Are you feeling anxious about the future? That's a normal reaction to these very uncertain times. But as a business leader, you can't afford to let anxiety drag you down.
Fortunately, there's a simple, scientifically proven way to reduce your own anxiety. Because feeling grateful is shown to reduce feelings of anxiety, start a gratitude practice to reduce stress, lift your mood, and perhaps even improve your health.
Feeling gratitude has many positive effects--on your mood, your social life, your career, and possibly even your longevity. And, as public health expert Najma Khorrami explains in a new Psychology Today post, two studies show exactly how gratitude fights stress and anxiety by changing the ways we talk to ourselves.
Research has long shown that people who feel and express gratitude are significantly less likely to suffer from depression and anxiety than those who don't. A 2013 study in Italy set out to find out why. In the study, 539 participants filled out an online survey that covered several different areas. It asked about symptoms of anxiety and depression, and asked questions that measured how often and how deeply participants felt gratitude. The survey also asked them about their self-talk when things go wrong--whether they typically felt angry at themselves, disgusted with themselves, or whether they treated themselves with gentleness and reassurance.
As expected, they found that those who felt the most gratitude were least likely to experience anxiety or depression, but also that they were more likely to treat themselves with self-reassurance rather than negative self-talk. "Gratitude is a protective factor against psychopathology...because it is connected to a less critical, less punishing, and more compassionate relationship with the self," the researchers wrote.
Then, last year, researchers in Germany studied the effect of gratitude on repetitive negative thinking (RNT), defined as thinking about your problems or bad experiences in a repetitive way that you can't control. In this study, 260 participants with elevated levels of RNT were either given a smartphone app that encouraged gratitude or were put on a "waiting list" for the app. Those with the app experienced a reduction in RNT, further explaining how gratitude combats anxiety. A more recent study showed that a high incidence of RNT may lead to higher levels of a brain chemical associated with Alzheimer's disease, and also to an increased risk of cognitive decline.
Has all this persuaded you that the benefits of a gratitude practice make it more than worth the effort? I hope so. There are many gratitude practices you can try. These are three of my favorites:
1. Pick three things to feel grateful for before you get out of bed in the morning.
I learned this practice from meditation teachers Joel and Michelle Levey five years ago and I've been using it ever since. When you first wake up in the morning, before you get out of bed and (importantly) before you pick up your smartphone or similar device, think of three things that you feel grateful for. They could be your loved ones, your pets, your work, the fact that the sun came up, or even the fact that you're still breathing. Remind yourself of how grateful you are for each of these items.
2. Make a gratitude jar.
It doesn't have to be a jar, it could be a box, a piggy bank, a bag, or anything that you like. Every day, write down at least one thing you're grateful for on a scrap of paper and put it into your jar. Pretty soon, the jar will be full of things you've remembered to feel grateful for. That jar can be an antidote on the days when you're feeling frustrated or disheartened--just open it and reread a few of your notes to remind yourself that you have lots to be grateful for.
3. Write a gratitude letter.
This is the most effortful but also the most powerful of gratitude practices. Sit down and write a letter, longhand or not, to someone you feel grateful to. It could even be an email. Say exactly why you're grateful to the recipient and also why you're grateful that this person is in your life. Talk about things this person has done that have helped you. This could be someone currently in your life or who used to be in your life or even someone who has passed on. If the person you're writing to is currently in your life, or if you'd like to renew contact, you can send the letter or even (for maximum impact) deliver it to the recipient in person. He or she will almost certainly feel grateful to you, creating a stronger bond and a virtuous cycle of gratitude.
Try any of these practices, or even all three, to bring more gratitude into your life. It will improve your mood and possibly your health. And it will help you stay mindful during these worrying times.