Anxiety is a normal human emotion that we all experience. And we’ve all collectively been through a period of time (a global pandemic) that is as anxiety-provoking as any mass experience I can imagine. To feel anxious, especially during a time like this, means to be alive!
There are many techniques available for anxiety relief, ranging from medication and psychotherapy to practicing mindful meditation and engaging in physical exercise. Today I’d like to introduce you to an empirically validated anxiety and depression reduction technique that is available to all of us — quickly, easily, and completely free. That technique is practicing gratitude.
We are Wired to Be Anxious
The human brain is wired for anxiety. Anthropologists and evolutionary biologists have made significant contributions to mental health by discovering the role that anxiety has played in making us the dominant species. Our brains are attuned to pay attention to threats and to mobilize when we perceive danger. This was helpful back when a rustling in the woods could mean that a lion was about to attack, and it still plays an important role as we navigate our world today.
But problems occur when anxiety becomes overwhelming or disrupts the normal functioning of life.
Simply knowing that anxiety is part of being human can provide us with a considerable amount of relief and self-acceptance. Because we are biologically programmed to focus on our perceived threats, it is an automatic tendency to fixate on what’s wrong, not working, or not the way we want it to be, often losing sight of all of the good things in our lives.
Gratitude for Anxiety Relief
So what happens if we make a conscious shift away from our natural tendency to fixate on what’s wrong and instead we deliberately practice focusing on the good? If you guessed “anxiety relief,” you are correct!
The role of gratitude has been researched and explored extensively in social science research in recent decades. And while it’s easy to dismiss this as simplistic or “new agey,” when it comes to anxiety relief and improvement in overall happiness and wellbeing, gratitude works!
What does a gratitude practice look like? The simplest thing is to create a gratitude journal where you write down on a weekly or daily basis, two or three things in your life for which you are grateful. It can be a person or relationship (or even your relationship with yourself), your health, things that bring you physical comfort, etc. Like the age-old act of counting one’s blessing, intentionally practicing gratitude has measurably shown to boost mood, reduce depression and anxiety, and improve interpersonal relationships.
You can also write letters of gratitude to people or things in your life. You don’t have to send the letters – research has shown just the act of expressing your gratitude does the trick. Our goal is to shift our default state from worry and fear to gratitude.
How I Practice Gratitude for Anxiety Relief
I need to look no further than my own life to know that a gratitude practice works! I have created checklists to center my mind that I review every morning when I wake up and every evening before bed. One of the questions I have on my evening checklist is what am I grateful for that day.
Often, my answers are my wife and children and the relationship we share. Other times I reflect on my physical or mental health, something rewarding that happened that day, something new I learned, or an exchange I had with a stranger or friend. Sometimes I express gratitude for material comforts, such as the roof over my head or the car I drive, but I always find that the people bring me a deeper sense of gratitude than the “things!”
Incorporating a gratitude practice into my life daily has shifted the way I think. I like to think I am consistently rewiring my brain in a way that emphasizes the positive, and the results have been nothing sort of profound – including anxiety relief! Learn my three favorite gratitude practice techniques.
Gratitude is NOT Toxic Positivity
I want to be clear that I am not promoting what we’ve come to call “toxic positivity,” and ignoring the reality of what’s tough in life. I will always be a champion of expressing feelings. In fact, I’ve devoted my life to helping people tune into their feelings, even those that are difficult and painful. If you would like to read more about feelings, I encourage you to read several earlier blog posts.
It’s Okay to Need Help
Though I truly believe that a gratitude practice is beneficial to everyone, I also know that it is often not enough. If you are experiencing anxiety or stress that is making your daily life difficult, please reach out to someone who is trained to help. If you live in the Cumming, Johns Creek or Alpharetta areas of Georgia, please reach out to me. I would love to talk with you.
The Bottom Line
It’s exciting to know that we can expand beyond our default state and not be dictated by our circumstances. Though we are hard-wired for a certain amount of anxiety, the practice of gratitude has the power to elevate us to be more present in the moment and to be a better version of ourselves. It enables us to be more self-reflective and less reactive with ourselves and in our relationships. And when we can see what’s good in our lives in the midst of difficult and trying times, we can, over time, experience authentic joy in the living of life itself.