Tackling Anxiety with Gratitude
Hi, my name is Erin Smith, and I’m a control junkie. For me, time is a puzzle solved with color coded calendars, carefully curated schedules, and heavily researched expectations over future events. I have learned that I can quell a lot of anxiety when I over plan and over prepare for what is to come (and what might be, could be, may eventually be).
This characteristic is helpful….to an extent. But, when I am honest with myself, I know that this kind of control only gets me so far. (It also sometimes reinforces rigidity, which is not psychologically helpful, and sometimes it exacerbates my anxiety. Also not helpful….both topics for a future blog, perhaps.) An honest appraisal of the world, however, indicates that there are so many things, many important things, out of my control. This doesn’t mean that I’m powerless, only that there are limits to what my planning, preparing, and careful execution can produce.
Case in point: A pandemic.
Are there things that I, personally, can do to help mitigate the spread and impact of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19? Absolutely. This is why I wear my mask, social distance, and wash my hands often. Taking control and ownership of these behaviors is important. At the same time, can I, personally, stop the coronavirus? No, not on my own. I think, more to the point, I personally cannot ensure the maintenance of life-giving breath to my body. I contribute to my health—yes!—but I am ultimately not in exclusive control of whether my life will continue.
For a self-confessed control freak, this stark recognition of what is not in my hands is really difficult. It probably shouldn’t be because this truth is not new, it’s just usually unobserved. A paradox of the Christian faith (one that, coincidentally, mirrors my understanding of human agency from a psychological perspective) is that what we do matters—we have control!—but we are not ultimately in control (at least not total control!). My pastor once referred to this tension for our control as “radical responsibility and radical grace”. There is so much nuance here, nuance that I think is important, but instead of focusing there, I want to share what I have been practicing this pandemic to help mitigate the anxiety that bubbles up when I am faced with so much uncertainty. This is not a magic pill, it’s not a substitute for professional mental health care, when needed, nor is it the only thing I do. With all those caveats, one thing that has been really important to me during this season of uncertainty, change, and difficulty is the practice of gratitude.
What is gratitude?
When we are thankful and expressive of appreciation, we are being grateful. Researchers can talk about gratitude as a disposition (relatively stable way of interacting in the world), an emotion (the physiological reaction that prompts an emotional experience of thankfulness), and as a mood (moods are more stable than emotions, but less enduring than dispositions). I think it’s interesting to differentiate these three experiences of gratitude because it means that even if you are not naturally (or “dispositionally”) grateful, you can still develop habits of gratitude that will impact your emotional experiences and longer-lasting mood states.
What does gratitude “do”?
In addition to the straightforward instructions in Scriptures to practice gratitude (e.g., Ps. 106:1; Col. 3:16; Heb. 12:28-29), researchers have noted that grateful people tend to be healthier (physically and mentally), more likely to attain their goals, and more helpful toward others, among other effects1.
One of the things that gratitude does is that is refocuses yourself off yourself and, it turns out, when we think of ourselves less we tend to be less consumed with anxiety, distress, loneliness, etc. Reflecting on what we have to be grateful for reminds us that beyond the difficulties of the present moment, there is life-giving hope, purpose, relationship, love, and acceptance.
I want to be clear that gratitude doesn’t make your problems go away. It doesn’t make you ignore the realities that you are facing. (That is delusion, not gratitude.) What gratitude does do is it promotes a form of cognitive reframing that gives you a different vantage point on your situation. During this pandemic I have doubled-down on my efforts to practice and express gratitude. This hasn’t made the pandemic and my associated anxieties magically disappear, but it has helped anchor me in my gratitude to God, to people made in His holy image, and to the beauty in the good creation we inhabit. Gratitude has helped me look at the same world with new eyes. With new compassion. With new energy. By looking for points of thankfulness and seeking ways to express it, I have moved myself from a place of anxiety over the unknowns and the fluctuations closer to a place of peace. Even if nothing goes as planned (I still do like color coded calendars, after all), I have so much to be grateful for, a gratitude that moves me to more fully see my neighbor and love my neighbor in word and in action.
