When you suffer anxiety it can be difficult to find things to feel grateful for. But practicing daily gratitude can contribute to significant shifts in your mental and physical health.
While it won’t make anxiety disappear overnight, gratitude can gradually build a new mindset that helps to reduce anxiety over time. Developing gratitude as a habit can also change your whole way of life and make you happier and healthier.
What is gratitude exactly?
Gratitude is a quality of being thankful. It involves feeling and expressing appreciation and joy for aspects of your life, big or small. When we suffer anxiety, we often get trapped in our thoughts and therefore our heads. With gratitude, you’re switching your focus from your head to your heart. This pulls you out of anxious thinking and back into your body, and a relationship with the world around you. Cultivating a heart of gratitude connects you with the living energetic quality of other people and life itself.
When exploring gratitude in your daily life, it needn’t feel like a project. It’s a healthy habit that can be nurtured but doesn’t need to be one more thing you “should” do. In fact feeling burdened by a new task probably wouldn’t lead to much gratitude anyway. Although we might use tools and exercises to help us connect with feelings of gratitude at first, if we take a gentle approach then it will more likely become genuine.
Gratitude might be a simple momentary pause where you suddenly stop and realize: Wow, I’m alive, I’m breathing, and after all the world, and life, are pretty amazing.
Suffering from anxiety can be enormously difficult. It’s helpful to feel compassion for yourself for going through the struggle, and you can also slow down and realize that on some level there are many things to appreciate in life. See if you can discover gratitude for the simple, positive aspects around you—the kind gesture of a friend, the warmth of the sun or the beauty of nature.
Practicing gratitude also doesn’t mean you have to feel grateful all the time for every single thing in your life. It’s all about connecting with an authentic appreciation for the good things that ‘are’ there.
How gratitude relieves anxiety
An interesting thing about gratitude is that it’s innate – it’s something native to our nature. And so even if we feel like we’re someone who doesn’t feel gratitude, we’re not as far off as we might think. With a shift in our perspective, and a commitment to practice, we can gently reconnect with this innate gratitude gene.
When you suffer anxiety, it can be hard to feel joy. But gratitude helps distract you from your anxious thoughts so you can see beyond the anxiety, and connect to the present moment. When we’re in the present moment, there’s a lot less to feel anxious about and a lot more to feel joyous about.
Although it may start as a practice, gratitude eventually becomes more natural. We learn to tune into a natural response. Rediscovering gratitude shifts your view of how you see yourself and the world. While anxiety feels heavy, gratitude feels light. It turns our focus away from all the painful and difficult parts of our life towards the ordinary richness that is accessible in every moment. By appreciating the present, we feel less of a need to control the future. Thus, we’re able to relax.
The science behind gratitude
Appreciating the positive aspects of life can actually change our brains activity. In numerous studies gratitude has also been proven to activate dopamine. Dopamine feels good, and so you’ll want to do that thing again and again. In this case the dopamine is acting like a “reward” neurotransmitter. This natural reinforcement is the basis for building healthy habits. Thus, as gratitude is practiced and it feels good, you’ll start habitually doing it more and more.
In a 2009 study, blood flow was examined in various regions of the brain when gratitude was summoned up. Subjects who showed more gratitude had higher activity in the hypothalamus. This region of the brain controls certain bodily functions including eating, drinking and sleeping. It also influences stress and metabolism.
Gratitude also leads to better sleep. According to a sleep study conducted by the University of Manchester, people who experienced more gratitude fell asleep faster and stayed asleep longer. Healthy sleep is fundamental for mental and physical well-being and helps to reduce anxiety. A good night’s rest gives our brains time and space to let go and reset for the next day.
Ways to practice gratitude
With so many benefits to mental and physical well-being, gratitude is a powerful tool for relieving anxiety. Here are a few ways to cultivate gratitude on a day-to day basis:
Keep a gratitude journal
Write something in the morning and something in the evening for which you feel grateful. Keep it simple, and look for what’s really there. “I feel grateful that I have this bed to sleep in and a roof over my head (if in fact that’s the case).” Or, I feel so fortunate that learned about gratitude, and that now I am able to practice it, to the best of my ability.” Or, “Sometimes I really appreciate just laying on my back for a moment and having a few breaths.”
Set gratitude reminders
Set an alert on your phone to go off at regular intervals. When you hear the alert, think of one thing you are grateful for in that moment. This can be a nice way to connect with gratitude during your day when you get busy at work, running errands, tending to children or are at home. And even though you’re scheduling these alerts ahead of time, it can help train your heart to experience gratitude spontaneously.
Write a gratitude letter
Set aside an hour to write yourself a letter of appreciation. You may not need the full hour, but if you set aside an hour then you can relax and have time to allow for the process, whether it is difficult or flows easily.
Think of yourself tenderly, as a mother or father would towards their young child, so vulnerable and beautiful. Think of how much you love that child – yourself – and say thank you for everything you’ve done for yourself. After all you really do care, about yourself, and about others. Write out some of that care, express the things you are grateful for towards yourself.
Find a quiet place to sit. Hold a gently but upright posture and take a moment to feel your body breathing. Then, with your eyes opened or closed, feel your heart. Feel its warmth. As you tune into your heart, gently think of someone or something for which you feel grateful.
There are many meditations to help cultivate gratitude. The Insight Timer app also has a wealth of guided meditations for gratitude from a variety of mindfulness teachers and scholars, all of which you can listen to for free.
Gratitude can be very helpful in learning to soften your anxiety. It’s not a panacea, and it will work well at times and sometimes not so well. But gradually we can learn to cultivate a more appreciative attitude to our life. This in turn can help us slow down, relax, and and more fully enjoy the natural goodness of the present moment.