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Gratitude Habits for Life

Gratitude gets a lot of attention these days. Hopefully, you’re at least somewhat familiar with the benefits of a gratitude practice. It helps train your brain to notice and appreciate the little things in life and, in doing so, shifts your life experience tremendously. 

Gratitude can increase your happiness and wellbeing, life satisfaction, even overall health while decreasing the stuff we all want less of like anxiety, depression, and anger. Whether its a gratitude journal or expressing gratitude, it is important to practice gratitude. Today, though, I want to offer some new perspectives on gratitude.

Power of Gratitude as a Response

In the world of habits, there’s a treatment approach called Habit Reversal Training. A key component of HRT is the use of a competing response, which is an action that is incompatible with the habit you are trying to break. For example, if you’re trying to break a nail biting habit, you might clasp your hands as a competing response when you feel the urge to bite. It’s really difficult to claps your hands AND bite your nails at the same time. Consistently using a competing response trains your body to replace the undesired habit with the new one.

Rumination, worry, complaining, and negativity are mental habits, and ones with far worse consequences than nail biting. These mental habits involve stewing on negative thoughts, indulging them in a repeating and amplifying loop with the effect of dragging down your mood and pulling you out of the present moment. I propose that we try gratitude as a competing response for these mental habits

It’s surprisingly difficult to tap into gratitude – really tap into it – and also get stuck in negativity. When you find yourself getting wrapped up in those negative thoughts or starting down a spiral, challenge your mind to find something in that moment to be grateful for. Be sure you don’t just go through the motions, though. The goal is to truly activate grateful feelings to help buoy you against the negativity and to help keep you grounded in the present moment.

When Gratitude Backfires

I’d argue that you’d be hard pressed to find a situation in which tapping into gratitude isn’t possible or isn’t helpful. That said, be mindful that gratitude doesn’t become fuel for guilt. That happens when your mind uses gratitude to minimize your painful experiences.

It might sound something like this: “I don’t have a right to be sad. I have so much to be grateful for. I haven’t been hit as hard as others.” Sentiments like that take gratitude, which is an expanding and bolstering practice, and turn into a mental whip with which to flog yourself. The resulting guilt is unnecessary and underserved.

Gratitude doesn’t negate pain. It’s a “both and” not an “either or” practice. You can be both hurting AND grateful. You can use gratitude as a lifeline to keep you from drowning in the negative mental habits that intensify your pain but not to eliminate pain completely. Research shows that grateful people are generally happier people.  

Your daily gratitude practice can start small. Spend time every single day just thinking feelings of gratitude, like:  

In this moment, I miss my family who I haven’t seen in eons because of COVID AND I am grateful for grocery delivery and a warm sunny day.

In this moment, my heart hurts for those who were affected by the recent shootings in the U.S. AND I am grateful for feeling well rested this morning.

In this moment, I am SO OVER this pandemic AND I appreciate my Brandon Sanderson audio books that I love so much.

In this moment, I am grateful for you, that you’re in our community and that you’re a part of the movement to make life better.

“Cultivate the habit of being grateful for every good thing that comes to you, and to give thanks continuously.”
–       Ralph Waldo Emerson

P.S. If you like this post and want to understand gratitude even better, April and I just recorded a podcast episode about gratitude habaits and toxic positivity. We go so much deeper into these topics. It was such a great conversation! Be sure to subscribe to catch the episode as soon as it airs.

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A Quick Technique to Develop Compassion for Anyone

Last week, Ashley wrote a post about judgements. And, we’ve talked extensively about the importance of avoiding judgement and accepting (not necessarily approving of) other people’s behavior.

We simply can’t force others to do something, think something, or be a certain way. Even when, if we’re being absolutely honest, we believe they’re WRONG.

This can be incredibly hard, which is why I want to introduce a technique that can help you build compassion for nearly anyone, even if they’re the person you disagree with most in the world.

You are not your thoughts.

Let’s begin on solid footing. You’ve heard us say the phrase, “You are not your thoughts” many times.

What we mean by this is:

Your mind is a thought-generating machine.

It subconsciously learned a number of automatic, involuntary, and habitual thought patterns over the years.

It constantly spews these thoughts, resulting emotions, urges, beliefs at us, every waking moment of the day.

Most of these thoughts aren’t useful, helpful, or even accurate.

YOU are not generating them. It’s the involuntary part of your mind.

They are not you.

Breaking that down even further, it means that, through the process of neuroplasticity, your mind has taken in subtle and overt information from people, the environment, the media, and other places over the years, and it has ‘learned’ to react in a certain way.

Through no intention of your own.

Your mind is like your blabber-mouth roommate who talks constantly and has an opinion about everything. 

It feeds you the self-criticism it has learned. The self-limiting beliefs it has learned. The knee-jerk reactions about the world and other people that it has learned.

And, although it feels “authentic” and as if it is our “own voice” in there. It’s not. You are separate from that involuntary voice.

You are the person who is observing that voice, but man can that voice have a powerful influence over each and every one of us!

THEY are not THEIR thoughts

This knowledge, if applied to other people, can be used to help you develop compassion for nearly anyone else in the world. 

Stay with me.

Imagine someone you really disagree with. Someone, dare I say it, who you really dislike. Someone whose beliefs and repeated behaviors make it very difficult to have compassion for them.

Now…imagine what that person must have involuntarily and unfortunately learned throughout their life to get them to believe those things and behave that way.

You see, no one is immune from neuroplasticity. And thankfully so! It is the reason why we can reinvent our sense of self, learn new things, build psychological strength!