How can you leverage gratitude in your own life?
I want to reiterate that practicing gratitude is a practice. It won’t come naturally to everyone. It’s also not panacea. I really wish I could tell you that for every anxious thought I reflect on one thing to be grateful for and *poof!*: anxiety gone. But that would be a lie. This is an ongoing effort. What I can tell you is that there are lots of good reasons to pursue the practice of gratitude—Biblical and scientific reasons.
Here are two ways you can intentionally practice gratitude. Try it. Tell me how it felt in the comments below.
- An easy introduction: At the end of every day (for at least two weeks), reflect back on your day and make a physical list of five things you are grateful for. Think of your family, friends, pets, or when you received help (as starters).
- A slightly more intense practice: Spend 15 minutes writing a letter to someone for whom you are grateful, but have never expressed gratitude to. Don’t worry about your spelling or grammar, instead be as specific and concrete as possible, detailing what this person did, why you are grateful, and the impact this person and their actions had on your life. If you feel so inclined, put the letter in the mail or schedule a zoom call and read it to them directly. Research shows that we tend to underestimate how gratitude will impact a person; if you feel inclined, share your gratitude and you and the recipient of the gratitude will reap positive psychological effects! If possible, repeat this exercise several times a week.
Dr. Erin Smith is an associate professor of psychology and the Director of Research at the Center for the Study of Human Behavior.
1. Check out the work of Dr. Emmons, the preeminent researcher on gratitude: https://emmons.faculty.ucdavis.edu/. You may also find this (someone old, but still relevant) chapter interesting: Emmons, R. A., McCullough, M. E., & Tsang, J.-A. (2003). The assessment of gratitude. In S. J. Lopez & C. R. Snyder (Eds.), Positive psychological assessment: A handbook of models and measures (p. 327–341). American Psychological Association. https://doi.org/10.1037/10612-021 Copy available here: https://sites.hofstra.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/86/2019/11/Gratitude-chapter-for-Pos-Assessment-volume.pdf
2. If you are looking for more of these kinds of activities, check out https://ggia.berkeley.edu/
Dr. Smith, I enjoy reading this article. It is a great practice of mindset and supports what we all are going thought. Thank you
Estibaliz, thank you for your comment! This is not an easy moment for many of us (could that be a bigger understatement??) and yet, there is so much to be thankful for. God is good.
I enjoyed your article Dr. Smith! I agree that gratitude goes a long way. It changes the perspective of a situation to see what God could be doing through the tough and anxious situation at hand. I think it is important to be consistent with gratitude and thankfulness to the Lord. It may not get rid of a situation, but it definitely helps improve mindset! I’m so thankful that God is in control! Thank you for your words!
Thank you, Jules, for reading and sharing your thoughts. You mentioned “consistent” gratitude–so important. It’s not a “one and done” deal, to be sure.
I can totally relate with being a control junkie. My need for control inspires a relatively constant feeling of anxiety within me. If I am forced into a situation for which I could not prepare (either because of a shortage of time or information), I am an anxious mess. When I have time, I am no less anxious, but I am overly prepared which helps to mask the anxiety with a feeling of control despite the nerves. The best way I have found to cope with anxiety is gratitude, just as you said! However, usually when I am at my most anxious, I am feeling the least grateful and the least willing to practice gratitude. So, thank you for your post and for the reminder to practice gratitude (especially before feeling anxious, because hopefully that’ll help prevent those feelings)!!
Thanks for your honesty here, Kelly. One thing that I have learned over the past few years is that I have to be mindful of the (false) assumption that my planning will magically bend the world to my will. Sometimes I see this in a grumpy mood, like, “I had a plan, why isn’t it working? Why can’t everyone just do what I want?” I don’t usually whine like a baby out loud, but those selfish, sinful thoughts still bubble underneath. Gratitude, for me, helps me realize that it’s not all about me. I am who I am and where I am because of all sorts of things that involved me but that I didn’t directly cause (or bring about on my own). Gratitude, for me, fosters humility. In that humility, I am better able to see Jesus. In Jesus, I find peace (even in confusion).
