YOUR GRATITUDE TOOLBOX (AND WHY YOU NEED ONE!)
"Wear gratitude like a cloak, and it will feed every corner of your life." ~ Rumi
Apart from washing your hands, social distancing, and wearing a mask, what can you do to navigate life during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Gratitude has gotten a lot of attention in recent years, and there are good reasons why! Gratitude is a powerful emotion-experience, and it's one that you can lean on and actively cultivate to help navigate difficult times. But why? How does consciously manifesting an emotion help you increase your resilience to stress, boost your immunity, and help you feel more connected?
It seems too simple.
Here's what's happening:
THE STRESS RESPONSE
Your mind and your central nervous system love predictability. There is a feeling of safety associated with that. You wake up in the morning and follow a routine; you get to work and have a relative routine, you come home and follow a corresponding routine. Sometimes we introduce novelty, yet this is somewhat selected and anticipated. We have a general idea of what's happening.
When circumstances change, your nervous system has to adjust. When things are unpredictable, your body and the central nervous system feel threatened, and you experience stress.
Some of you have a lot of unpredictability in your day-to-day already. Now, add a global pandemic. Nothing is the same. Simple things once taken for granted have changed:
Meeting friends for lunch at a restaurant: not an option
Getting a haircut: not an option
Buying groceries: a completely new process as stores adjust hours and procedures
Work: for most, work experiences have entirely changed
This unpredictable change leads to a lot of strong emotions: fear, worry, anger,
anxiety, loneliness, sadness, grief, panic, and many others. Your mind might be racing, going back and forth with a lot of questions that start with, "what if…".
In your body, when you feel stress, your body goes activates the stress response system, sometimes called the fight-flight-freeze-fawn response. This response is a fantastic collection of physiological changes that happens when you are faced with a threat, real or perceived. It amps up when your mind interprets the the threat as requiring more of you than you have available resources.
When activated, the stress response tightens your muscles, shortens your breath, and heightens your senses. The intention here is to give you a burst of energy so that you can fight the threat or run away, escaping danger. It's handy when you're trying to outrun a predator! Not as helpful when the threat is a virus.
When living in a state of fight-flight-freeze-fawn, your body remains on high alert, releasing a steady flood of chemicals and hormones such as adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine wreaking havoc in your endocrine and immune systems. This persistent stress activation leaves you more vulnerable to viruses, infections, and stress-related illnesses.
Over time, living in a state of chronic stress leads to burnout, chronic fatigue, and even autoimmune disorders, as your body's resilience is depleted from being in a perpetual state of survival.
WHY GRATITUDE CAN HELP
The Coronavirus pandemic has turned the world upside down. Anxiety and worry are both familiar and natural responses to the information that we are receiving daily. Social distancing has many feeling isolated and cut off from the world. While it's important to acknowledge these emotions and experiences as valid, it's equally essential to not linger in them for too long.
Writer and philosopher GK Chesterton stated, "I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder."
When I read this quote, I think of the power of thought. It's amazing. Your body believes everything the mind thinks. When you're thinking of all the worst-case scenarios and replaying them in your mind, your body will respond as if those worst-case scenarios are happening. Your stress response will activate and stay activated until your attention and awareness have entirely shifted gears.
This is where gratitude comes in.
Gratitude shifts your mindset. Your mind has what is called a default mode network. This default mode is running whenever you are not consciously directing your attention toward something like learning, communicating with others, creating, etc. The default mode is what is running the show whenever you go on auto-pilot with your attention. It loves to replay old events and predict the future that you are living.
Your mind also has a negativity bias, meaning that your brain is hard-wired to focus on the negative and scary side of things. The mind is very well-meaning with its negativity, keeping its attention on what is--or could potentially be dangerous. It's also not helpful to the rest of your physiology to stay there.
Gratitude, as an emotion, is uniquely well-suited to help you navigate these patterns of thought and shift gears. Why is that?
Gratitude is a compound emotion. When you're feeling gratitude, you're also feeling other emotions from the positive end of the emotion spectrum, including love, joy, hope, and connection, to name a few.
