Kicking the Anxiety Habit: Attuning to Gratitude

In my previous post I introduced a first step to Kicking the Anxiety Habit with a meditation aimed at bringing ease and calm. When anxiety intensifies, our nervous system kicks into high gear, as if we are in a life threatening situation. There are times when this is, of course, critical, but what we’re focusing on here are those times when our life circumstances are challenging and not life threatening. Times when it would behoove us to think clearly and act consciously, but instead we continue to return to the habit of anxiety. When this is true for you, it is absolutely necessary to develop practices that speak directly to your nervous system, sending a message that you are safe and not in need of a fight, flight, or freeze response. For most of us, kicking the anxiety habit will require a consistent commitment to a practice of ease, working as a constant reminder that you are OK and can slow down and choose how to respond.

The second step to Kicking the Anxiety Habit is attuning to gratitude. This step trains us to transform our thoughts and strengthen inner resources. When caught up in anxiety, our thoughts often spin out of control on themes that don’t serve us. We might continue an argument searching for the perfect words to prove a point or fantasize about worst case scenarios as though they’ve already come to pass. When our thoughts are spinning like this, the physical and emotional symptoms of anxiety can skyrocket.

The good news is that, even though anxiety can seem to be inevitable or out of our control, we have the ability to transform this entire sequence of events. It takes determination and commitment. It is absolutely not easy. And it is doable and transformational. Are you willing?

If so the next step is attuning to gratitude. Just as anxious thoughts will shorten our breath, send our hearts racing, and our muscles into action, thoughts of gratitude cause breath to deepen, hearts to open, and muscles to relax. We instigate feelings of pleasure simply by focusing on gratitude. We know that our thoughts shape our bodies, so this part of the work is about attuning our thoughts towards a relaxed, happy, and courageous body.

When put into words, it seems so simple, yet as so many of us know, the practice of attuning to gratitude can feel terribly difficult. When life is truly challenging and we really don’t know how we’re going to get through challenging circumstances, it may seem like there is nothing there to be grateful for. This is when we have to go for the most simple things. Even in the most challenging times, there are tiny, brief moments of pleasure worthy of gratitude. It might be the comfort felt when a stranger smiles our way, the excitement felt when the perfect parking spot is available in a busy city neighborhood, or the warmth of sunshine on our face after a bout of rain.

One of the most humbling experiences in my life was witnessing women in The Democrat Republic of Congo, living amidst an ongoing war, express gratitude for each other, for their doctors, and for the joy they felt singing and dancing in a community of women. There is the potential of both pain and joy within each of us and this practice is about strengthening the experience of joy. In the next step of this series, I will focus on the reality of our life situations and the mix of emotions that arise. We focus on gratitude first because it is a resource that will allow us to acknowledge more painful feelings without getting stuck.

I want to take a moment to explore what it means to be in a practice of gratitude. What I want for you is to have an experience of surrendering into gratitude in such a way that you feel a change in your body, your emotions shift, and you evoke thoughts that are kind and perhaps even hopeful.

Begin your practice by tuning into your breath. See if you can feel the rise and fall of each breath, slowly deepening inhales and exhales. Then bring to your minds eye a moment you have gratitude for. Put yourself back into that moment. What did you see or hear in that moment? Was there a smell or a taste? How did your body respond? Can you feel your breath, your heart beat, your muscles? And what emotions were evoked? Breath this moment in and exhale it out. Stay with it until you feel yourself soften fully into the moment, and then take another breath. Let it wash over you. Now see if there is another moment you can attune to and repeat the process. Continue until you are complete.

This practice is best when done daily. When we consistently attune to feelings of gratitude, it becomes easier for our thoughts to simply return here of their own accord. I often suggest beginning or ending your day by breathing in your gratitudes. You can simply bring them to your minds eye, you can use a journal, or, one great and free resource is this program that sends the question daily to your email inbox: What are you grateful for? To kick start your practice, go to grateful160.com!

I’m looking forward to hearing your gratitudes! The practice intensifies when it is witnessed so post them here or come in for a face to face somatic session.

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