Monday, January 27, 2014

Keeping a Gratitude Journal can be a weapon against depression

By Laszlo Bagu, The Gazette

Keeping a Gratitude Journal can be a weapon against depression

OpEd Contributor:Laszlo Bagu is a retired physician who lives in Côte-St-Luc.

Last year, I wrote a commentary on the Opinion page of The Gazette in which I referred to depression as an illness like any other illness (June 28, “I do not apologize for suffering from depression. Why should I?”). I said I did not feel a need to apologize any more than a diabetic patient would for having diabetes.

The positive responses I received were instructive. It was not that I had offered a radical or new perspective. Rather, I had simply publicly expressed a point of view shared by many therapists, sufferers and their supporters.

I grew up in a family with strong prejudices against any form of emotional disturbance. I went through medical school with these very prejudices still intact. I had to become very ill before I was finally willing to open my eyes to the realities of my own condition. The line between mulish perseverance that allows one to triumph over adversities, and hard-headed obstinacy that fuels unrelenting denial of the obvious, can be finer than a newborn’s hair.

Recent studies by epidemiologists reveal alarming trends about the growing incidence of depression and anxiety in all age groups in the industrialized world. Earlier recognition and identification is partly responsible for these record numbers. But it is also true that modern life has become more hectic and stressful than ever before.

The favourable responses that I received to my commentary last June got me thinking more about depression and anxiety. They are complex problems that do not obviously have their origins in either genetics or the environment — but rather in a tangled, interactive mess of roots feeding from both heredity and upbringing.

Everyone is unique, with a personal history that is also one-of-a-kind; thus the specific details of an individual’s pathology are as unique as his or her own face. The particular details of suffering are unique, but the suffering is universal. This is what makes depression and anxiety so difficult to treat. A one-size-fits-all approach does not work; by definition, it cannot work.

I made an inventory of all of the treatment modalities that therapists had tried with me over the years. The results were varied: where other patients did well on medication, I usually did not respond, or respond well. By contrast, psychological counselling with an exceptional therapist helped turn me around fairly quickly, whereas other patients with counselling have made little or no progress.

Remembering this made me realize that depression and anxiety have something to teach to all of us. In my case, it taught me the value a simple but very effective practice, the keeping of a Gratitude Journal. It is exactly what it sounds like. Every day I made a list of things for which I was grateful in my life. These things could be as trivial as a great cup of coffee with breakfast, or as fundamental recognizing the gift of a loving and supportive spouse.

We humans tend to dwell on the negative aspects of life: Just watch the TV news, or read today’s newspaper headlines, as evidence of this. By making daily entries in a Gratitude Journal, I was able to refocus my mind on the good things in my life, while simultaneously draining away, a little bit at a time, the disruptive power of hazy, vaguely defined worries that kept bothering me. Gradually my overall perspective changed.

Here’s the thing, though. Unlike powerful prescription medication, a Gratitude Journal is not something that should be for sole use of depressed and anxious patients. Anyone can start one.

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