Gratitude interrupts anxiety. This is a mantra I find myself returning to again and again, and it’s even more powerful and meaningful to me at this time of year.
Gratitude interrupts anxiety because when we shift our focus to a state of gratitude–when we start looking for things to give thanks to–we instantly lose our ability to focus on all the things that scare us or make us feel inferior. A mental state of gratitude is incompatible with a mental state of fear. Thankfulness and terror cannot cohabitate.
Yet how can you bring your mind from a fearful state to a thankful state? How can you experience true Thanksgiving even when we are enduring such an incredibly stressful time?
First, if you’re grappling with a lot of fear right now due to the coronavirus (perhaps fear over your finances, fear over your health, or fear over being separated from your loved ones), I don’t want you to run from that fear. But let’s reframe it. Fear isn’t inherently a bad thing. It serves a purpose. When we feel that adrenaline coursing through our veins, it’s not because we are weak or because we aren’t brave enough. It’s a chemical reaction caused by the cortisol (the stress hormone) released in our body, and although it might feel a bit icky, this stress reaction is how the human race survived this long. It’s what helps propel us into action and out of dangerous situations. But it’s not meant to a permanent state. High, consistent levels of cortisol can have a negative impact on our bodies and our minds, causing insomnia, weight gain, fatigue, mental fogginess and so much more.
Yet rather than trying to run from that stress or anxiety, try to look at how it might be serving you. Find ways to actually give gratitude for your fear. It sounds impossible, but you can find Thanksgiving for your stress. Yes, you might be very anxious at work, but what’s the gift in that fear? Perhaps your stress over your work reveals that you’re a conscientious, dedicated worker. Or perhaps your anxiety about your loved ones an example of your deep love and compassion for your family. Maybe your fear over catching the coronavirus or spreading the coronavirus is an example of the level of connection and concern you feel for your community.
See how gratitude can interrupt anxiety? Our brains aren’t adept at focusing on negative and positive stimuli at the same time, so once you shift your focus from searching for everything that could go wrong or everything that is ‘wrong’ with you, to searching for every beautiful and precious possibility in the Universe, you instantly will feel a shift begin to take place.
You can apply this same philosophy of ‘interrupting anxiety with gratitude’ to every situation you encounter. For example, when I felt myself becoming really concerned and anxious for the people I care about during this pandemic, I have focused on Thanksgiving for little bonuses that have occurred as a result of this time, like the fact that reduced travel has led to decreased air pollution and cleaner water in many places across the country.
Giving thanks for the things that stress us out or cause us deep fear isn’t easy. When most people talk about gratitude or keeping a gratitude journal, you generally assume that they mean giving thanks for the good things in life, your blessings and fortunes. But it’s so much more meaningful and has an even greater impact on your mental state when you can give thanks for even the things that can break you or the things that have broken you.
I can earnestly say that I look back on my life and feel heart-huge gratitude for the people and situations that pushed me to the depths of despair, because it is this that taught me how to rise from the ashes. As Danish freediver Stig Pryds famously says in this video, it’s the landing that teaches us how to fly. Hitting the earth and facing our greatest challenges is what helps us launch into our greatest heights of possibility and potential. Yes, it’s scary. Yes, it can feel insurmountable. But gratitude makes it easier. Gratitude turns the boogeyman into a friendly guide, someone who’s not there to harm us but someone who is there to guide us into our next chapter of growth.
I’m not asking you to love pain or to feel guilty that you really, really don’t want to grow anymore. I feel the exact same way. (That’s why I call it AFGE–another f*@king growth experience–in my book Quantum Love). It’s natural and understandable to want to run away from discomfort, but when we stick with it, when we lean into what scares us and work past our edges, we can find the very purpose for our existence here.
So while we can’t necessarily accept invitations from our family this Thanksgiving, we can accept the invitation from the universe that we are all being offered right now. The invitation to sit intentionally in this time of fearfulness and loneliness, and to simply…sit. To allow it to exist. To allow life to be really hard, really terrifying, and not run from it. Not numb it or distract ourselves from the pain, but to look deeper and be willing to find out how that pain might be serving us. When we can do that, we find out that the Universe isn’t actually all that terrifying after all…it’s sparkling with potential and hope and positivity, and it wants us to have every good and worthy in the world, but it wants us to grow and transform along the way. Otherwise, what we are here for?
There’s a reason Thanksgiving and the change of seasons go hand-in-hand. There’s a wisdom in the way the earth begins to quiet itself in the fall. The way the trees gracefully and faithfully release their leaves, without fear that green sprouts won’t return in spring. There’s a wisdom in the way animals prepare their burrows, thoughtfully planning for a long, cold winter, without self-pity or anxiety or envy of others, but rather with intentional and clear-sighted plans for enduring winter’s freeze. Staying warm, staying close to their loved ones and to what sustains them, faithfully waiting for the warm sun to return once again, these wise animals serve as a guide for us as we too look ahead at darker weather.
Because the warm sun always returns. Green leaves clothe the trees once again. And when we emerge from our burrows, we too will be lighter, wiser, and more powerful thanks to enduring the winter.
So, yes, gratitude interrupts anxiety. But not with loudness, not by saying ‘shut up,’ not by shaming or scolding. But by enveloping it in love, faith, and trust in the Universe and the plans unfolding for you.
In thanks – Laura