How Gratitude helps anxiety and stress

Anxiety and stress can feel overwhelming and all-consuming when you experience them. Those spiralling thoughts can be a tricky beast to manage and we want you to know that you’re not alone.

Stress and anxiety are complex topics but gratitude can go some way to alleviating their effects. Whether you feel routinely tense and stressed out, are gripped by feelings of doom, gloom, and dread, or find you often catastrophize, gratitude can help you find a way out.

If you have an anxiety or stress disorder, gratitude can also be used alongside medical treatment, medication and professional advice.

Here are just a few ways practising gratitude is beneficial for stress and anxiety…

It trains your brain to find the positives

Stress and anxiety all start with one thing: A negative thought. This negative thought attracts more negative thoughts and as these negative thoughts grow and grow, we become increasingly agitated and overwhelmed.

Over time, however, you are able to habitually focus on the positives by establishing a regular gratitude habit: whether that means keeping a gratitude journaling or quickly thinking of three things you’re grateful for when stressful emotions start to arise.

What’s more, according to research, gratitude can also promote positive self-talk and self-image. It empowers you to not only find positives in the world around you but also, within yourself.

It can offer a positive distraction

You may have heard that you can’t be grateful and stressed at the same time. When we focus intently on the feeling of gratitude, we block out negative emotions like stress, overwhelm, worry and fear. This can stop spiralling thoughts in their tracks and may challenge our fight, flight, or freeze response.

Scientists call this Habit Reversal Training. This process encourages you to complete an action that is incompatible with the habit you’re trying to break. For example, if you compulsively pick at your skin, you could try clasping your hands together to fight the urge.

It’s the same with gratitude and anxiety. When you feel the onset of stress and anxiety, you can ground yourself by jotting down something – anything – you’re grateful for.

It releases toxic emotions

Research shows that gratitude increases neural activity in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, the part that regulates negative emotions. That means you can keep feelings of stress and anxiety at bay and prevent them from spiralling out of control. It might be the very thing you need when you feel that niggling sense of unease hit.

As well as regulating negative emotions, when you practice gratitude your brain also releases a surge of dopamine: a hormone that produces a natural high. In a moment of stress, this switch from cortisol (a stress hormone) to dopamine can be enough to ensure you regain composure.

Gratitude improves stress management

Whether it’s a looming deadline or a growing list of to-dos, most of us experience stress in our day-to-day lives, but gratitude is shown to help us build a more resilient relationship with it. In fact, a study on gratitude and appreciation found that people who felt grateful had lower levels of cortisol. Or in other words, they could manage their stress more effectively. 

Add to that, they were better able to manage emotional setbacks and were less affected by negative experiences. It’s important to note that gratitude doesn’t eradicate stress from our lives. There’ll always be stressors that need our attention. What it can do is ensure we’re better able to manage those challenges in a way that’s cool, calm and collected. 

It helps you manage expectations

Anxiety often occurs when our expectations are not met. We feel fearful, worried and unhappy when we perceive that life isn’t going the way we want it to. You might also feel stressed and overwhelmed when you’ve set too many tasks on your to-do list and have simply set the bar too high for yourself.

Gratitude, however, can be a powerful practice that refocuses our minds on what we already have, promoting feelings of calm and contentedness in the process. It’s also proven to boost feelings of kindness and self-compassion, so instead of feeling anxious, you’re able to cut yourself some slack.

According to one group of researchers, “being grateful renders individuals more prone to show kindness, comprehension, support, and compassion toward themselves when setbacks and frustrations occur.”

If you often feel stressed or anxious, gratitude can be a great way to refocus your attention on the positives in your life.  Whether you have an anxious knot in your belly or stress sitting on your shoulders, turning to gratitude can help you find a moment of calm when you need it most.