Discover more from Katie Pryal: Life of the Mind Interrupted
I just learned that gratitude helps anxiety...
...and here is how it might help you, too.
You’ve probably heard about “gratitude,” and I don’t mean the word that we use to express thanks for a gift on our birthdays.
I’m talking about the meditative practice where we consciously recount (either in our heads or in writing) the things we are grateful for in order to improve our mental health and wellbeing.
It’s been around a long time.
But, like most helpful things, I resisted it, until I tried it and discovered it was extremely helpful.
The point is, I have a lot to be grateful for, but I also struggle deeply with anxiety and resist all things woo, so it was hard for me to bring a practice of gratitude into my life.
Here’s how it finally happened, how much it helped me, and some advice for how it can hopefully help you too.
I've always kept a journal. My journal is a mix of diary, notes on projects, and to-do lists, all in one place.
I often write down things I'm worried about. Research shows, in fact, that this kind of writing helps people with anxiety and other neurodivergences.
I started writing down these words in my journal: "What Am I Worried About?" And then, using that prompt, I simmered the worries down into words. That process really helped. It turned a black cloud of nameless worry into something concrete.
But then, I started doing it wrong. I started making lists of worries.
I'd open up my journal and write these Very Bad Words: "Things I'm worried about." Then I'd write a litany of things that are freaking me out. By the end of the list, I was more freaked out than I was at the beginning.
So then I made a change. I told myself I needed to DO something about that list of worries. Sounds good, right? So I picked one worry (my next novel! it’s going to be a failure!), and I wrote another list (ba-da-bum) of the things I will do to ensure its success.
I wrote the world's longest list, and what did I end up with? An awful pile of things I must do, and it smothered me. Of course I did.
Why all the lists? That's what anxiety does. It tries to control things. When I'm terrified of an awful outcome, if I let anxiety take over, it will try to ensure that outcome doesn't happen.
I resisted. So hard. But then I gave in. I was desperate, after all.
After one painful anxiety writing session, I forced myself to write these painful words: "But I'm grateful for..."
And then I wrote a paragraph about the things I'm grateful for about my writing career. I'm not going to list them here because it will sound an awful lot like bragging. After all, gratitude is a recounting of the good stuff, and in private it's okay, but in public it does sound like boasting (and lord help us if we ever talk about our own achievements in public. I think we should do more of that, but that argument is for another letter).
The point is, gratitude worked. I was in a coffee shop, and as I finished, I started crying. The damn just broke. All of that worry that I'd identified and wrote a to-do list to control, burying myself under a smothering pile? The gratitude? It punched a hole through that pile.
Expressing gratitude helped me see not only that I needed to just ride out the anxiety wave. It also helped me see that I could.
Here are the anxiety-plus-gratutide steps that I’ve figured out through trial and error so you don’t have to:
What are you worried about? Take that black cloud of worry and write about it. Dig deep. Then deeper still. Family, work, hobby, whatever. It might take 500 words before you ever get to the root of the worry. Don’t write a list. Reflect on it. What, exactly, are you worried about?
As yourself this question: Is there anything I can do about the worry? Y/N? The answer, almost always, is No. (Anxiety lies! It lies!) You might get a partial yes. But don’t be fooled by anxiety telling you that you can control outcomes with just a little more something. You can’t. Ugh. If you have trouble letting go of the desire for control, talk to someone who can help. Anxiety is a monster we can’t fight alone.
Finally, ask yourself this question: What am I grateful for with regards to what I’m worried about? This is weird! I realize that. “My son is doing awful in math. What am I grateful for?” “My book got rejected by all the publishers. What am I grateful for?” Seriously. It’s not easy. BUT! It works! I promise. You might cry. In public. “I’m grateful that I have a wonderful son. He is kind. He is funny. He is …” I dare you not to cry.
It took so much wrestling with myself to figure out how to practice gratitude, so I’m hoping this advice can skip you skip the wrestling part and get to the good stuff.
p.s. This letter draws from a longer essay published on my blog. You might want to give it a read.
p.p.s. You might have noticed that I just added a Substack subscription fee, but it is donation only. You can still read everything for free.