Why I Finally Started Gratitude Journaling + What It’s Taught Me About Managing Anxiety

Why I Finally Started Gratitude Journaling + What It's Taught Me About Managing Anxiety | Inspired by fellow creatives, I finally jumped on the bandwagon and added gratitude journaling to my morning routine. And I'm so glad I did! But even though the practice has helped to reduce my anxiety and bring more joy to my days, it has also taught me that the relationship between gratitude and anxiety is more complicated than I originally thought.

I recently started a gratitude journal, and oh my gosh, you guys.

But before I launch into a discussion of the many benefits I’ve experienced, I should point out that I was initially pretty hesitant to adopt this practice. I participate in a number of online communities for writers, bloggers, and entrepreneurs (hey, a girl can dream), and even though it seems like everyone in these groups is constantly singing the praises of gratitude journaling, the whole thing sounded a little too “kumbaya” for me at first.

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Let’s all gather ’round the campfire, friends, and write in our gratitude journals!

Plus, being the recovering perfectionist that I am, I was always concerned that I would, like, do it wrong or something. I puzzled over questions such as How many things should I write about each day? Should I use numbered lists, bullet points, or paragraphs?  Do I simply state the name of the thing I’m grateful for, or do I write a brief description of why I’m thankful for it? Can I repeat items, or do I have to come up with unique entries every day? And so on and so forth until I began to wonder how I manage to accomplish anything on a regular basis.

So in summary, between the perceived cheese factor and the Great Formatting Dilemma of 2016, I avoided jumping on the gratitude journal bandwagon for quite some time. More specifically, I avoided it until I started feeling like my morning routine was missing something.

I’ve discussed morning routines here before and how overhauling mine has improved my mood and ability to handle stress in so many ways. For example, getting up extra early allows me to savor some quiet time and gear up for a full day of people-ing (#introvertproblems), and engaging in an activity I love (like yoga or writing) first thing gives me the energy I need to tackle the not-so-fun items on my to-do list later on. But even though my morning routine has greatly improved over the past few months, I felt that it was time to take things a step further. Everything I was doing was very “me”-focused, and I wanted to incorporate something that would turn my attention outward a bit more–to others and to the world around me.

Then I read Kate Wilkinson’s post Why I Write a Gratitude Journal (And You Should Too), and I couldn’t resist jumping on the bandwagon any longer. Kate helps creative entrepreneurs turn their passion into a successful business, so her take on gratitude journaling was very practical and actionable. I loved how she described the practice as a tool for “training your brain” to appreciate the goodness in your life right now–even as you strive to achieve bigger and better things in the future. Plus, she totally annihilated my lame excuses and resolved the Great Formatting Dilemma by providing a free downloadable template. I’ve since deviated from this outline a bit as I’ve grown in my own journaling style, but it was totally the jumpstart I needed to initially get going.

So now every morning, before I dive into writing or exercising or any of my other pursuits, I pause, pull out my notebook and pen, and reflect on three things I’m feeling especially thankful for that day. Sometimes these are Big Important Things, like my faith or my family or a recent experience that really moved me. Other times they’re silly little things, like the cup of coffee I’m drinking as I write. (Actually, most mornings it’s the coffee, but I force myself to write about something else instead so that my journal doesn’t turn into one long Ode to the Greatest Beverage on Earth.) 

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How do I love thee? Let me count the ways…

I also jot down my prayer intentions for the day, since my prayer life has definitely gone down the toilet this past year and this is part of my effort to fish it back out. (But that’s a whole other post for another day.)

And you know what, guys?

The results have been amazing. Team Kumbaya all the way. I’m considering making t-shirts, really.*

Taking just a few minutes to deliberately practice gratitude each morning truly impacts my mindset throughout the entire day. For one thing, I simply notice more of the blessings in my life–and for someone who’s constantly lost in the La La Land of her own thoughts, this is a big deal. Simply observing the many good things in my life brings me back to the present moment much in the same way that repeating a mantra does. Instead of being haunted by worries of what might go wrong, or enticed by daydreams of how much better things could be, I’m able to focus on what actually is. And more often than not, this reality offers a number of blessings, even if I have to dig through some pain and disappointment in order to unearth them.

