When I feel stuck or restless I often find myself avoiding. I avoid taking healthy risks, following through with certain projects, making healthy meals, and don’t go to my usual exercise classes. I find over a few days I will have more negative thoughts, take more short cuts and overall my restless and stuck-ness leads me to feel melancholy. I begin to feel less thankful for the things I do have and more hopeless about what is to come. Thankfully, I’ve learned to catch this downward spiral early! There is one simple and powerful trick to it: Gratitude.
During the spiraling, I have learned to first slow down and consider things in a way that is reflective and productive versus negative and destructive. I start by watching my thoughts – just recognizing how positive or negative my thinking is. I then notice how intense they are. Sometimes my thoughts are a “2, 3” which means they are subtle negativity that will lead to a spiral if I keep going. Other times life throws a real zinger at me and I’m a “6, 7, 8” which means I’m angry and my negativity is high. Next, I breathe into it. Deep, slow breath for a four count in and an eight count out. Sometimes I include a stretch or yoga pose if it’s a really intense negativity.
This process allows for my mind/emotion and body/nervous system to be in the intentional here and now. In other words, I am present with my feelings both emotionally and physically. I am slower in breath, thought and movement rather than moving fast and racing thoughts. Once I have found this space in me, and in my physical space and time, I am ready to reflect. A grounding does not mean no destruction or negativity is left in the body and mind-- it just means I am present in the here and now.
We often forget that we can feel gratitude of certain things in life while still struggling in other areas. That being said, without reflection, the obstacles we face won’t make sense. With that, we’ll never find our gratitude. Once grounded in here and now, we look for the powerful balance to hold our two truths: life’s struggles and life’s triumphs. The lesson of gratitude is being able to allow not only “what is wrong, hard, risky, uncomfortable”, but the subtle “rightness, pride, hope, success” of our lives. I’ve learned if you allow yourself to sit just a few minutes and think about the magic of being able to see, to move our fingers, to be dreaming or to be living, then it has a refreshing affect. The gratitude of life starts to take shape and overpower the negative spiral.
The benefits of gratitude are manifold. Studies show that practicing and experiencing gratitude boosts feelings of satisfaction, strengthens our relationships and drives us to help others. Here are three gratitude exercises that have been shown effective to increase our well-being:
1. Schedule a gratitude visit.
Is there someone in your past that changed your life for the better, either through words, actions example, or other?
If you know of such a person, write them a concise and honest letter identifying what they did to help you and how it affected you, says psychologist Martin E.P. Seligman in his book Flourish. The effect of sharing gratitude with another gives us a moment of reflection to appreciate how we have experienced connection with another human. Shawn Achor, a Happiness researcher at Harvard, takes this idea one step further. Achor encourages people to start each day with an email, phone call, text, etc. thanking someone for something. He says the act of gratitude actually makes us feel happier and more fulfilled in our lives. It also strengthens relationships and makes others feel appreciated. How is that for win-win?!
2. Keep a gratitude journal, and make it personal.
If you want to get the most out of journaling, put time and effort into a gratitude journal. Each day write down the people, places, events, accomplishments, and experiences, which make you feel happy, appreciated, joy, connection with others, and pride from the day. You can write phrases or full gratitude stories. By focusing on the details your brain actually re-experiences the happiness in which the opportunity brought. This may also offer examples of people to send gratitude messages too (see #1)!
3. Make your own gratitude jar.
Find any old jar for this exercise. Decorate the jar so it stands out and reminds you of gratitude, says Dr. Colleen Georges, a psychologist, counselor and life coach. Then place the jar somewhere you know you'll be twice per day. This can be by the side of your bed or next to your toothbrush in the bathroom, or in the kitchen. Each day, write something you’re grateful for on a piece of paper and place it in the jar. This visual cue triggers thought and memory of the small things, which we are appreciative of.
"Keeping a gratitude jar serves as a daily reminder that we have much to be grateful for in our lives, which enhances our happiness and overall well-being," Georges says. It also reduces the time we spend in negative and dreadful thoughts. In addition, this is a great project to do with your kids!
Life moves so fast but our most meaningful moments are often when we slow down. To practice gratitude, helps to balance the mind, body, and soul of daily living. Try it! Gratitude not only helps your overall well-being, but can help to enhance the lives of those around us well.