the morning would carry over the weekend, but instead I felt myself sink into really dark thoughts, with no idea of how to escape them.

The walk today was meant to help clear my head of that fog. I wanted to find some peace of mind.

Unfortunately, anyone who’s ever suffered from it can tell you that negative self-talk is very insidious. As I took my first steps on the muddy path, I noticed thoughts come up along the lines of ‘I’m a horrible person’, ‘I’m worthless’, etc. They came back in loops, like a music sample that I couldn’t turn off.

My therapist has recommended that I look up mantras to help deal with compulsive thoughts, but I haven’t gotten round to looking them up. Instead, I opted for deliberately choosing a different kind of self-talk. It started with simply whispering the affirmations ‘I am strong, I am beautiful’ to the rhythm of my steps. I made sure to think of only the words, to say them deliberately, with intention and conviction. Over the next 20 minutes or so, I added ‘joyful‘ and ‘loving‘ to the set. I varied in order, in which language and in adjectives versus nouns. After half an hour of walking in this meditative state, I added the word ‘grateful’.

‘I am grateful. I am grateful. I am grateful.’
But for what? What am I grateful for?

Usually, it’s pretty easy for me to list things I am grateful for: my family, my partner, the home I live in, the food I eat… But today, those words and concepts seemed really far away from my current state of mind. I was so far removed from the genuine joy that those good things usually bring, that I couldn’t really feel grateful for them except from a place of intellectual understanding.

Instead, I tried to feel grateful for what I do feel like I really have: my body, my ability to reflect, the help of people around me, the fresh air I’m breathing. And then the thought came: could I also be grateful for my anxiety? And if I could be grateful for that, how about being grateful for my anger? Or further even… could I be grateful for my depression?

As I walked between trees twinkling with raindrops, I spoke this new mantra: I am grateful for my anxiety, I am grateful for my anger, I am grateful for my depression. I couldn’t quite figure out why I would possibly be grateful for my depression, but I could feel that it mattered. When I spoke the words out loud, it touched something in me. It opened me up to feel how those long term states of being really impact me.

My mind was still trying to put a logical spin on it: maybe I can be grateful because I’ll be stronger when I come out of it? Maybe this depression will lead to something beautiful? Maybe my anger just means I’m setting my boundaries?
But on a deeper level, I knew that the ‘why’ would only get in the way of actually feeling full gratitude. It needed to be unconditional, and for the state I was currently in not for what was to come when I got through it.

Saying out loud ‘I am grateful for my depression’ helped me really connect to it instead of fearing it and wanting to get away from it. From a place of gratitude, I could open my arms to it, open my heart to really allow those feelings into my reality.

Allowing the feelings in is painful. Yet, it also helps me regain some control, which I felt like I had lost completely last night. I can’t lose the battle against my depression if I’m not fighting it. I can try to give it the space it needs, and at the same time foster feelings of gratitude for it so that it won’t fully drag me down to where I can’t see any light anymore.

When you are grateful for something, you can’t but accept it completely. Gratitude is the signal that you’ve let go of your resistance. Perhaps that’s what I felt when the tears welled up from my chest.

It doesn’t mean I don’t want to feel better anymore. It does mean that I’m allowing my current reality to be my reality, instead of creating a fiction that is easier to digest, for myself and for others. It’s going to take more than kid’s presents, chocolate and nice food to recuperate fully. It will probably take more time than I would like it to. It will be better sometimes, and absolute agony at other times, in an unpredictable and irregular pattern. And if I manage to feel grateful for all of it, it might just be that little bit easier.

Disclaimer: Every depression is different. What works for my may not work for you and the other way around. This is just what’s made a difference for me personally.

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