Can Gratitude and Depression Coexist?


UnknownIn his book “What Happy People Know,” Dan Baker argues that you can’t be in a state of appreciation and fear, or anxiety, at the same time.

“During active appreciation,” Baker writes, “the threatening messages from your amygdala [fear center of the brain] and the anxious instincts of your brainstem are cut off, suddenly and surely, from access to your brain’s neocortex, where they can fester, replicate themselves, and turn your stream of thoughts into a cold river of dread. It is a fact of neurology that the brain cannot be in a state of appreciation and a state of fear at the same time. The two states may alternate, but are mutually exclusive.”

Other studies have also highlighted how gratitude can buffer you from the blues, promote optimism, and, in general, make you feel peachy.

However, I firmly believe it is possible to be grateful and depressed.

For the last eighteen months I’ve experienced that heaviness of depression that so many of us know. However, that does not keep me from feeling an overwhelming sense of gratitude for all the blessings in my life: for a husband who doesn’t toss me and my genes to the curb in a manic and/or depressive cycle; for two kids that bring much joy to our home; and for the countless friends and loved ones that support me in needy times and laugh with me during stable periods. In fact, during my worst depressions, I have kept a gratitude journal in which I write down five to ten things I am grateful for each day. That exercise helps to create new grooves, or neural passageways, that lead to healing; however, it doesn’t have the horsepower to abort the brain entirely and start from scratch with a purely optimistic outlook.

Can gratitude and depression coexist? I think so. What do you think?

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Therese Borchard
I am a writer and chaplain trying to live a simple life in Annapolis, Maryland.

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33 Responses
  1. Mom

    I don’t suffer from depression or panic attacks. Few of my adult family members how ever do. When this happens they say some ugly, ugly things to me or attack me. As much as have tried not to respond or walk away…. Something always comes out wrong. Even the way I LOOK or the hair on my head becomes annoys to them. How do I handle some one else’s panic attacks and mood swings ? They refuse to hear a reply or defend my self after they accused or yelled at me. When I don’t respond I am abused and called a wet rag or a door mop! I am sure mental illness is horrible but how do I save my self from someone else illness so I can help them?
    When I hit a nerve they Estrange me.

      1. Susanne

        I had a friend who asked my advice and I gave it freely, for hours, over and over again, for years. She would just lock on to her issue and not solve it, yet sheepishly apologize for not yet implementing my advice the next time she called. Then I found the magic cure. I told her to not call me again about that issue until she had taken and implemented all the advice I already gave. It worked. She never called again. I do miss her, but I am not willing to go on her hamster wheel with her. I didn’t lose myself that last time, and instead, I lost her. At the time though, I liked being needed. I still do, but I value my own advice so much more, because it is good, and because I want to see some growth. That is satisfying.

    1. Charlotte

      My husband is good at this. He doesn’t react at all. Sometimes he says things that he knows I believe or asks me about spiritual truths that have relieved my depression before, but he is very good at letting the storm blow over. I’ve asked him to remind me to get in the present moment, but he only does that if he senses that I will be receptive. I think HE stays present much more than I do! He also realizes he is not responsible for my mental welfare. Since I know that He feels this way I have to use my coping skills to help myself. I hope this helps a little. The main thing is that you are not responsible. Practice being in the present moment. The past and the future are not possible to experience unless you choose to wallow in them. It’s a choice, and a wonderful one, at that.

