Gratitude can help train your brain to notice and appreciate the little things in life and, in doing so, shifts your life experience tremendously. Gratitude can increase your happiness and wellbeing, life satisfaction, even overall health while decreasing the stuff we all want less of like anxiety, depression and anger. It can be a powerful practice to cultivate, especially if you struggle with anxiety or depression.

How Gratitude Relates to Anxiety and Depression
While anxiety and depressive disorders come in different forms and flavours, they share some commonalities. All are associated with underlying negative thinking patterns. These patterns include both what we think and how we think. In other words, both the content and the process of thinking impact anxiety and depression.

The content anxious and depressive thinking is often negative in nature. These thoughts may overly focus on the negative or problem areas (something often referred to as a negativity bias), discount the positive and catastrophize or jump to the worst case scenario. The process of anxious and depressive thinking is characterized by mental time travel – dwelling on the past or focusing on the future. This mental time travel, known as rumination, pulls us out of the present moment and can add to feelings of depression and anxiety. In fact, psychological research shows that the more present we are, the happier we tend to be, even when the present moment isn’t pleasant or enjoyable. Rumination is a sneaky mental habit that zaps us of joy.

Gratitude as a Competing Response
In the world of habits, there’s a treatment approach called Habit Reversal Training. A key component of HRT is the use of a competing response, which is an action that is incompatible with the habit you are trying to break. For example, if you’re trying to break a nail-biting habit, you might clasp your hands as a competing response when you feel the urge to bite. It’s really difficult to clasp your hands and bite your nails at the same time. Consistently using a competing response trains your body to replace the undesired habit with the new one.
Rumination, worry, complaining and negativity are mental habits, and ones with far worse consequences than nail biting. These mental habits involve stewing on negative thoughts, indulging them in a repeating and amplifying loop with the effect of dragging down your mood and pulling you out of the present moment. I propose that we try gratitude as a competing response for these mental habits. It’s surprisingly difficult to tap into gratitude – really tap into it – and also get stuck in negativity. When you find yourself getting wrapped up in those negative thoughts or starting down a spiral, challenge your mind to find something in that moment to be grateful for. In doing so, you’re combating the negative content of your thoughts and bringing your mind into the present. Just be sure you don’t go through the motions, though. You have to try to really get in touch with a sense of appreciation, gratitude or beauty in the here and now. The goal is to truly activate grateful feelings to help buoy you against the negativity and to help keep you grounded in the present moment.