Secondly, when I truly appreciate something, I tend to treat it with a bit more care and respect. This has proven especially important when it comes to the people in my life. When I consciously think about how grateful I am to know them–and, conversely, what my life might be like without them–I’m much more likely to seek ways to better love and support them, to truly cherish our time together, and to overlook small annoyances in favor of giving them the benefit of the doubt.

All of this kumbaya business got me thinking about whether starting a gratitude journal sooner would have benefitted my anxiety recovery process–or even prevented my anxiety from getting so out of control in the first place. Of course, I’ll never know for sure, but what I realized is that the relationship between anxiety and gratitude is more complicated than a simple “increase gratitude, decrease anxiety” formula. Based on my own experiences, I think it’s possible to be so deep in an anxiety disorder that truly appreciating anything is nearly impossible, and other steps must first be taken to reign in the fear and apprehension and create space for gratitude.

Six months or a year ago, when my anxiety was at its worst, I could rattle off all the “blessings” in my life like a kid reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in school. I knew that I had a roof over my head and food in my fridge and people who loved me, and at least on an intellectual level, I recognized that for those things, I should be grateful. Yet thinking about what I should be thankful for didn’t do anything to ease my anxiety; in fact, at my lowest points, it only made everything worse. It made me feel both intensely guilty for being unappreciative and totally alienated from everyone else who was able to experience genuine gratitude. I truly think that I needed to get to a certain point in my recovery process before a practice like gratitude journaling had a place. I needed to take medication and get all those neurotransmitters back in order. I needed to see a therapist who could help me give my ugly thought patterns a much-needed makeover. And I needed to allow my exhausted body and brain to soak up some genuine rest. All of these steps have enabled me to feel something other than worried, isolated, guilty, and hopeless.

And for that, I couldn’t be more thankful.

Have you ever tried gratitude journaling (or any other method of practicing gratitude)? Share your experiences in the comments below!

*Darn, it looks as though someone beat me to it.

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Managing Anxiety: 5 (More) Strategies That Have Worked for Me

Managing Anxiety: 5 (More) Strategies That Have Worked for Me | Strategies such as getting more sleep and drinking less coffee can help keep anxiety at bay.

In my last post, I discussed five strategies, such as taking medication and seeing a therapist, that have helped me manage anxiety in the months since I was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). Today I have five additional tactics to share, this time focused on daily lifestyle modifications.

