Start a gratitude journal to ease stress
Welcome to week 3 of Walking on Mom Mornings, a morning routine to start your day with less stress, including this week’s tips for showing you how to keep a gratitude journal and why you’d want to. In the first week, I outlined a morning routine to help me beat the stress of waking up to kids screaming demands at me. Last week, I interviewed yoga and meditation guru Amber Spear who shared how this focus on our breath can turn our stressed and anxious mind into a calmer state to create the perfect foundation for your day.
If you missed it, you can sign up here to get your FREE 16-minute calming meditation.
This week we will take a look at gratitude and how just a few minutes of writing those things for which you are grateful can transform your day and even your outlook.
When I went into therapy for the first time to deal with anxiety and panic disorder, a part of my healing practice was learning to see myself and my life in new ways. I couldn’t see myself as worthy of love, deep friendships, family connections. I couldn’t trust that I had anything of value to offer.
My therapist asked me to read Sarah Ban Breathnach’s Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy. Part of this “assignment” involved me writing down things I was grateful for. I needed to practice looking at myself, the people and things around me, and finding something positive, something to give me strength when I felt I had none.
Here is what I have found, what science has found.
Gratitude journaling can:
- Help your depression, anxiety and stress
- Give you a deeper understanding of yourself
- Change negative thought patterns
- Give you perspective to deal with problems
- Remind you of positivity when times are tough
- Give you a happier outlook on life
Gratitude and depression and anxiety
This first introduction to a practice of gratitude journaling was 15 years ago, and the copy of my book is packed away, but I have very clear memories of how stumped I felt. I couldn’t always think of things to be thankful for and I grew tired of seeing myself write: Mom, dad, sister, grandparents. I had to stretch myself, be more thoughtful.
After a while I started to see small things I could also appreciate. My roommate making me a tasty cup of coffee. My pants still buttoning after I binged a tub of Cherry Garcia. Little by little I grew more comfortable seeing the things in my life for which to feel gratitude. Smaller and simpler things gave way to the more complex feelings. It was like waking up to a new world.
When I had a day that was more dark than light, I could read over those things and see “OK, I don’t feel it now, but I felt it before, I can feel it again.”
Over the years, as I bob in and out of my self-help modes, I always return to gratitude. It is an easy practice with intense results.
Going deeper into gratitude
If you can see the value in acknowledging the graces in your life, big and small, you can really open up the power by taking it one step further.
Write down something you are grateful for, but then write a few words about why. Why are you grateful for your morning tea before the kids get up? Does it give you time to recharge? Can you actually taste it rather than gulping it down? Understanding the why of gratitude can help us understand ourselves so much better.
Of course, we think we have a sense of who we are, what we like and why. But sometimes, when we are rushed, stressed, depressed or anxious, part of what blocks our efforts at healing is that we forget what has helped us before. When we look back over our notes and we remember “oh god yes, I really loved how this one thing gave me peace, or made me laugh, maybe I need more of that it my life.” We go a bit deeper. In a way it’s like we are writing our very own, deeply personal self-help guide.
Gratitude for changing negative thoughts
Once you can articulate the why of your gratitude list, maybe you can experiment. Maybe you can challenge yourself to find gratitude in something with which you are struggling.
Think back over the previous days. Was there something going on that drove you nuts, had you steaming? For example, your husband has an incessant need to research for a week which $5 part you should buy to fix that thing that keeps breaking and bonking everyone in the head. Write this down and then see if you can find something in the situation for which you are grateful. Are you grateful to have a thoughtful and thorough husband who doesn’t mind spending his time finding just the right thing.
When we spend time being annoyed, we tend to generate more annoyance and frustration. We carry it around with us and it colors everything. If we can see that annoyance and then take a different view, turn it just a bit and find something to feel even the smallest bit grateful for, we can begin to change these negative thought patterns.
Gratitude for problem solving
Or maybe you can examine something more emotional. Your friend hurt your feelings and you are ruminating about it, you feel uncomfortable talking or getting together. Take a few minutes to write. It can give your mind ideas for dealing with a difficult situation. In this example, you may end up writing something like: I’m grateful for my friend who has been there for me through everything even when I screwed up. Even though they hurt my feelings I know they didn’t mean to.
You may not feel the power of this in the moment you write it, but you have just given your mind another story around which it can think. Our minds, as we saw in this video from this adorable monk (can I say that a monk is adorable?), they can bounce around and cling to ideas. And if we wallow in our challenges, we point our mind there. If we give our mind this other thought, we can start to let go of some hurt or frustration and begin to heal ourselves. We can see this power used in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and one very helpful resource for this is a book called Mind Over Mood:Change How You Feel by Changing the Way You Think.
Gratitude for a happier life
Our thoughts are tricky buggers. We may not even realize the undercurrent of fear and sadness swirling around in there. But when we take the time to examine our thoughts, particularly through gratitude, there is a hugely powerful benefit.
Research has shown that study participants who kept a gratitude journal reported more positive mood and greater life satisfaction and even improved sleep (choirs sing!) than the groups that had neutral thoughts.
How to keep a gratitude journal
The cool thing about keeping a gratitude journal is that you can do it anywhere, with whatever you have on hand. Pen and paper? Fancy notebook? Backside of a grocery list? An app? Pick a method that feels most like you (I always seem to come back to a notebook and pen) and see how it goes.
As for when to journal, the best time for me is in the morning. Otherwise, the day gets too long and too crazy and I fall over in bed, too tired to hold a pen.
On a really good morning, I will wake up about a half hour or so before my kids, stretch with about 10-20 minutes of yoga, watch my breath, otherwise known as beginners meditation, for about 5-10 minutes and then I pull out my journal. On a regular morning, when I’m too tired for that stuff, I roll out of bed when my kids tell me to and while they are eating I take out my journal.
All this to say, you don’t have to be perfect or zenned out to do this. You can do it wherever, whenever. It works better when you have at least a few minutes to consider your thoughts and where your heart is. In the middle of refereeing the latest LEGO battles may not be the time.
Why bother with a written gratitude journal?
What I believe the daily practice does, at least in the beginning, is to create a tangible habit. Whether you believe that takes 21 days or two months to create new habits, the truth is that habits can be created. Reactions can be cultivated. You can, with keeping a gratitude journal, develop a powerful tool to help you feel better and see your world in a more positive way, simply by observing what you already have around you.
What is the power of writing it down? Does it have the same effect if you just think about it? Back to the monkey mind, I suspect. Writing something down helps us to focus our minds. When we think about one thing, our mind wanders off into a million more things. So I recommend writing your gratitudes down somewhere you can get to it easily. As time goes on, and you keep up with your gratitude journal, you may find that you are able to use thoughts of gratitude throughout the day. Hello traffic jam.
So, go forth and scribble, and let me know how it goes.
If you are following along with this series, I would love to know if you plan to add gratitude journaling to your routine. Are you finding, or better yet making, the time to get yourself started on the right foot in the morning?
Next week, in the last installment of the Walking on Mom Mornings series, we’ll end with some protein-packed recipes that are quick and easy and will give you lots of strength for your day. It’s perfect for someone who just took the time to do all of this yoga, meditating and journaling business.
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