By Valerie Minard
Ever heard of the expression, “Count your blessings, not your problems?” Well, research shows that having a grateful attitude not only lowers the lifetime risk of mental illness but can also relieve depression.
According to Dr. Irving Kirsch, “depression is not a brain disease, and chemicals don’t cure it.” He examined clinical studies involving 3,000 people that either took an antidepressant or placebo for their depression. He found that 75% of the effect from an antidepressant that a patient experienced was also produced by a placebo – sugar pills with no active ingredients.
Kirsh also determined that any advantage an antidepressant might have is also due to a placebo effect. “Antidepressants have side effects, and when a patient experiences these side effects, they know that they are in the drug group rather than the placebo group. That knowledge could be responsible for the small apparent advantage of drug over placebo.”
So the big question is, if antidepressants and placebos – with no medicinal benefit – produce the same effect, what is improving health? Some experts point to the importance of the patient’s perception. “If the person expects the treatment to work, the chances of a placebo effect are higher. Some studies show that the placebo effect may still take place even if the person is skeptical of success. The power of suggestion may be at work here. … [In addition], if the person trusts their health care practitioner, they are more likely to believe that the placebo will work” (Better Health Channel, 4/3/13).
A recent study conducted by Dr. Hermann Nabi correlates with these findings. “One of the important messages from our findings,” Nabi said, “is that people’s perceptions about the impact of stress on their health are likely to be correct.” In other words, if a patient thinks stress will impair his health or increase his risk of heart attack, it’s more likely to happen. Conversely, if a patient does not believe stress will harm him physically, he is at less risk.
Taking this line of thinking a step further, if the beneficial effect of drugs or placebos ultimately boils down to a patient’s perception or thought, perhaps changing thought is what’s needed to improve mental and physical health.
One powerful thought shifter is gratitude. “A sense of gratitude helps you feel positive about the people and things in your life, and about your life in general,” says psychologist Jeffrey Rossman, Ph.D., director of Life Management at Canyon Ranch in Lenox, Massachusetts. “When you have positive feelings about your life, you tend to be happier, more energetic, and more productive.”
So, move over antidepressants and placebos, practicing gratitude may be a (and hopefully permanent) silver bullet for depression. And, even if not a silver bullet, certainly it’s an approach that should be further studied and used. Psychologist Robert Emmons, PhD, agrees “Gratitude works,” he says. “It has the power to heal, to energize and to change lives.” Gratitude tends to shift negative to positive thinking, and results in a surge of “feel good hormones like dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin.”
But is gratitude merely having a positive attitude, looking at the glass as half-full rather than half empty? My friend, Martha, believes it’s more than that. She found gratitude was a powerful tool to break a slide into depression.
In late 2002, Martha found herself in the middle of several life-changing transitions. She had just changed jobs from a very intense and focused position, with a strong sense of mission and purpose, to one that had involved the need to be more self-starting. Her family had just moved to a different state, so she was also dealing with a new location and environment which strained her marriage.
Without any of her previous landmarks to define herself, Martha began to spiral downward, until one day it got so bad that she couldn’t get out of bed.
“I was just completely immobilized,” she says now. “It seemed like there wasn’t anything good in my life.” She felt like she had reached the bottom and couldn’t go any lower. So there she lay, in a mental fog.
But, Martha has a deep Christian faith and has long been used to turning to God in prayer when she faces problems. Through the darkness, something cut through. One simple idea came. She recalls thinking, “For heaven’s sake, at least you can be grateful for one thing, just find one thing.” She then remembered a quote from a book by Mary Baker Eddy, a 19th century woman who faced sickness, divorce, homelessness, and poverty. Eddy wrote “Are we really grateful for the good already received? Then we shall avail ourselves of the blessings we have, and thus be fitted to receive more” Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures.
So Martha looked around the room. “I could at least be grateful for this beautiful room that I’m in,” she said to herself. It was a small thing, but it got her thinking moving in the right direction.
As she thought about other things she was grateful for, the mental fog lifted for the first time in months, and she felt some light come through. It was like a little crack in the door, opening wider and wider. This proved to be a turning point. As she continued, her attitude brightened. She got up and got started on her day.
Martha believes gratitude is a powerful form of prayer. It enabled her to acknowledge and recognize the presence of love and divine goodness in her life in a very tangible way.
“When you are being grateful,” Martha says, “it’s hard to be resentful or angry or unloving at the same time. Gratitude lifts the entire atmosphere. I found that gratitude is a very sharp tool in our toolbox of prayer. It’s formidable—I don’t think there is anything that can resist it.”
It’s not easy to find a way to pull ourselves out of a spiral of depression even when it’s begun to compromise our health. Still, in times past and today, people are finding solutions. Gratitude is one tool that creates that first crack of light – the light that mental darkness cannot resist.