  1. Overhauling my sleep schedule. Thanks to a combination of evening classes, a heavy workload, and my natural night owl tendencies, I essentially morphed into a semi-nocturnal zombie during grad school. Based on my sleep habits in high school and college, though, I know that I typically feel my best when I go to bed and wake up on the earlier side. So this summer, I have made a concerted effort not only to get more sleep, but also to sleep during the hours when I seem to benefit from it the most. Though challenging, these changes have truly paid off. I find that when I’m well-rested, I’m better able to keep minor problems and inconveniences in perspective rather allowing them to overwhelm me and completely derail my day. When my mind is clear and focused, I can accomplish more in less time and approach challenges with greater patience and creativity. And by golly, when I don’t spend my entire day eagerly awaiting the moment I get to crawl back in bed, life is just a lot more fun.
  2. Restructuring my morning routine. Now that I’m waking up considerably earlier than before, my morning routine has gone from frantic to focused and from exhausting to energizing. Not surprisingly, having sufficient time to shower/get ready at a comfortable pace and eat an actual breakfast–sometimes even while sitting at an actual table–has helped to minimize a great deal of chaos. But even more importantly, building in a bit of “me” time to work on a writing project or other creative endeavor before the craziness of the day sets in has paid off immensely. Until recently, I thought that this idea sounded not only unrealistic but also totally indulgent–have fun before the sun rises? Start my day off with my want-to-do list rather than my have-to-do list? Ain’t nobody got time for that! But after listening to a series of podcasts about optimizing morning routines (by Jeff Sanders of The 5 AM Miracle), I realized that I could make time for these activities and that doing so could positively impact numerous areas of my life. When I indulge my creative side in the early hours, I actually look forward to getting out of bed, feel more energized throughout the day, and dread the challenging or unpleasant items on my to-do list a little bit less. And my anxiety, which is typically fueled by feeling overwhelmed and out of control, is greatly lessened by this daily dose of intention and self-care.
  3. Drinking less coffee. Y’all, y’all, y’all. Coffee is my spirit animal. I love the taste, the smell, the feeling of holding a warm mug in my hands, and the excitement of trying new varieties and exploring different cafes. So when I realized that my beloved beverage was causing me some problems (such as nasty withdrawal headaches if I didn’t have my usual fix), my feelings of betrayal were worthy of an Adele power ballad. Since the thought of trying to break a caffeine addiction amidst the craziness of school and work was far too daunting, I decided to wait until after graduation to do anything about it. And since I couldn’t bear the thought of giving up coffee entirely, I chose instead to cut back to one cup in the mornings. I eliminated my afternoon java by gradually transitioning from half caf to decaf to no coffee at all, and after surviving an initial rough patch (thank goodness for extra strength Tylenol!), I found that my energy levels and mood noticeably stabilized and my usual “after dinner” headache seemed to disappear. Perhaps one day I’ll decide to eliminate my morning cup as well, but for now, I plan to savor it with all my might.
  4. Practicing yoga on a regular basis. I started doing yoga in the 7th grade and continued practicing until I injured my shoulder during my junior year of college. The long, frustrating process of recovering from this incident has included surgery, several rounds of physical therapy, a boatload of rest, and even a semester of wheeling a bright green rolling book bag around campus and totally bringing sexy back. Then, several months ago, I was finally feeling strong enough to roll out my mat again and try a few poses. I experienced some stiffness in my shoulder but no pain, so I gradually began practicing more frequently and for longer periods of time. And oh, how good it feels to be back! The deep stretches help to relieve the tension that tends to accumulate in my neck and back when I’m anxious, and the emphasis on mindfulness helps me to focus on the present rather than letting my thoughts run away with worries and worst-case scenarios.
  5. Getting lost in a funny, heartwarming story. I’m not much of a TV watcher, but for some reason I took it upon myself to watch all seven seasons of Gilmore Girls on Netflix this summer. As I sit here in the post-finale slump, counting down the days until the revival series premieres in November, I can look back at all the ways in which the show has proven to be an unexpected blessing in my recovery process. Sometimes it simply provided a much-needed laugh or distraction from my problems, whereas other times it hit close to home and challenged me to see situations in my own life in a new light. But most of all, watching a cast of generally lovable and well-meaning characters navigate the challenges of life reminded me that it’s okay to be human. It’s okay to mess up, to have an “off” day (or to just take a day off), and to have doubts and questions even when you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be. (How’s that for a binge-watching justification?) 

And that’s a wrap! As always, I’d love to hear from you, so please leave any questions or comments below!

 

 

The Metaphor of the Mountain: Overcoming the Fear of Discomfort

The Metaphor of the Mountain: Overcoming the Fear of Discomfort | My first hiking experience taught me a lot about the "mountains" we face in everyday life.

Recently, while visiting relatives in California, I was invited to accompany several family members on a Sunday morning hike along the coast. To a native of flat, land-locked Indiana like myself, this opportunity was highly appealing–at least in theory. In reality, though, I am afraid of heights and really out of shape (a winning combination!). So my mind flickered back and forth between visions of me 1) toppling off a cliff and taking an unintended dip in the Pacific and 2) being (quite literally) left in the dust by my loved ones. My cousin, an experienced hiker, reassured me that the trail wasn’t as narrow and risky as it looked (!) and that we could stop and rest whenever I needed to do so. Despite her encouraging words, though, I was preparing to decline the offer–until at the last minute, something made me change my mind. Maybe it was a profound moment of bravery, or maybe it was a sugar high from the donut I had just eaten for breakfast. Whatever it was, whether pastry or perseverance, I decided to give it a go.