Dr. Smith, Thank you so much for this post! I totally agree that we need to focus on what is in our control rather than what is out of our control. I have begun to practice this because so many things happen in life that are out of our control but the one thing, I can control in these circumstances is my attitude and how I respond to the situation. The on-going pandemic is a great example because of course while I am bummed that we cannot return to school, yet I have shifted my perspective and began to control what I can. I have used this time to grow closer to my family and have taken more time to grow personally in my walk with God.
Jacob, thank you for sharing these ideas! It’s okay to express disappointment, but I think you are right that we shouldn’t stay there. God wants so much more for us than to see us ruminate in our own disappointment, especially over things we can’t control.
I found this post both insightful as well as encouraging. Putting the point into terms of Covid-19 was very relatable giving me a better understanding the purpose of the given information. I was intrigued by the notion of gratitude taking the focus off ourselves; which could minimize the amount of stress, anxiety, etc., that we may be facing. It makes sense, if less focused on ourselves we may be inclined to be less impacted by stressors or immediate difficulties. Thank you for your insightful entry.
Kameron K. Rios
Kameron, thank you for taking the time to read and comment! It is so interesting how some of the best “self-care” (engaging in practices that boost mental health and flourishing) sometimes has very little to do with ourselves.
Dr. Smith, I really enjoyed reading your article and the little pieces of advice you provide for making it through these difficult times. I do agree with you on the idea that we should be more grateful especially in these trying times. I believe that if we exercise gratitude we in a way train our mind to look at the positive side of things and to look at things with a glass half full type of concept. Much like you state this practice will allow us to lower our stress and anxiety levels, and although we will not forget about our problems it will make them more bearable.
Thanks, Zaida! I love that you used the word “train” in your response. This is *exactly* what practice does; it trains our brains to create a new default setting. Although we might have differences in gratefulness (or other character traits/habits) that are present from birth (nature/nurture questions here), it is very true that grateful people are made (via practice).
Dr. Smith, I truly enjoyed reading your post. I too am a ‘control freak’ so I felt as though you were speaking directly to me and it really helped! I definitely will try those exercises of gratitude, they are great ideas, thank you!
You are very welcome, Sabrina! Glad you found them useful.
I noticed I have the some of the same traits as you: I tend to over-plan and over-prepare for everything. I find that no matter how much I prepare for something, I always end up getting very anxious anyway because I feel that I could have prepared more or that I may be forgetting something. I had no idea that expressing gratitude could help with anxiety, but it is something I want to try more of now! I am going to practice gratitude with the letters this week and see if it helps!
Matisse-I would love to hear about your experience writing the letters, especially if you do it a few times to move beyond some of the “obvious” points of gratitude. One thing that I’ve been really thinking about lately is that, even without a contrast (e.g., “I’m grateful my life isn’t as hard as that person’s life…”), I should have be oriented toward gratitude because of who Christ is. In Jesus, I have all the things that I could ever need to be grateful.
Good Afternoon Dr. Smith, I truly enjoyed reading your blog posting. Like you, I am also a control junkie. I have to have color coded calendars and fixed schedules in order to stay and feel organized. I feel the need to always plan my days, weeks, or even months. I hate the feeling of not knowing what is next, so planning helps ease my stress and anxiety levels. For me, the unknown can be really frightening which could be the reason for my efforts of controlling everything that I can. Your post made me look at control from a different perspective. It was helpful to read that we have control, but in the end God is the one in control. I am thankful that God is in control because if everything was left up to me, my life would be a mess. It was also a good reminder reading that gratitude in times of uncertainty can be a good thing. Overall Dr. Smith, your blog post was very inspirational and comforting to read. Thank you!