But, it’s also the reason why we….all of us….learn unhelpful and sabotaging beliefs, behaviors, thoughts, and habits.

What must that other person have learned about themselves, their limitations, the world, what to fear, who not to trust, what they can and can’t count on, and so much more?

Now, think about that person as a newborn baby. A baby who has their whole life ahead of them. A baby who has not yet learned these things.

Think about directly telling that baby the things that person must have learned in order to be that way.

Then, sink into the compassion you feel for that innocent version of that person. That innocent baby is still in there. It’s still inside all of us. But, it can be covered and silenced by decades of unhelpful “lessons” we’ve learned.

Compassion

Compassion is one of the easiest ways to avoid making a judgement about yourself and about another person. 

It’s a quick way to soften the edges and begin to repair a connection, have a more effective conversation, find common ground.

I hope this exercise gave you one more way to do that.

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Psychological Strength in the Face of a Pandemic

Our message this week is a long one, but it’s worthwhile.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve undoubtedly heard of the coronavirus. You’ve probably also been affected in some way:

Events have been canceled. Businesses and schools have closed or shifted to remote options. Supplies at grocery stores have sold out in places, and the stock market has plummeted.

With organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO) and Center for Disease Control (CDC) issuing the need for safety precautions like social distancing and working from home, and various levels of government calling various states of emergency, it’s hard not to worry…or worry that you’re not worrying enough. As the death toll rises in the United States the Covid-19 pandemic has caused a major public health crisis. 

For more than a decade, my day job as a clinical psychologist has been helping people learn to manage anxiety effectively. So here are a few tips to help you keep your cool while staying safe:

Understanding Your Mind

First, it’s important to understand a couple things about how the mind works:

This is an oversimplification, but it’ll make the point. There is a part of our minds that is capable of mental representation. This means we are able to daydream, worry, plan, and predict. We are capable of imagining things, creating them in our minds. 

Unfortunately, the part of our mind that controls emotions can’t tell the difference between real and imagined. That means that imagined worst case scenarios provoke the same emotional response as actual bad things happening. Our fear systems can sometimes get activated by things that are happening in our minds, not in real life.

Another thing you need to know is that our minds are master storytellers. They are designed to take a few data points, connect the dots, and fill in the gaps. Our minds make assumptions, create predictions, assign meaning, offer interpretations, and add judgments to the bits of information we take in. In other words, they spin up stories, and, when anxiety is writing that narrative, it’s going to err on the side of danger, overestimation of threat, and catastrophe.

Knowing these things, it is important to question your mind and to separate the facts from the fictions. Facts are the things that you can know for sure, right now, through your direct sensory experience. Fictions are the things elements and detailed added by your mind.

 

ACTION STEP 1: Hone in the FACTS of the situation.

A challenge with the coronavirus situation is that most of us have very few (if any) direct experience facts, so we have to rely on other sources of information. In an era in which information is readily available anytime, anywhere, misinformation is everywhere. 

Remember, anyone can post ABSOLUTELY ANYTHING, regardless of credibility or evidence to back it and one in which shock value is rewarded by clicks, views, and shares.  If you are one of those people who needs to see data collections and what studies show, then Google Scholar is a good tool, along with directives from the WHO and CDC. 

Our minds are powerful, but they are not always accurate, and this is evident when it comes to the illusion of truth effect. Our minds will believe things they hear repeatedly, regardless of the merits of that information. They mistake repetition for indication of truth. 

Even when we rationally know that the source of the information is questionable or that claims are alarmist or unrealistic, a part of our mind is still soaking up that information and encoding it…and it will stick like  – and in the long term be treated as – fact even though it didn’t start that way. This is not positive psychology and should be monitored closely. 

ACTION STEP 2: Go on a media diet and limit your input.

Be incredibly mindful about the content and media you are consuming right now. Make sure it comes from reputable sources, and limit how often you check the news and social media.

In these uncertain times, credible sources are issuing cautions, and It’s hard to ignore all of the signs that suggest that something bad is, in fact, happening, which means that It’s not realistic to “just not worry about it” or “carry on with life as usual.” How do we determine when and how much to worry, and what to do about it?

I advise my patients to use this general framework to help tease apart realistic from excessive worry:

1.     Is this an actual problem (as opposed to an imagined or hypothetical one)?

2.     Is this an actual problem for today (as opposed to one that must be handled down the road at some point)?

3.     Is this an actual problem for today that I can control (as opposed to something that I have no control over and cannot influence, prevent, or change)?

If the answer to all three questions is yes, it’s time to problem-solve and come up with an action plan. However, if the answer to any one of them is “no”, it’s time to use your psychological strength to keep fear in check and to focus on what matters right here and now.

However, this does not mean go on a social media diet. During unprecedented times like these where social connections are harder to come by due to limited face to face interactions, we must utilize social media as a means of social support. 

Whether it’s staying in touch with loved ones, and planning a socially distanced meetup outdoors to get some physical activity, or accessing mental health care online with a telehealth provider, social media may be used as a means to help you cope during this pandemic.

ACTION STEP 3: Use these filters to help size worry:

1.     Is this problem a real problem?

2.     Is this a problem for today?

3.     Is this a problem that I can control?

Coping skills like mindfulness (paying full attention to what you’re doing right here, right now), thought challenging (questioning the accuracy and helpfulness of what your mind is saying), and valued actions (acting in line with who and how you want to be as a person, regardless of external circumstances) can help keep excessive fear and worry in check.