Gratitude is also unique because it is also a skill, trait, and habit, as well as an emotion. What this means, is that like any skill, it can be practiced and learned. Gratitude makes the most of the neuroplasticity of your mind (your mind's ability to change its primary way of interpreting things).
When you practice gratitude, your body softens. You can feel you're the muscles release in your chest, allowing for greater lung capacity, your circulation increases, allowing for a higher flow of oxygen throughout the body, including the brain. Feelings of anxiety and fear dissipate, and you're left feeling more ease. From this vantage point, not only is your mind better able to identify resources and solutions to challenges, your body stops producing those stress hormones. It instead produces dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin—neurotransmitters that improve our mood and strengthen our experience of connection in the world.
It's a simple yet potent self-care practice that goes a long way in boosting our overall well-being and our immunity!
Read on to learn some simple practices that you can start using right away to help build this skill, boost your immunity, and nurture yourself through this unique time.
YOUR GRATITUDE TOOL BOX:
1) Morning Practice: Greet the Day with Gratitude
This practice takes all of about 2 minutes but packs a big punch. Try starting your
day with this practice and watch the entire trajectory of your day shift gears!
Bring the corners of the mouth into a soft grin
Place feet on the ground and greet the earth
Reach your arms to the sky, stretching upward and greet the skyLook upward and slightly to the right and say, "Thank you for this day" (you can direct this thank to the Universe, God, the rising sun, your amazing body, or anything/anyone that resonates for you)
Keep a sticky-note by your bed as a reminder to do this first thing in the morning.
2) Morning Practice: Three S's
This fun and straightforward practice is particularly effective when done looking in the mirror.
Set an Intention
To practice, simply smile, and while holding that expression on your face, bring to mind someone you love or something that brings you joy. Say, "thank you." Then set an intention for your day. For example, you might simply invite the intention: "May I be gentle with myself."
3) Morning POWER Practice: "Today I get to…"
This practice is particularly helpful in overriding the negativity bias of the mind:
Write down three things that you "get to do" on this day, and include what about these things for which you are grateful.
"Today, I get to make a one-pot stew, and I'm so grateful because I know I'm feeding my family and myself well, leaving us healthier and happier."
"Today, I get to enjoy a cup of tea at the end of the day with my husband, and I'm so grateful because this allows us to connect."
"Today, I get to work on my book, and I'm so grateful because it lets me share ideas and engage my creativity."
Experiment with including mundane things like cooking, doing laundry, and changing bed linens.
Experiment with including challenging things like having an awkward conversation or learning a new skill.
Visualize each thing as you write it down.
Pause as you finish writing, close your eyes, and see if you can feel into appreciation, expanding the experience of gratitude in your heart.
Pay attention to your breath and let your exhales stay long and steady as you do this practice.
4) Mid-Day Gratitude Shift: I Remember When…
When you feel activated or caught in a spiral of fear, worry, or overwhelm, experiment with this practice:
Close your eyes
Place your hand on your heart and exhale slowly (more slowly than you think you can)
Bring to mind one thing that you value in your life at this time. It can be a person, pet, or even something like a car, mug, or pair of shoes.
Recall your life just before that relationship or thing entered your life. What was your experience like before it?
Recall the moment that you received that relationship into your life. What did it feel like at that moment?
Let your mouth form a soft smile. Exhale.
Feel into your heart, breathe into your heart.
Stay here for as long as it feels right for you.
Exhale and tuck your chin and slowly flutter your eyes open.
Release your hand and notice the shift in how you feel.
5) Anytime Gratitude: The Gratitude Pause
Anytime at all, invite the Gratitude Pause. This practice helps switch off the default mode network and directing your attention. It shifts your emotion-experience and therefore begins to change your physiology, switching off the stress response.
Simply pause and exhale
Take a look around and name one thing that makes your life a little easier or more pleasant.
Slow your breath and hold your focus on that thing for a few breaths and say to yourself (bonus points for speaking this out loud!): I’m so grateful for this __________ because it _______.
"I'm so grateful for this mug because it reminds me of my friend, Jane, who gave it to me. I love how comforting it feels when it warms my hands when I'm drinking a cup of tea."
"I'm so grateful for this laptop. It helps me stay connected to my community, stores my photographs, and even helps me stay organized!"
