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/