Giving Thanks – Day 1

While I was a therapist at a local community mental health center, I often encountered clients who were very depressed. I sometimes encouraged the use of journaling as a way for individuals to go back and see what their thought processes were and how their moods changed over time.

I asked folks to make a list of all the things for which they were thankful. I was often met with a stare and, “I can’t think of anything.” I gave them the assignment of making a list of twenty-five things and to bring the list with them the next time we met.

To get started, I gave them a piece of paper and a pencil and we worked on it together.

  1. Breath
  2. Hands
  3. Arms
  4. Skin
  5. Nose
  6. Eyes
  7. Ears
  8. Hair
  9. Air
  10. Walls
  11. Roof
  12. Fingernails
  13. Elbows
  14. Knees
  15. Sun
  16. Wind
  17. Stars
  18. Leaves
  19. Streets
  20. Water
  21. Clothes
  22. Tongue
  23. Teeth
  24. Walking
  25. Sitting

I stressed that the ease with which we made a list of twenty-five things to illustrate their ability to find something to be thankful for did not lessen the seriousness of their feelings. Depression is real, and can be very serious. But sometimes taking a decision to find something, anything, to be thankful for can help.

I’m thankful for sunlight.

Do Something Different

Have you had the experience of driving a familiar route and all of a sudden realize you don’t know where you are? Every time you get in the car do you have to think about where to put the key? How to make the car move? How to stop it?

When you wake up in the morning, is your routine exactly the same day after day? Is there a time during each day when you begin to feel anxious or depressed?

Unless you’re sixteen years old and driving is new, you never think about where to put the key or where the brake is. You have learned it, and have practiced it long enough it is now habitual.

Your brain and your body work together to record new actions, and if they are repeated again and again, they become a part of muscle memory. You can do them without thinking. Everyone knows the old saying about riding a bike.

Feelings work the same way. Your brain and your mind can associate feelings with actions, or places, and the environment and actions can trigger the same feelings repeatedly.

Here’s a quiz. Think about school, not just the word, but the experience of attending school. How do you feel? Think about going to the dentist. How do you feel? If your feelings about school are negative, in thirteen, or maybe many more years of school, you had thousands of experiences, and not all of them were bad. Many were terrific! In the dozens of times (hopefully) you’ve been to the dentist, not all of them resulted in pain and yet your feelings about it might be fear and dread.

Feelings can become habitual or automatic. One way to disrupt automatic feelings is to purposefully change what you do each day. It is important that you on purpose, in other words, while thinking about it, change your actions. For example, if your morning is shut off the alarm, use the bathroom, brush your teeth, fix the coffee, let the dog out, make the bed (what?), then take a shower, and you do that day after day after day automatically, change it! Get up, make coffee, let the dog out, brush you teeth, etc., purposefully. Think about it!

Here’s the point. If you are with purpose thinking about what you’re doing, your brain and feelings are not left on their own to begin setting you up for the anxiety and depression you might normally feel every day by mid-morning that short circuits your entire day. Do something different! If that doesn’t do it, with every action, think about each element of the action. Think about who ground the coffee, how the coffee pot was made, how hot the water gets, what color of coffee is actually perfect. Think about how toothpaste is made. Think about the person who had to glue all those little bristles in the handle. (Just kidding). Get it? If you’re purposefully thinking about what you’re doing, you are changing the way your brain automatically runs. Don’t leave your brain and emotions to stir up feelings on their own. They will automatically turn to the routes of thinking and feeling that have been there longest and strongest. Change them!

Make your brain and your feelings work for you, not against you.

Hope you have a great day.

Dale Parsons, MA, LPC