The holiday season is just around the corner, bringing along with it the social pressure to feel jolly and relaxed. For many of us, especially those prone to anxiety, this can seem nearly impossible given that the holidays are inextricably woven with excessive commitments, financial stress and dealing with “difficult” relatives. The pursuit of happiness can indeed turn into a quest towards goal that needs to be accomplished and checked off the list. And any indication that we are not succeeding at this goal only serves to worsen anxiety and negative emotions. Suffice to say, themes of “gratitude” and “thanks” often get pushed to the side.
Here’s the thing: when life becomes chaotic, practicing gratitude becomes all the more important in reducing anxiety. Luckily, the focus on giving thanks that surrounds Thanksgiving provides an opportune time to hone this skill in preparation for the new year.
What does it mean to practice gratitude?
There is a common misconception that practicing gratitude means dutifully ticking off a list of things in life that aren’t going wrong. One might think to themselves, “Well, I have a job…and a roof over my head…and, ah, at least I’m not sick.” The issue here is that the list then gets mentally compartmentalized until it is dragged out again the following year. Gratitude, however, is much more than this. It is an active, ongoing process that will lay dormant if not used on a consistent and regular basis. Think of it as an attitude rather than an exercise. It is a continual effort to reflect on the presence of things in life that bring you joy as well as the absence of a distress.
How does it help with anxiety?
Practicing gratitude provides numerous benefits. The act of reflecting upon things that bring us joy triggers more positive thoughts, which in turn lead us to experience an increase in positive emotions. The benefits don’t stop there. Increased emotional well-being is also linked with stronger immune systems, better sleep and increased energy. Gratitude can protect us from stress during the holiday season by increasing our feelings of appreciation about everything we have and making us less susceptible to feelings of “missing out” when faced with the barrage of marketing or social media posts.
How do I practice gratitude?
Here are some simple steps you can take to develop an attitude of gratitude:
- Create a gratitude journal. Challenging yourself to write down new things you are grateful for at the end of each day is a great way to keep yourself actively engaged in the process.
- Share your gratitude with others. Since social relationships are often a major source of our gratitude, it makes sense to incorporate them as we build up our attitude. You can write a letter to somebody who impacted your life and never got a chance to properly thank. Or, simply take time each day to acknowledge the smaller things people do that make your life easier, whether it be to a co-worker who helps you on a project or to the barista who makes your coffee.
- Recognize life’s small pleasures. Whether it be the smell of fresh air after a rainstorm or a piece of dark chocolate–savor the small things that give you a deeper appreciation for being alive at that moment.
- Keep your expectations realistic. Just like developing a muscle, strengthening your sense of gratitude takes time and effort. Expect that there will be days where you may feel too tired and worn out to do any proper exercises. This is OK–accept the fact that it is not the best time for self-reflection and resolve to continue your gratitude exercises the following day.
Whether or not this attitude of gratitude already comes to you naturally, engaging in these small exercises on a consistent basis can help you manage anxiety in the long-term by fostering your sense of contentment. The end of each year encourages annual review and self-reflection. As your prepare for the year ahead, take this opportunity to think about how to practice gratitude in order to reduce anxiety, increase emotional well-being and develop a greater connection to the world around you.
Carolyn Moriarty, LPC