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!