  2. LM

    I think it is possible to feel gratitude and depression at the same time. Or is it? I am coming out of one of the worst depressions of my life and like you, I was telling the world how grateful I was for all my blessings. I used to say, “I’m happy with my life, I’m just depressed.” But was I truly FEELING gratitude? Or was it merely a Cognitive exercise? I could (and did) list my blessings in my journal and ponder them. I had MEMORIES of gratitude and feeling grateful. But was my brain actually FEELING grateful during that time? Or was the depression so pea-soup thick that no amount of happy chemicals could short-circuit it? I had a counselor once tell me “Think. Be. Do. Change one of those and you’ll change the others.” I think this is what she meant. As I continued to meditate on my many blessings (in keeping with my faith practice), my BE (feelings) and my DO (actions) have followed. I’m not going to lie and say that positive thinking has eliminated my depression. There are numerous things, possibly including a little luck, and letting nature run its course, that have led me on this path out of the dark woods. I’m thinking that the cognitive exercise must let a little if the happy neurons fire which CAN’T fire at the same time as FEAR, because that’s how we are wired. So I think, think, think, “gratitude” until a teeny particle of Being grateful sneaks in, and for that sweet moment I’m not Being depressed, I’m being Grateful. I don’t know… String a bunch of those moments together and you have a 15- minute reprieve from the dark cloud hovering over your chest. String a few of those together and you can Do a cheerful lunch with a friend. String a few more and you’re able to watch your daughter’s concert without crying or standing in the restroom staring blankly in the mirror… I’m comforted to know that my pursuit of health isn’t only spiritual but can be measured scientifically as well… Thank you for your blog. I wake up looking forwarding to reading what you write. 🙂 Lynn

      1. LM

        I do a lot of writing in my journal (listing and pondering things I sm grateful for) and when the words wouldn’t come, I picked up a paintbrush and painted a large watercolor heart made up of smaller multicolored hearts, each one representing a different blessing. I said the blessing out loud ( my daughter, my great job, my cousin, my strong body, I got to live in the mountains, I can read music, my God, my neighbor, my car) as I chose a specific color and then, I hung the heart in my room so I could see it every day as I fall asleep and wake up. I also told everyone who would listen about how blessed I am and posted about my blessings as positively as I could on Social Media, in spite of wishing I could just die and escape the pain of debilitating depression. Hope these ideas help.

        1. Charlotte

          The painting and writing idea is good but I find that I have to do these things every day. I can’t rely on yesterday’s thoughts. I have to keep building a life of positive thoughts and actions. When I get lax, depression sneaks back in. I have to feed my spirit everyday. This is one of the ways I love myself. It is probably the most important.

      2. Charlotte

        I saw something on the web that surprised me. It said to welcome depression. The idea was to not fight it. Thank God for it. I was ready to try anything so I did this. The hold it had on me greatly diminished. Then I chose to know that it was actually good because it was bringing me to a new place, a new understanding of the love and goodness of God. (I’ve been stuck for a long time.) (Somehow!) I found three authors, who have brought me into more light than I imagined possible. (Depression was really dark.) It took a month or two but I’m moving along pretty fast now. Once I got that I am the fullness of God because He is in me and I am in Him, I began to KNOW that darkness cannot live in me. I don’t have to fight it. It simply cannot be a part of me. I have chosen to trust that the world is a good place for me to be. (This is very new to me.) It holds all the goodness that God built into this world. I’m choosing to think what God thinks. I ask Him to help me and He does. That’s how I found the books and websites. I’m beginning to help those around me by speaking words of encouragement, not accepting any negative words, thoughts or feelings about myself, and abandoning myself to trust in the goodness of God toward me and everyone else in the world. Goodness reigns!

  3. Becca Huston

    I think the first comment was excellent. I just want to echo your blog article. I am depressed now. Part of it seems to be missing my dad, who died 11 years ago. The depression is intense and not just about grieving. And yet I a am so grateful be was a part of my life.

    Some writers imply t that gratitude lists and other “positive” ideas will lead to a non-depressed life, as if it were a simple disease with a simple cure. Positive ideas are important to consider but they are not enough for this insidious emotional challenge which creeps in and takes everything you’ve got, including gratitude and skills, to get through.

    1. Charlotte

      Read about near death experiences. It has helped me with the loss of my mother and grandmother. I am so happy for them! I could never wish them back for my sake. I SEE them in a state of bliss and know that I will see them again. This life is sooo short. They want me to live life abundantly, loving and enjoying this world and blessing others like they did. I do this to honor them. Give to others what you would give to your dad if he were here.