We weren’t far up the path before I went into Deep Life Reflection Mode and realized that my reasons for hesitating had run far deeper than concerns about my safety or physical fitness level. As my legs burned and my heart pounded and the people and objects at sea level seemed to shrink beneath my feet, I realized that what I had truly dreaded was discomfort: the discomfort of feeling my body struggle to make the climb after so many months of inactivity, of appearing weak and slow in front of my fitter family members, of not knowing for sure what lie ahead on the trail and if I would be able to make it, of wishing things were different or maybe that I were different–stronger, braver, more adventurous–and most of all, of feeling all these things and, with no distractions at my disposal, actually having to face them.

And you know what? This ain’t a fairy tale, and all of these discomforts were, in fact, present during the hike. It hurt. I was slow. I didn’t know what to expect at any given moment. In between gasps for air, I thought about how my life right now is so different from the way I had envisioned it as a child, a teenager, and even a college student. And there was nothing to take my mind off it all–it was just me and the mountain. But I did it anyway. And at the top, I got to share the victory (and the amazing view) with wonderful people who didn’t think any less of me for being Poky McWinded. 

When I told my therapist about the experience, I remarked that I can now truly appreciate why mountains are so often used as metaphors, and she and I proceeded to dissect the wealth of symbolism inherent in my own rocky adventure. (It turns out that you can take the girl out of AP English class, but you can’t take the AP English class out of the girl.) We discussed the obstacles that I had overcome, both literally and figuratively, as well as the new perspective I gained at the summit, when everything that had once seemed big and insurmountable was suddenly much smaller. I then asked her for advice on how to better handle discomfort, whether physical, mental, or emotional, moving forward. My aversion to leaving my comfort zone was my own personal “mountain,” and although I thankfully hadn’t let it prevent me from joining in on the hike, I had let it rob me of plenty of experiences in the past. Was it possible, I wondered, to get more comfortable with being uncomfortable?

She replied that although none of us will probably ever reach a point where we enjoy or intentionally seek out unpleasant situations, there are steps we can take to reduce the amount of distress we experience when we inevitably face these circumstances. Although it may seem counterintuitive, one of these tactics is leaning into the discomfort rather than pushing it away and attempting to find a distraction. She encouraged me to “stay curious” and explore what my discomfort could be signaling (e.g., an unmet need), since unpleasant emotions are essentially just indicators that something is amiss. She also urged me to let go of any expectations associated with the discomfort. In other words, rather than anticipating the countless negative outcomes that could arise and creating unnecessary anxiety (one of my many talents!), I should instead focus on what I can control, i.e., my thoughts and actions in the present moment. 

Leaning into discomfort and letting go of expectations will no doubt be a lifelong journey, but I am thankful for this clarity regarding the first steps. Reflecting back on the hike in light of my therapist’s advice, I can now see that my discomfort was signaling a mix of self-consciousness, disappointment, and a desire for belonging and acceptance. I created unnecessary anxiety by assuming that I wouldn’t be up to the task, that I would be judged for it, and that somehow these things would diminish my worth. My goal now is to perform this mini-analysis in the moment, before I let anxiety speak too loudly and before I let fear talk me into playing it safe. And whenever I’m feeling discouraged, I can mentally return to that mountaintop, with a sunny valley on one side and the foggy Pacific on the other, and remember what I’m capable of, discomfort and all.

Letting the Journey Unfold: How Living in the Moment Can Reduce Anxiety

Letting the Journey Unfold: How Living in the Moment Can Reduce Anxiety | It's incredibly freeing to let go of what we can't control and deal with each moment as it comes. Here's how I put these ideas into practice one night when things weren't going as planned--and ended up having a spectacular time.

It’s rough being both a night owl and a morning person.

