At the end of April, I had the privilege of co-leading, with my dear friend Susan Forshey, the women’s retreat at my church, Bethany Presbyterian. The retreat was called “The Unforced Rhythms of Grace,” and we focused on living a contemplative life in the midst of a connected culture.
Each Tuesday for the next few weeks, I will be posting excerpts from the talks I gave at the retreat. Today’s post is the third installment of my morning talk, “Medusa Has a Headache: How Gratitude Changes Everything.” (If you missed the earlier posts, you can read part one and part two of this talk first.)
I had been keeping a gratitude journal for about four months when I found out that this baby I was having was two babies. We were 20 weeks pregnant and I wasn’t even sure I wanted one more baby and here I was finding out we were having twins.
If this had happened a year earlier, I would have fallen apart. But the thing about gratitude is that it makes you strong. I had seen so many of God’s gifts, nearly a thousand by this time, and I knew that God would continue to give me the grace I needed—not necessarily the grace I wanted, but the grace I needed—to mother two more children.
And God did. I learned to hold myself a lot more lightly in the months that I became increasingly heavy with child—er, children. I laughed a lot in those months—at myself, at the changes in my body, at the ludicrousness of me being the mother of twins. I mostly remember those months as a season of laughter.
The twins were born in July. By November, the months of sleeplessness had wreaked havoc on my body. I started feeling more anxious than I had in years. Then I began having bizarre physical symptoms: tingling in my legs and feet, icy cold in my upper arms.
Now, I’m a hypochondriac at the best of times, which is laughable because I’m one of the healthiest people you’ve ever met, but with months of sleep-deprivation under my belt, I was a completely irrational wreck. I was convinced I was dying.
One night at the end of November, I woke up and every nerve in my body felt like it was on fire. I could move just fine, bear my own weight to walk to the bathroom, carry one of the twins without dropping him, but I felt like I was on fire.
You can imagine this didn’t help me feel less anxious about my health. (Turns out I had a very literal case of nerves. But I didn’t know that at the time.)
As December wore on, I could not control the growing terror I felt that something awful was about to happen, that one of my kids was going to die, that I was going to die. I prayed and recited the Scripture I’d memorized. I kept noticing the gifts God was giving me.
But the physical exhaustion of mothering baby twins was wreaking havoc on my brain chemistry. I didn’t realize that’s all it was because, remember, I was too sleep-deprived to be rational.
When I finally told my doctor, in early January, what was going on, she said I needed to get on antidepressants right away, that I had let this go too long already.
So on Epiphany, I started taking antidepressants.
As the psychotropic medication kicked in and the boys began to sleep longer stretches at night, I slowly stopped having the panic attacks that were causing all those crazy physical symptoms that made me think I was dying.
When I look back on those dark months—and they were dark, the darkest I’ve ever lived through, so dark that at one point I even became afraid I might kill myself—looking back on that dark time, I feel so intensely grateful that God in his mercy and grace had prompted me to start my gratitude list the year before. By the time the depression came and took hold, I was in the habit of noticing the gifts of my life, and I have no doubt—no doubt—that this habit kept the darkness from being as dark as it could have been.
I’d been diagnosed with postpartum depression after my oldest son was born, too, but when I look back, I see that my depression then was at least as much the product of unhelpful and unhealthy patterns of thought as it was about the physical, hormonal stuff going on in my body and brain.
Had I still been stuck in those habits of thought and response, I shudder to think how dark my depression after the twins would have been.
Gratitude made the darkness lighter. It kept my eyes on the graces of the moment, even when the moment was fraught with fear and the only grace I could see through my terror was the grace of being able to say thank You that You are with me even though I’m scared You’re not.
I will say again: gratitude made the darkness lighter. That was my experience—though I could not always see it at the time. I have since learned that there is scientific evidence to support this claim.
Studies show that people who keep a gratitude list of just five things a day are 25% happier than those who don’t!
I can’t imagine what 25% more fear and anxiety what have looked like during the dark months of my depression—and I don’t want to. So three cheers for the habit of gratitude that sustained me far more than I knew at the time.
Here are a few more inspiring facts that scientists have discovered about gratitude:
- Grateful people sleep better—they fall asleep sooner, sleep longer, and wake feeling more refreshed than people who aren’t grateful.
- Grateful people are also healthier: they report fewer health complaints and have fewer physical symptoms.
- Grateful people are 50% less likely to experience clinical depression.
- Grateful people who have had a heart attack are less likely to have a second heart attack.
- What’s more, grateful people live longer: they’re 50% less likely to die a premature death.
So far, brain-scanning technology isn’t advanced enough to pick up a complex emotion like gratitude, which is multivalent compared to a “simple” emotion like anger or anxiety.
But what brain scans do show is that we can rewire our brains. The brain is plastic, and every thought we think affects it. So the more we think grateful thoughts, the more likely we will be to think grateful thoughts. It’s a positive feedback loop!
The habit of gratitude changes the wiring of our brains. It makes us happier, healthier, and live longer.
This is not to say that gratitude is easy. It’s not, especially at first, especially in an advertising saturated culture like ours. We’re habituated to be discontented—and I use that word very intentionally; we have been taught almost from birth to be in the habit of wanting what we don’t have; this is what advertising IS—we’re habituated to be discontented and ungrateful.
Gratitude isn’t always easy. But it is possible.
Stay tuned till next week when I share three things we can do to overcome our discontent and lack of gratitude. (Don’t worry: it’s not as hard as you’d think!)