  4. JRA

    My own, highly idiosyncratic, definition of depression is this: How can I know that I have a remarkable, inspiring wife, three grown children I adore, a secure job (and that was not always the case), a comfortable home and the real prospect of a secure retirement — a good life by almost any definition — yet at times be almost immobilized by fear and anxiety. Perhaps I “know” these things but at some level do not accept them, either because I don’t believe I deserve such good fortune or worry that it will be taken away from me. I have thought about this paradox — gratitude in the midst of depression — a great deal over the past few years as I have struggled with inexplcable panic attacks. All of this at a time when I am nearing retirement with most of the “pieces in place” and every reason to be grateful that I have somehow survived the journey. And yet, there can be all of this darkness at times, even when in the midst of the most joyful family occasion. I believe they can co-exist, but the mystery is why the gratitude gets too often crushed beneath the other — seemingly every “reason” not to be depressed, but yet unable at times to find a single moment of joy in all that I have.

    1. Charlotte

      If I stay in the present moment I can beat depression which is looking back and anxiety, which is looking forward.

  5. babyboy5

    Certainly they can coexist! Many depressed people experience a whole host do emotions and feelings, many times resulting in crying episodes. I have witnessed depressed people be so thankful for help, for understanding, for compassion, for goodness, for support they simply cry to express gratitude. We simply cannot be so gullible to believe every statement every jack leg that comes along says an take it to heart regardless of there qualifications or reasoning. Simply put there are many things about the human body we do not know or understand.

  6. Cathleen Deery

    I think the statement “The two states may alternate…” is important. Neurological states can switch very quickly. We may be grateful, and our brains may reflect this, briefly, but we don’t necessarily experience this as a lifting of depression until, as another commenter posted, these moments begin to be strung together into longer periods of relief. I also notice a difference in myself between knowing that I am grateful for the blessings in my life and truly feeling joy in that gratitude. I suspect the joyful gratitude is the type that would register neurologically in a way that would block depression and fear, but it is that joyful gratitude that I cannot reach when I am in the midst of a depressive period. Thank you, Therese, for this post and to the commenters for their thought-provoking words.

  7. I’m in agreement with you. The two can coexist. When I’m depressed or have anxiety I count my blessings in other words think of things I am grateful for. This helps but sometimes it still takes awhile for the depression or anxiety to go away.

  8. Charlotte

    Focusing on how and how much God loves me is the best way for me to battle depression, but last week I had a major breakthrough on loving myself. Of course, it involved letting go of self judgment, low self-esteem and grabbing hold of the goodness God constantly showers upon anyone who believes God is good. I can now see (I have chosen to see) a better life, a clear mind, a new career, a healthier body, and more personal power. Best of all, I’m free from judgment and judging, fear and anger. Ask and you shall receive! I’m trusting more and more that the goodness of God prevails in the world for me )and anyone else who has God’s power in him or her). I’m more tuned into the voice of God and am getting better and better at seeing that whatever happens (even depression) is OK because it will be useful in God’s plan. Again, it’s a matter of not judging, but trusting in the goodness of God.

      1. Charlotte

        Take gratitude a step further. Who are you thanking? From where or whom does this object come? How thankful are you? What does that object really mean to you? Why are you grateful? When we are thankful it means we KNOW that goodness reigns! We Know that God made this earth to be perfect for us. We know God cares. Gratefulness has to be more than rattling off a list so we can say we did all we can do to be perfect little beings when we don’t believe we are really perfect. The biggest thing we should be grateful for is that we REALLY ARE PERFECT. God says so so I believe it! We don’t have to win our perfection. It is ours if we believe, if we choose to accept our perfection as truth. In me there is no darkness. I am light and love and anything negative cannot live in me. If there is something physical, God can show me how to deal with it. (Sugar is a huge no-no for me.)

  9. Deborah

    Sometimes we have to stay in the dark heavy place for a long, long time. There are no words for how painful this can be. I notice many people writing at leas have a loving partner who stands by their side. I was left by two partners because of my depression and that is the deepest pain too. Also I have been told horrible things by last partners who could not support sadness, depression and grief, as if I had a choice over how to feel or could make myself not feel, feelings which were so essential to my soul and the real person I was, as well as the losses I have suffered.

    Gratitude can exist but there may be times we cant even be grateful. I am very, very grateful now as I have come out of my own deep depression which lasted many, many years. I still have lonely down days but its not that huge heavy weight upon me that makes me feel I cannot breathe any more. My sister is now in a very deep depression and just witnessing it makes me cry as I know how horrible it can be and yet we have each other so that is something to be grateful for.

