Tis the season of gratitude, love, joy.. .and well, stress. While this time of year is meant to be a slower time of year while connecting with loved ones near and far, it’s also a time of anxiety and overwhelm. Hosting Thanksgiving dinner, dealing with complicated family relationships and worrying about holiday shopping can all ramp up a person’s nervous system.
One of the most transformational realizations we can have in our lives is that stress is a subjective experience. Certainly the circumstances of our lives at a given point in time may be more or less objectively concerning or alarming through our common social lens. But ultimately, our experience of stress is determined only about 10% by what happens to us, with the other 90% coming from how we choose to react or respond to those events.
The glass that is both half-full and half-empty of water is a powerful, simple example. Both assessments are factually true. Which you choose is about your perspective. And your perspective plays a dominant role in your expectations and your habitual patterns of reaction/response to events. “Losing your job” may be a fact. Having a lot of financial limitations as an immediate result may be a fact. But the experience of devastating fear or excited opening to beginning a brand new, more fulfilling career is a choice. A perspective. One that will have dramatically different downstream effects on our bodies.
We train our dominant perspective in life by how we respond to more normal everyday events. If we cultivate the habit of focusing on predominantly negative or critical or disturbing aspects of our everyday lives, we are much more likely to do that when presented with major, unexpected events. We will choose the glass half-empty, a negative and more intense stress reaction, promoting a potent, ongoing sympathetic nervous system activation.
We can begin, however, to consciously choose to focus on positive, uplifting, supportive aspects of our everyday lives. From there, we can cultivate the habit of choosing a more empowering response in the face of unexpected events too. Over time, we learn to instinctively insert a pause between events and our reaction. When we create this gap, we are able to choose to respond in ways that are helpful vs. reacting immediately and mindlessly in ways that promote stress (and its damaging effects) in our bodies.
Many mindfulness practices can help to cultivate awareness and a more positive, uplifting perspective. The easiest, most approachable of these for many people is gratitude journaling. By taking a few minutes every day to purposefully focus our thoughts on what we appreciate, what we wish to celebrate and savor, we train our brain to look for and focus on this perspective more often. Ultimately, this enables us to choose to have less stress. The result? Lower stress hormones, more endorphins, less oxidative damage to the brain, better long-term cognitive function.
This holiday season, we encourage you to launch yourself into a life of gratitude. One of the simplest ways to do that is through a gratitude journal. Here’s how to begin this practice:
- Select your journal: Pick out a journal that visually stimulates you (you love how it looks!), or decorate an ordinary, inexpensive notebook with cherished pictures of people or things you love and care about. Make it personalized to you!
- Create your ritual: Choose a ritual to repeat every time you journal. Rituals implement a call to action and create meaning in mundane things. Most importantly, rituals create habits. Ritual ideas might be to light a candle or incense, turn on soft music, do a meditation before or after – something that brings you peace and calm.
- Choose your timing. Do you want to do daily Gratitude Journaling first thing in the morning after you awaken or last thing at night before you turn out the light. Either can work well! If you’re going to do a more elaborate ritual, then perhaps the timing would be in the evening before bed. Gratitude journaling can be simple – simply turning on some music in the morning and writing for 5 minutes is just as effective as a ritual that’s 30 minutes.
- Express Gratitude! Write down one very specific thing (e.g. person, pet, mindset, event, tool, opportunity) you are grateful for in this moment. Now list five detailed reasons why you are grateful for it. Be specific, not generic. Be vivid. Include enough detailed words to awaken warm, positive emotions about it. If you feel inspired, capture another target for your gratitude and at least 5 detailed reasons for your appreciation.
- Repeat. The goal is to thoroughly and richly experience gratitude for at least one thing every single day. You only need 8-10 minutes daily, but don’t skimp on how you do this. Writing it down is critical. Diving into the detail is critical. And repetition is critical. Put this commitment in your calendar or set a daily cell phone reminder if it will help you to prioritize this habit regularly. You will want to do this Every day in order to change your habitual stress response and reap significant long-term health benefits.
As this famous quote says “It’s not happiness that brings us gratitude, it’s gratitude that brings us happiness.” The season of Thanksgiving is a perfect time to create a life of gratitude and ultimately unconditional love and happiness.