Alaysia, thanks for sharing your thoughts and shared experiences. I think there is a real tension, here, that when we plan and prepare, we can create opportunities for God to work in new and interesting ways. And yet, if we are so married to our plans, we stymie God’s ability to work in new and interesting ways. A constant question I ask myself concerns the purpose of my plans: do they help me orient to the Kingdom of God or do they just make me feel better about myself/my life/give me the false sense of control? There isn’t a single consistent answer, but the more aware I become of these tendencies I have, the better I can calibrate to live a life worth of God’s calling (in ways that I can plan and that I can’t).
The statement made about gratitude helping you refocus yourself off of yourself is a great statement. I agree in that being grateful does help with high levels of stress and anxiety and yet gratitude will not solve all of my problems. I think this is a lovely piece on this subject.
Kleigh (I think that’s you?!)- thanks for sharing these thoughts. I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment.
Hello Dr. Smith,
I’d have to say that what drew me into reading your blog post was the fact that you started off by saying “I’m a control junkie” and I could not relate more. I tend to want to have control with everything especially with situations that take place in my life and its just not realistic. Also, I tend to be really organized and over plan which is not ideal given that sometimes one’s expectations are just not going to be met. Me wanting to have control over situations in my life is not realistic which was helpful to read in your blog as you stated “we have control!—but we are not ultimately in control (at least not total control!)” because we do have control but we are not the ones in control, not fully in our lives. Furthermore, this often leads us control freaks with uncertainty because we do not know what to expect. Which is why I really enjoyed your main point of dealing with things with gratitude. Ever since the pandemic started I always pray to God on how thankful I am to be healthy and alive while there are so many people around the world who are getting sick. It is so important to be grateful during this time with so much negativity going on in the world. We should take a step back and be grateful for what we have and what God has blessed us with.
Thank you for sharing, Hayden! When we really step back and try to see God (even through a cloudy mirror), I think we have no choice but to be grateful. And this doesn’t somehow magically give us control or solve our problems, but there is security beyond all fear and anxiety in Christ. For that, I am grateful.
I really enjoyed your article, I feel like practicing gratitude has so many benefits that many people should be taking advantage of. Showing gratitude not only boosts your mood but the person you are showing gratitude and appreciation towards. With the way this world has been affected by the pandemic, this is a time when we can take a moment to reflect on the many things that we are grateful for. If God has allowed us to live another day, that’s a blessing and we should show gratitude by giving him the praise and living for him.
Hi Tania, thanks for sharing your thoughts! You mentioned something I didn’t really get into–the experience of having gratitude expressed to you. People definitely underestimate how an “I appreciate you” will feel to the recipient…but it is meaningful for the speaker and the receiver. We are, at our core, deeply relational and connected with others. Gratitude reflects that, I think.
I was interested in your article because like many others, this is a struggle that really built up in me since the start of the pandemic. Anxiety has always been a part of my life and in this season/year, it really went over the top. Gratitude in my everyday life was something I had to be actively seeking. I as a control freak had the same issues. Reading your article gave me an insight that I have been missing which shows me just how powerful gratitude is and can be. This is something that even though I had been making an effort to practice, I was also underestimating. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!
Jennifer, I’m so glad you took the time to read and comment; I am so glad that you found the content useful and encouraging.
Hello Dr. Smith,
Being honest with myself, I can also become anxious when trying to over plan or plan ahead for daily activities or tasks to try to alleviate my anxiety, but in reality, I find myself anxious when circumstances do get out of my hand. You brought up excellent points and very insightful tips on why gratitude is essential in our life. Before reading your post, I had been aware that showing gratitude is being thankful, but the reason was eye-opening. Due to gratitude taking our focus off of our worries and switching that to what we can be thankful for in our life truly does bring less anxiety. When we can take it as an opportunity to see all the good that we have instead of reflecting on the negative it brings a sense of peace. Thank you for your blog; it has been very helpful.