    I’m glad you are writing and blogging about your experiences.

    1. Charlotte

      Do you really believe you have to stay in a dark place? There were times when I’d wake up and see no reason to go on living but I just couldn’t believe that it was supposed to be happening. It was hard to read but I read a book, very little by very little, about joy, and how God wants us to know we are loved totally and completely, just the way we are. I tried to focus on how much God loves me and how much He wants to give me a wonderful life. I knew it was true so I kept going, moment by moment. I just did that one thing whenever I could focus.It was the only thing I did. With my little bit of willpower I focused on God’s love and HIs desire to bless me, moment by moment. Of course I got distracted, but I just kept coming back to the present moment, reminding myself of the powerful love of the One loving person who created me. It lead me to Conversations with God by Neale Donald Walsch. I got the audio version from the library and listened. I fell asleep a lot but I read the book (from the library) too and it is working! Alleluia! He’s on U-Tube also, so I”m on a roll. Hope this helps. Sorry, if I wasn’t supposed to recommend a book.

  10. Paula

    There is a depression that has no reason to exist. I know because I have lived it. I would lament, why am I depressed when there is so much that is right about my life. I was grateful for so much and yet it didn’t help me do the things I needed to do. It didn’t lift my depression, if anything it reinforced my feelings of worthlessness and led to suicidal thoughts. Fortunately for me, I’ve come out of my depression.

  11. Rike wudo

    Christ does make the difference and it is through the process of renewing our minds. 2 major losses and a delirium that was probably due to Malaria and I was taken to a Psychiatric hospital by colleagues. Prayers from home overnight; I was back to normalcy. However, the cocktail of drugs including Risperidone which I d been placed on kicked in weeks later after they had been tapered off. The result – major depressive episode. It has been months and the testimony is that Christ breaks every yoke. Alleluia! As a Medically inclined person; I clearly see the miracle of God’s deliverance. If Science is seeing evidence of better outcomes in spiritually inclined people; I can only say God be praised I am a witness. I do not have a job or means of income and the times I think about this, the fog returns. But, realigning my mind with the mind of Christ lifts the fog. RENEW your mind is a valid instruction for us

  12. Marwan

    Depressed for ONLY 18 months?? Wow so lucky! How about being depressed for 15 years lovey and having tried EVERYTHING to be free!!!!!

  13. I write this as a person who struggled in the darkness for 15 years. I never blamed God or ran away from Him-I thank the Lord for holding onto me and through many failures and dark lonely times He faithfully brought me to a place of truth-I now fully understand that sustained mental health is Biblical and prescribed by the Great Physician…to follow His plan of intervention is to live without chains. I have come to accept that God is in control: We were put on this earth to live for and glorify Him and He died on the cross for our sins past present and future as well as for the sins of all mankind. We can take our troubles, failures, cares and concerns to this Mighty Counselor and Price if Peace, lay the at the foot if His cross and focus on living to share the freedom of God through Christ by example and word. This is the balance and purpose needed for attaining mental-health, joy and peace in this life. When we are in pain as evidenced by escaping society and hiding in the dark due to fear/anxiety and depression (so much fear we are physically drained), we need to step out of denial and realize we are in a self-absorbed state; we are 100% self-focused and full of self-pity…those are the true terms for fear/anxiety and depression. It reads like this; the world is cruel, its expectations are demanding, people don’t understand me. And, you are right-absolutely right, the world is cruel, it’s expectations are demanding and people don’t understand you: But its cruel for them too, they don’t understand themselves-and you’re demanding of them for expecting them to understand you-cause its all about you, right. Yep, the world is a man-eat-man place and you are entangled in it. But there is one who does fully understand you-your Creator, The Great Physician, The Prince of Peace, The Comforter! Step out of denial from serving self and serve Him. Start having a purpose other than hiding because the world’t meet your standards and conform to your demands. The author clearly emphasized the physiological advantages for gratitude and I would agree, God has made me for good it is in my genes and goid begats good. I pray for all who suffer, they do not turn away from, but faithfully seek direction from the Great Physician!