How to Be Mindful When You’re Anxious

The world really wants us to count our blessings. News articles and blog posts tout the many benefits of gratitude, from improved health to better sleep and happier moods. Entrepreneurs and business behemoths like Oprah Winfrey swear by gratitude journals as a solution to stress and the secret to their success. Celebrities and Instagram influencers alike anoint their social media posts with the hashtag #blessed.

But practicing gratitude doesn’t come naturally to everyone—myself included. For one thing, the thought of keeping a gratitude journal can sound like a chore, another to-do item in my already Type A lifestyle.

Even worse is the feeling of being bad at gratitude, when we’re too grumpy or anxious or sad to focus on the good in our lives. I hear the same thing from clients and friends, many of whom are caught in the self-defeating cycle of thinking, How can I fail at something so simple as being grateful?

If you’re someone who cringes at the thought of keeping a gratitude journal, it doesn’t mean you’re a jerk who takes good things for granted. Gratitude practices are not one-size-fits-all, and trying to box yourself into a system that feels forced will lead you to feel worse, not better. Instead, you may need a more pragmatic practice—and to get creative about self-reflection so it better serves your personal style.

Why practicing gratitude can be a challenge

Gratitude can be especially hard when things get tough. Life is not roses and sunshine all the time, and a single news sound bite can quickly remind you of the violence, political upheaval, and natural disasters going on all around the world.

Add personal challenges or work anxiety to the mix, and you’re likely to be too overwhelmed and stressed out to do a complete 180 turn to focus only on the good. Forcing yourself to do so makes gratitude feel inauthentic—more like the homework that you dreaded in fifth grade rather than an exercise meant to enhance your happiness.

We all have different needs when it comes our well-being. Take Elena Mihajloska, who discovered that a gratitude journal didn’t work for her. It wasn’t the act of journaling that was the problem; it was the focus of her attention. She was still going through her days paralyzed by fear, unable to let go of obsessive thoughts. Now, instead of chronicling gratitude, she writes down her fears, which disempowers them. It’s the exercise that her mind needs, whereas a gratitude practice wasn’t.

Strike a balance

For many people, developing an authentic way to practice gratitude involves acknowledging positive and negative emotions equally, rather than trying to use gratitude to mute out unpleasant or painful feelings.

Learning to embrace negative emotions is healthy, and studies show that people who ignore negative emotions experience more distress. Those who learn to cope with difficult emotions, on the other hand, build mental strength and resilience. If a gratitude practice is being used as a shield that allows you to ignore painful feelings or serious problems, it’s almost certainly having a net negative effect.

Anxious skeptics, try this gratitude exercise

The following mindfulness exercise is one that has worked for me. I affectionately refer to it as “gratitude for people who hate gratitude.” Over the years, I’ve discovered different variations of it, like High, Low, and Interesting and Rose, Thorn, Bud. Each operates on the same core principle: to acknowledge the things that went wrong and that there is room for improvement tomorrow, while taking note of the high moments, too.

You might do this exercise with your family around the dinner table. Or you might practice it solo as a way to “close up shop” at the end of your work day and transition into downtime. If you prefer a ritual in the morning, you can try it when you first wake up and apply it to the previous day’s events.

To complete the exercise, answer these three questions:

  • Daily High – What was the “high point” of your day?
  • Daily Low – What was your “low point” of the day? Importantly, what could you improve upon for next time?
  • Daily Hero moment – What did you feel proud of today? Alternatively, who was a “hero” to you today?

Embracing negative emotions? Check. Expressing gratitude? Check. Room to grow tomorrow? That too.

You don’t have to call it a gratitude practice, if that still makes you want to run for the hills. It’s more a reflection—a balanced way to take stock of the okay, the great, and the to-be-improved.

© 2017 Melody Wilding // originally published on Quartz.

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