Crystal, thank you for sharing your thoughts. I agree that when we understand why we do something (e.g., how it works), it adds layers to the thing we are doing. This is one of the reasons I love thinking about psychology as a Christian; there is a depth and richness to understanding Christian practices from a psychological perspective. And more to the point of your comment: I am so glad that you found my thoughts on the issue helpful, and I pray that they will continue to be so!
Dr. Smith your two ways we can intentionally practice gratitude is an amazing way to start. That is something I will definitely start doing so that I can focus on expressing my feelings with others and myself.
“I want to be clear that gratitude doesn’t make your problems go away. It doesn’t make you ignore the realities that you are facing. (That is delusion, not gratitude.) What gratitude does do is it promotes a form of cognitive reframing that gives you a different vantage point on your situation.”
That was my favorite part of this post. Thank you for sharing such an honest perspective on gratitude.
Thanks, Janeth, for this encouraging response. I hope you do try the practices I mentioned and have the opportunity to reflect on the cognitive reframing that gratitude can assist.
I really needed to read this! I have felt overwhelming anxiety due to the pandemic because of the same reasons. However, as I try to take things day by day, I learn more about ways to control anxiety. It is important for me to always ask for help from God, as I know this will pass in time. Thank you again!
Makenna, I am thankful that this post could speak to where you are at right now. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment!
Dr. Smith, thank you so much for your wonderful insight!! Accepting that some situations are out of my control, especially during a pandemic, was difficult for me in the beginning. I thrive when I have a routine and structure, so losing one of those elements can cause me to become anxious. I have been practicing reflection and gratitude for a while and have noticed an improvement in my mindset. Simply writing down one thing a day that I am grateful for in a journal has helped relieve some daily stress. Thank you for also including the biblical aspects of gratitude!
Elizabeth, this is so wonderful to hear! It is encouraging to me to hear that you are trying these tips and reflecting on how they are impacting you in your day-to-day. Thanks for sharing!
The one of many reasons I click on this blog to read on is because I too suffer greatly from extreme anxiety to planning for what will happen in 10 minutes, to two days, or even in 5 months. This tends to be an issue like how you mentioned in your article that, some things can be out of our control. A good example you used was the pandemic, we can control it through what we, ourselves do but cannot ultimately get rid of it or slow it down without the help of others around us. Following up with a statement you made in your blog that stood out the most to me was when you said, “what gratitude does do is it promotes a form of cognitive reframing that gives you a different vantage point on your situation.” I couldn’t find a more perfect way to settle something negative into a positive perspective. It gives you an optimistic feeling of what else can be in a positive way in the future. Thank you for this post! It really helped settle a new way of seeing anxiety in a different feeling such as, gratitude!
Hi Kayla- Thanks for taking the time to read and share your thoughts. You’re right: reframing and gaining new a perspective is so important. Not always easy, but so important.
I completely agree with you that gratitude can take you far. Genuine gratitude can change an individual’s perspective on challenging life situations and anxiety. Like you mentioned, gratitude doesn’t solve problems, however, the “growth mindset” that people adapt can help their problems seem less complicated. With new and compassionate energy, the way people look at life can improve dramatically.
Hi Jessica, thanks for your comment! I like how you connected gratitude with a growth mindset; I find that I am willing (and able) to work the hardest when I am grateful. If I am doing something out of obligation or for some external pressure, it’s so easy to just stop when things get hard. But when I view my troubles as opportunities, I am willing to endure a bit more. This doesn’t mean that I love my troubles, but I think there is some Biblical wisdom about counting it all joy. And there is a reason that Scriptures talk a lot about mourning and trial, even though Christ promises to turn our mourning into dancing.
thank you for sharing your thoughts and research about gratitude! I have had situations where I become frustrated with the things out of my control and this only adds to my stress and anxiety. Of course, I would want certain things to be in my control, but there is a necessary component that also needs to be factored in, humility. In these circumstances, it is important to assess what you can actually do, what you need to trust God in, and be thankful for the life that you have.
Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts Ciara! I agree–it is so important we recognize what we can/can’t change and that, whatever our reality is, we find ways to be grateful.