On one hand, I relish the peace and promise of the morning, and on the other hand, I crave the depth and darkness of the night. Both are times when my creativity soars and I can imagine that I have the world all to myself. (No offense to, like, other people and stuff. I’m just an introvert; being alone is my jam.) Honestly, the afternoon hours are the ones I dislike the most; if I could hit the fast-forward button from approximately 1 pm to 5 pm each day, I’d be totally set. Reading an engrossing novel until 2 or 3 am? Yes, please. Sipping coffee with the sunrise? Count me in. Anything at 3 pm? No, no, and no. I’ve found some ways to lessen the sting of this long, harrowing trek from lunch to dinner (such as drinking lots of water and tea or taking a quick yoga break), but it’s still by far the worst part of the day. Perhaps we Americans could take it a step further and jump on the siesta bandwagon? Is that a political issue we could all get behind? #adultnaptime2k16

Anyway, so here I am, running on a grand total of 4 hours and 15 minutes of sleep, actually enjoying an early-morning writing session before work. My eyes are a bit puffy, and my mind is a tad slow, but the stillness and solitude are totally worth it. The reason that I was out so late last night was that I attended a concert in Indianapolis with my mom and sisters–although it might be more accurate to say that we kind of attended a concert, or that we attempted to attend a concert. First, we arrived at the outdoor venue only to find that the show was being postponed indefinitely due to the severe thunderstorms in the forecast. Then, although there was hardly a drop of rain during the entire 2-hour delay, it started pouring once the concert finally began, and lightning struck in the distance. So we stayed for a bit and then headed out before the final act.

But despite everything, I had a truly wonderful time, and I don’t think the enjoyable experience was an accident, either. I consciously tried to avoid my knee-jerk response of worry, regret, and negativity and react in a more positive and productive manner. Instead of panicking about how late the show would start or whether we would get caught in a bad storm on the drive home, instead of beating myself up for not monitoring the weather more closely or calling the venue ahead of time, instead of mourning the loss of the money we spent on the tickets or the time we spent waiting, I tried, as my therapist would say, to “let the journey unfold.”

Although this mantra sounds like one of those cheesy phrases you might find printed on the inside of a Dove chocolate wrapper, it’s also one of the hardest things anyone has ever challenged me to do. I don’t want things to happen to me–I want to happen to things! I don’t want to go with the flow–I want to be the force driving the current! I don’t want to “let the journey unfold”–I want to make checklists and itineraries and read reviews on TripAdvisor first!

But when we arrived at the venue and were informed of the delay, I saw disappointment creep across the faces of my two younger sisters and realized that I would play an important role in determining how the rest of the night would go. I could react how I normally did and plant the seeds of worry and negativity in those around me, or I could try to relax and look on the bright side and hope that ease and gratitude would flourish instead. Wanting to choose the latter, I smiled at them and said, “Well, there’s not really much we can do to change the situation. We’ll simply have to let the journey unfold.” I said this with a hint of sarcasm, poking fun at my own propensity to whip out the cheesy mantra at every opportunity. But I also said it as a serious reminder to myself to let go of things I can’t control (like the weather) and focus my energy on the here and now, come what may.

And you know what? It wasn’t all rainbows and butterflies–we saw about an hour total of the show, missed the main headliner, paid twice as much as we were expecting for parking, and may have ruined a few pairs of shoes–but as I mentioned earlier, we had a darn good time overall. While we waited, we munched on the snacks we had packed, played the Head’s Up app on my sister’s phone, and generally distracted ourselves with talk and goofiness. And once the show finally started, we sang and danced and let the rain soak us through and smear our make-up and ruin our hairdos. It turns out that the great thing about living in the moment is that, bad or good, comfortable or uncomfortable, you only have the that moment to be concerned about. You don’t have to re-live all the ugly things that happened in the past or anticipate all the potential disasters that could arise in the future. You can focus on appreciating the joys and dealing with the troubles of the present–and the present only. Letting the journey unfold can be scary and unnatural at first, but it can also be incredibly rewarding and freeing.

So there you have it: morning reflections on late-night adventures. I’ve got to leave for work now, but who knows? Maybe if I take things one moment at a time, even 3 pm today won’t be so bad. 🙂