Gratitude reduces anxiety, improves mood, deepens friendships.
It’s the week of Thanksgiving: a holiday that reminds us to express gratitude, to give thanks. I actually see Thanksgiving not as a simple reminder. I see it as a commandment of sorts.
With all that is mean and wrong and difficult in this world, we would all be better if we found more time to give thanks. And hopefully that time would not come solely when the calendar reminds us. Hopefully, we would express gratitude when the person, moment, or thing shows its worth, and we were there to witness it.
If I’m sounding cheesy, so what. Negativity can lead to a downward spiral. Positivity — when genuine — spirals up. I like up.
People — I — should express gratitude more often for many reasons.
First, I have an anxious mind that often dabbles in depressive thoughts. While I can’t just “snap out” of the bad or improperly timed chemicals that naturally wash around in my brain, I can do exercises that would change my natural state to one heading in a better direction. Thinking about what I am grateful for is one of those exercises. (More on that soon.)
Second, thinking about what you are grateful for attaches a name or a label or a thought to those things we see every day. Positive labels are so much better than neutral or bad labels. For instance, a couple of weeks back I decided to write about why I was grateful for my puppy Franco. I wrote about the noise he makes when he plays with me. It’s a nasally mouthing noise he almost pants out showing excitement and a desire to connect. For the next couple days, every time I saw Franco, that thought was the first thing to come to my mind. Even if he was just sitting in his bed (neutral) or misbehaving (bad), my first thought was “nasally-mouthing noise” and “desire to connect.”
The thinking of gratitude paid itself forward.
Now, thanksgiving — not the holiday, but the simple expressing of gratitude — goes beyond thinking or personal journaling of gratitude.
When you express gratitude, you not only pay positivity forward for yourself. You likely do it for the person, object, or memory you’ve expressed it towards. You’ve made a thought an action.
Okay, so let me make this real and real important.
It bears repeating, I have an anxious mind that dabbles in depressive thoughts. And, again, while I can’t just “snap out” of who I naturally am, I can do things to improve upon my nature.
As my therapist analogized, “I will never be a pro ice skater.” Pros learn early on in life how to skate and then they surround themselves with the practice and equipment and coaching that allow them to become the fullest sense of who they can be. They cultivate early on as their minds and bodies are developing to make a talent become a natural skill. I — a 45 year old — can practice and get coaching. But I neither had the talent nor the early development to become a pro. If I gave ice skating a serious effort now — as my therapist said — “I may catch on somewhat. I may become proficient. But I’ll never be a natural.”
What does that have to do with Anxiety, depressive thoughts, and gratitude? My brain did not develop as a peaceful brain. In fact, it was likely had a “talent” for being freaked out. My brain learned early on how to release “fight or flight” chemicals in situations proper or not. Eventually, it wasn’t just the chemicals that made my brain a pro at Anxiety. The chemicals also likely helped build a brain that became a pro at Anxiety: frayed neurotransmitters, shrunken lobes, and such.
So again, as my therapist told me, your brain will never be a pro at not being anxious. “At peace” is not my natural orientation. But I can practice ice skating … um, I mean, I can practice exercises that calm the brain. And there are many exercises.
Practicing gratitude is one of them. Simply thinking about what you are grateful for releases dopamine and serotonin (natural antidepressants) in the brain. They dilute the impact of the cortisol and adrenaline often washing around an anxious brain and body, sometimes replacing them.
Again, I feel the need to say this is not as simple as “snapping out of it.” It is hard, disciplined work to combat where your brain would naturally go.
And as even pro ice skaters fall down sometimes. So does the person trying to think their mind out of an anxious or depressed place.
Now, I’ve found what works best for me to not fall down while ice skating — I mean, finding peace — is to begin with peace and gratitude. I mean that. I actually begin each day with expressions of gratitude. I’ve done this many times on social media with my morning cup of joe at my side:
“So-and-so, you’re awesome! That thing you did the other day was super cool. It made me happy.”
“Hey so-and-so, that thing you said really made me think. Thank you.”
And, I’ve gone beyond social media shout outs. Some days I write out on one of my homemade “garden gratitude” cards a special note for someone. I actually type out the note first, so I can edit. Then I handwrite the note in my clearest writing scribe. Thinking, typing, handwriting, and then mailing a card of gratitude … that starts the day with a lot of positivity.
I’m happy to say, it’s been working.
Some days I fall down. But most of the days I don’t.