6) Anytime Gratitude: The Gratitude Letter
This is a powerful practice that offers benefit to both you and the person that you're writing.
Reflect on your life and find one person who made a significant difference in your life that you haven't had the opportunity to thank.
Handwrite them a letter them know how they have affected you.
BONUS: Send the letter to the person.
DOUBLE BONUS: Make a copy of the letter, meet with the person (live or via video), and read it to them. Give them a copy.
If the person that comes to mind is deceased, or you have no way to contact them, handwrite the letter. For added impact, you can do a small ritual honoring that person. Light a candle, think about that person and read the letter out loud as though you were reading it to them.
7) Anytime Gratitude: The Gratitude Text
This practice is a micro-version of the Gratitude Letter.
Every day, you have thoughts of people in our lives, moving across the landscape of your mind. Let them know!
When a thought of appreciation, or moment of valuing someone comes through your awareness, pause and send them a text message and let them know.
"I was just thinking of you and remembered ________." Thank you for that memory—it made me smile today!"
8) Anytime Gratitude: The Gratitude Patronus
When things get tough, it can seem impossible to conjure feelings of gratitude. This is a time where you can turn to the Wonderful Wizarding World of Harry Potter! For those of you not familiar, let me offer a very brief explanation:
There are creatures in the Wizarding World called Dementors. They dim the sky, removing all light and warmth from the atmosphere. When they settle on an individual, they come close, cloaking the person in a dark and cold embrace and start to draw all of the lifeforce and joy from the person.
The Dementors are kept at bay with a powerful spell called a Patronus. The wizard must connect with a feeling of love so great that it casts a powerful light, forcing the dementors to retreat.
What I love about this metaphor is that this is precisely how gratitude works. Gratitude helps you to connect with what already exists alongside the darkness. You don't have to make anything up or pretend the unpleasant or painful thing isn't happening. The unpleasant something will continue to exist—only when you're connected to gratitude, the unpleasant situation affects you very differently. It continues to live "out there," but is no longer "sucking the lifeforce and joy out of you.
When you are feeling overwhelmed with strong emotions such as grief, fear, or overwhelm, pause.
Place your hand on your sternum and exhale.
Bring to mind a memory that conjures up strong feelings of gratitude.
Recall the experience in as great of detail as you can.
Remember the colors, sounds, smells, and sensations of the experience.
Experiment with describing the event or experience in the present tense, out loud.
"I'm standing at the edge of the clearing and around me, seeing nothing but trees. I can hear the sounds of the tropical birds singing…."
Stay with this memory as long as you need to. Let the emotion fill your heart and give you strength. It will feed your body, heart, and mind, boosting your resiliency to stress.
9) Evening Gratitude: The Gratitude Journal
With this practice, you're training your mind to see the gifts in the ordinary—not the extraordinary. It's another way to rewire the default operating mode of the brain and break away from the negativity bias.
At the end of the day, take a few moments and reflect on the past 16 hours.
What experience, people, or things can you find gratitude for?
Think small. Think moments.
Write down at least three things unique to that day (no repeats from the previous day)
Make a note next to each that explains what you feel grateful for about that list item.
Add a few words that describe what you did to allow or take part in that experience.
Add a few words about how you did—or will—express your gratitude.
The greatest struggle that people have with this practice is that they try to think of really awesome things that happened that day and come up empty.
Think small. Look for moments of ease, joy, comfort, connection, or kindness.
If you find yourself grateful for a person or pet repeatedly, this is normal.
Be specific about what and why in your journal.
"I'm grateful for my husband today because he hugged me right when I needed it, which reminded me that I'm loved. I needed that today."
"I'm grateful for my cat because today she was swatting at my fingers while I was typing, and she just made me laugh, giving me a much-needed break this afternoon."
Gratitude is an emotion that you can conjure up with intention, helping you shift away from the contraction of the stress response. Each time you practice, you are giving your self a gift of softening into the subtle gifts that are availabe to you in each and every moment--even among the challenges an unpredictablity of the world around you.
You get to choose where you direct your attention.
For me? I choose gratitude.
"If the only prayer you said was thank you, that would be enough."
~ Meister Eckhart