Anxiety is an emotion that we can experience for a whole host of reasons. Often it’s in anticipation of something bad happening which we fear we may be unequipped to handle. As often happens in my counselling work, I was recently reminded of a particularly common kind of anxiety, which I too experience from time to time. It’s the anxiety we experience in response to fearing that we won’t have enough of something important in our lives – be it money, time, relationships, or anything else.
From my perspective, a sense of not having enough is a symptom of the culture we live in. We don’t need to look far to find messages that tell us we need more, and that we ourselves are not good enough. These kinds of messages contribute to a lot of people’s suffering, including pervasive anxiety. Upon reflecting on my own journey learning to deal with this kind of anxiety, I was reminded of an invaluable practice that has been exceedingly helpful in calming my restless heart and mind in times I feel steeped in that familiar sense of lack.
The Helpfulness of Gratitude
There are many different traditions that encourage the practice of being grateful. For me it’s about holding purposeful space for things that enrich my life, and doing so as often as I can remember to.
I took my gratitude practice up in response to pervasive stress and worry that became problematic in my life. I was finding myself overwhelmed with things many people find worrisome: finances and being able to take care of basic needs and beyond, a sense of insecurity due to changes in my life, and fears about the future. I noticed my heart rate was elevated for much of the day, my breath shallow, and my ability to sleep was compromised by a steady flow of adrenaline. This only made matters worse. I was spending most of my time reflecting on what seemed to be missing, trying to restore balance, and feeling increasingly anxious and unsettled.
Although I had been aware that gratitude practices were a thing for years, it wasn’t until a mentor suggested it could help that I considered how it could work for me. My gratitude practice is not unlike mindfulness practices that encourage attention and presence in the moment, coupled with an active account of what I’m grateful for. I engage in these practices purposefully throughout the day, often ending with a review of my whole day and all the experiences and other things that helped to make it as good as it was (even if it was full of challenges).
I take brief moments to reflect privately when I’m grateful for an experience, such as when I first get on my bike in the morning and feel enlivened as I move forward, or after having the opportunity to help someone in a counselling session. Whatever the case, through consistent practice, I’m usually able to integrate it into my daily activities seamlessly – almost like really intentional breathing.
The Difference Gratitude Makes For Me
Since I first took these practices up, I’ve noticed some significant improvements in my day-to-day life. I’m far less worried or anxious than I was before I made gratitude a focus in my life, and I’m far more joyful and happy moment-to-moment on a daily basis. These gratitude practices have helped me form a solid foundation against common problems that many folks bring into counselling.
I describe the difference gratitude makes for me as a shift in orientation. When I’m oriented toward what’s “missing” in my life, I notice myself responding with that familiar sense of worry akin to anxiety. However, when I’m oriented toward what actually is present and abundant in my life, I’m more able to feel that I have enough, and am more equipped to rest easy.
You can think of it as a means of emotional regulation: gratitude practices can help us shift our awareness from a sense that something bad will happen because we’re lacking in some important way, toward knowing that we’re ok the way things are – thereby turning anxiety and insecurity into contentedness and security.
About Will Bratt
Will Bratt is a counsellor in Victoria, BC, specializing in therapy for trauma and interpersonal violence. He is passionate about addressing stigma through depathologizing human suffering. In addition to writing for Healthy Minds Canada, he runs his own blog on his website, Will Bratt Counselling. You can connect with Will through Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and LinkedIn.