Using gratitude to combat anxiety and enhance mental well-being
For far too long, the fields of counselling and psychotherapy have focused only on managing distressing emotions. Techniques to cultivate and enhance positive emotions have not been emphasised in the field. However, there has been a noticeable shift in recent years. Therapists are now beginning to appreciate recent studies about positive emotions such as joy, gratitude, contentment, and compassion.
Studies have revealed that positive emotions broaden our attention and help us to be more creative and mentally agile. Positive emotions also help us lead us to have better relationships, resilience, and health. Significantly, research has shown that positive emotions also help undo the physiological effects of anxiety in the body.
A positive emotion that is particularly noteworthy in this respect is gratitude.
Research has shown that people who cultivate a daily practice of gratitude have better physical and mental health. Gratitude has also been shown to have a host of other benefits. People who practice gratitude tend to have stronger relationships - it would make sense that if one is noticing what one is grateful for in their partner or colleagues and expressing thanks to those people, that is likely to solidify those relationships. When feeling grateful, people are also less likely to feel materialistic - noticing and appreciating what you already have brings a feeling of contentment, which reduces the desire to go and buy more.
One of the most impactful scientific studies in the field of gratitude involved participants being assigned into two groups: one group was assigned to a gratitude task and asked to journal three good things that happened that day, and the other group was assigned to a placebo task and was asked to journal early childhood memories. The gratitude group was asked not only to list positive events, but also journal why they thought those good things happened. After a week, people were asked to fill out a happiness index plus a questionnaire to measure symptoms of depression. The gratitude group showed a higher increase in happiness and decrease in symptoms of depression compared to the placebo group.
So how can you incorporate gratitude in your life?
Making gratitude a regular practice is important in this respect. To cultivate the gratitude, we have to be deliberate and active about it. This could be done by, for instance, writing down on a daily basis three things you are grateful for, and reflecting on why you are grateful for those things. Some of the things you note could be “everyday”, positive events, like a delicious meal or a good conversation. Another way to develop gratitude would be to consider a negative situation and notice if is there anything in such a situation that you’re grateful for. This is probably harder, but it would help develop a robust gratitude practice during challenging periods.
Developing a gratitude practice in this manner is a relatively quick and simple way to cultivate one of the most powerful positive emotions which can help counter the effects of anxiety and enhance mental well-being.