Taking on Stress with Gratitude

Last week we talked about what stress is. This week we start to learn strategies for taking it on and using stress to help us grow instead of allowing it to derail us.

Quick Review:

  • Stress comes in all different shapes and sizes. 

  • Stress can be something that affects the physical body, the mental body, the emotional body, or all of the above. 

  • What causes distress in one person might not cause distress in another. 

  • Stress can be adaptive if we learn positive coping strategies that allow us to use the stressor as a challenge instead of a “distressor”.

All of that being said, here’s where the work begins. Warning: it will not be easy. It will not be comfortable. It will probably mean encountering habits that have held us together for a long time, or survival mechanisms that have made sure we are alive to see this moment. Know that you can stop whenever you want. You get to decide when you’ve had enough. You can look at all of these tools from an intellectual perspective and engage with them in a lived way when you feel ready.

So let’s go.

Strategy One is probably the kindest way in. It requires the least amount of discomfort. It’s Gratitude.

Gratitude is now this big buzz word in the wellness community, which like all things in the wellness boom, has its pros and cons. What does it mean to actually embody a lifestyle of gratitude though? It’s more than just writing down some words on a paper or shouting it out on social media, though bring attention to it can help to cultivate it. Gratitude also does not mean ignoring that things get challenging or that there are moments, sometimes large spans of time in life, that are truly distressing. This would be simply ignoring the reality of the world we live in. Things get hard. People can be mean. Life circumstances may change and leave you feeling utterly unstable. In our modern lives, gratitude means embracing the stressors and instead of deciding that they are a threat, treating them as challenges from which we can learn and grow. 

More than WHAT, say WHY. One of the most in alignment things that happened last weeks  was that my therapist gave me a gratitude journal. It filled my heart with so much joy because I felt like she saw me. We talked about the gratitude journal in a way that stemmed from the proven psychological benefits, which really gets me going because I want data to back up the things I do (side note: I know that some of the concepts I engage with seem very “hippie-dippy” but I promise you that I am very skeptical and do my due diligence by researching studies that support and refute that ideas that I write about. So, you can be sure that these ideas come from a basis of research, not just “I-think-it-feels-good”). It is incredibly important to state what you are grateful for, but even more important is the why you are grateful for it. The “why” engages the critical thinking mind which helps to bind concepts together more thoroughly. Essentially you are teaching yourself gratitude when you engage with it in a critical way. The “why” also takes us out of downward comparison, comparing ourselves to someone who has less than us, and puts into a mindset of true and heartfelt appreciation.

The “why” is a tool for reframing. Framing is the way that we present a situation or scenario. When we take the thing that is negatively impacting us and utilize the “why” in gratitude to reframe, we are allowing our brains to think about the stressor in a different way. 

Here’s how reframing works: You walk into work on Monday morning and immediately find out that a project you thought was due on Friday has it’s deadline pushed up to Wednesday EOD. It’s currently Monday. You’ve got two less day to work on it and an unimaginably full schedule the next few days. The sirens start ring in your internal body system and you being to respond to this stressor as a distressor. All of the physiological changes start to happen, accelerated breath and heart rate, sweaty palms, mind moving faster than you can even comprehend. Here’s the realness: The deadline is mostly likely not going to be moved back to Friday. These are your given circumstances. So, you either learn how to move inside of them or you don’t complete the project. Knowing this, reframe the deadline in your mind so that it becomes less terrifying and more of an advantage. I’m grateful that my deadline is pushed to Wednesday because it is teaching me how to more effectively manage my time and resources. This deadline is asking me to perform at a level that challenges me and as a result my team and I will grow. This deadline will also free up my Thursday and Friday so that I have more time to spend with my children and partner. 

What Attitude. Why is the why important? Because attitudes can be easily conditioned and almost every single thing we encounter, from people to ideas to situations, we have automatic attitudes about. The psychological understanding of attitude is different than when we say, “oh she has a big attitude” (ie. she is sassy). Attitude here is our automatic evaluation of something as favorable or unfavorable. Without even being cognizant of it, your brain has already determined whether or not everything you encounter is good or bad. Attitudes can heavily impact behavior. The things that are automatically embedded in you as unfavorable, you are less likely to do and visa versa. Here’s the thing: attitudes are incredibly easy to condition (aka learn). So, when you ask yourself to reframe things with the lens of gratitude, you are teaching yourself that even the most challenging situations are valuable. If your automatic attitude about something challenging is that it is unfavorable and you carry the heaviness of that around with you for your whole day, imagine the effects of learning a new attitude toward challenge. 

In multiple studies done in the last decade, gratitude has been proven to stimulate parts of the brain related to stress (the hippocampus and the HPA axis), and learning and decision making (the medial prefrontal cortex). These effects were not instantaneous but were lasting. Studies show that the main cause of this change is that attention is shifted away from negative emotions.Especially in depressed populations, negative emotions, mood, attitude, and affect, can be the overwhelming norm. By shifting attention off of the negative, we give ourselves the opportunity to reduce the symptoms of depression and anxiety. 

Gratitude makes us feel good. Seriously. Gratitude patterns of thinking stimulate the release of dopamine in the brain and the brain will attach itself to that dopamine release. Not only that, but gratitude also bolsters attention, determination, energy, optimism and enthusiasm. Many times, when things are stressing us out, we fall can start to spiral and feel hopeless or overwhelmed or unable to act or we lose our ability to think clearly. Gratitude is a tool to help rewire the brain from those maladaptive thinking and behavioral patterns to ones that will take stressors and turn them into opportunities for growth. So, what are you grateful for and why?

Next up on stress: exposure.