Some of you know that one of my favorite people is Elizabeth Benton of Primal Potential, and part of her morning routine is what she calls “gratitude.” She takes a few minutes each morning to feel gratitude for something or someone in her life. She’ll be the first to tell you that it’s not thinking “I’m grateful for my health/ family/ job/ whatever;” it’s taking the time to think of something or someone specific and feeling the positive emotion of gratitude for that person or event.
I’m the first to confess that I’m just not good at that kind of thing. I usually don’t have time in the morning to do a morning routine that involves meditation or deep breathing or anything like that because, frankly, I’m not a morning person and I’d probably fall asleep if I tried it. So for a long time, I thought that gratitude is just something I’m not able to do, which was a little disappointing because one of the key benefits to doing this is that it relieves stress (which we all have too much of!) and it focuses your day on something positive. Then one morning not too long ago, as I woke up and got dressed, I snuggled with my dog and wrestled with the kitten and rubbed my older kitty’s chin. It wasn’t a big deal because I do that every morning whether it’s a work day or not, and as I was throwing the ball for my dog, watching him jump back on the bed with it in his mouth and toss it at me so I can throw it again, I realized this is my version of gratitude.
My pets are my “kids.” When people ask me if I live alone, I always say: “it’s me, the dog and my two cats,” so no, I don’t think of myself as living alone. I come home and talk to them, I spend time playing with them and they are a huge part of my day and my life. I guess I don’t have time to do “gratitude” in the morning because I am too busy appreciating my furry children. (I’m the geek who frets about getting their egg over easy on weekends because they like a runny yolk! eye roll!)
Overcooked eggs aside, the point is that gratitude, although an easy way to work on stress, has other benefits such as a more optimistic outlook, more emotionally satisfying relationships, better sleep and longer life. (FYI: if you are interested in Elizabeth’s morning routine, it is available on her website!) You spend a few minutes each day focusing on someone or something you are grateful for and you concentrate on your gratitude for them/ it until you feel the positive emotions. Morning is good because it relaxes you and gets your mind focused on something positive as you start your day. In the evening is also good because this way as you reflect on the events/ people in your day, you are pulling up something positive and again, it relaxes you towards the evening and it focuses your mind on something positive as you prepare to go to sleep or unwind at the end of the day. There’s also no rule that says you can’t do both! I know as I get closer to the end of my commute, I start thinking of my pets and spending time with them. When I go to bed, the rest of my “pack” does as well. We spend a few minutes at the end of the day like we do at the beginning: playing, snuggling, and paying attention to each other. (Yeah, I really need to get a life! eye roll).
The easiest way to practice gratitude is the method I described above: spending a few minutes of the day focusing on what you are grateful for. Others keep a gratitude journal (either a paper one or on an app). Either way, there are some tips for being grateful:
- Don’t phone it in! You need to really think about it and really feel it! Phoning it in: “I’m thankful for my spouse; I’m thankful for my health; I’m thankful for my job, blah blah blah.” Are you really feeling it? Because if you aren’t, then this is one more chore to do that is not going to benefit you. If you are truly feeling grateful for those things, that’s the point, but if you are just phoning it in, you need to take a few minutes and feel the emotion!
- Don’t rush through it. One of the reasons I thought I didn’t have time for gratitude is that it was first described to me as being part of a morning routine, and as I’ve said, I am so not a morning person! This would be one more thing that I have to cram in to my usually tightly scheduled mornings, on top of already not being happy about getting up so early! Find some time when you can cultivate this as a regular practice, so you can truly get the benefits from it. Mornings are good because they focus the mind on something positive for the day and lower your stress levels so you go into your day feeling refreshed. Evenings are also good because you can choose something positive to focus on out of a day that was probably stressful and release some of the built-up stress. Practicing gratitude at the end of the day is also a good way to relax, slough off the day’s cares and go to sleep feeling better. Whenever you decide to practice it, make sure you can focus on it without interruptions for a few minutes.
- Writing it down can also be a good way to explore the emotions. Sometimes as we organize our thoughts to express them, we discover things about ourselves and our emotions. You don’t have to write out your gratitude journal, but it can help. You can also include pictures and doodles or drawings or maybe even bits of poems and quotes. It doesn’t have to be all your words, as long as it makes you feel the positive emotions about the people & things in your life that you are grateful for.
- Focus on the positive! This is a journal about the positive parts of your life, so if your spouse/ kids/ boss/ whoever really bugged you today, this is not the place to complain about it! Odds are, you probably really are grateful they are in your life (the spouse & kids, anyway) but if you want to vent about how thick-headed they are, do it someplace else. You are trying to focus on the good things in this journal (or this moment if you are not writing about it), so leave off the negativity. In fact, if they really have been a pain, focusing on why you love them so much might be a good way to get over those annoying negative feelings!
Stress Really is Killer
This gratitude exercise might seem a little silly for some, especially the first time you read about it. “Really?? What does this have to do with weight loss or healthy living??” One of the things more and more doctors are learning is that stress really will kill you. I found out the hard way. When I worked that job from hell, I was ten hours at work and four hours in the car (2 hour commute each way). I spent all day with the boss from hell hanging over my shoulder pouncing on every thing I did that she didn’t like or didn’t understand, and when she wasn’t in the office, she was calling and emailing. This is a woman who would go to Hawaii or New York and still call and email about the office! And it didn’t stop when I left the office: she would call me on my way to and from work, either giving me a list of things to do or rehashing what didn’t get done. Telling her I can’t take notes while driving didn’t have any impact on her (this was a woman who had me follow her to the restroom so I could take notes while she ‘did her business.’ Really!) As a result of my schedule, my eating habits were atrociously unhealthy and I was mentally and physically exhausted. I was always ‘ON’ and my sleep was horrible. I never got enough rest and my blood pressure was out of control. I had stress induced asthma and panic attacks. There were times on the drive home after her phone calls that I would have to pull over because I was too upset to drive! The worst things about this whole situation are these: 1) I thought this was normal; 2) I thought there was something wrong with me.
In a way there was something wrong with me: I was still at that job. When I finally left (it was seriously either leave or die), after a few weeks, I noticed some positive changes. The first was that I was no longer exhausted because I was finally getting some restful sleep. The stress induced asthma and panic attacks both went away. I had expected that the panic attacks would stop but the doctor told me the asthma vanished because the stress was gone. Until then, I didn’t know it was stress induced! My blood pressure dropped to nearly normal in a few weeks, and I lost about 40 lbs. Part of that I’m sure is because my eating habits changed in positive ways, but I also learned that when your body is feeling stress, whether physical or mental, it goes into survival mode, which means it’s going to conserve as much fuel as possible. So in addition to my atrocious high calorie low nutrition diet, all of that nervous energy I had from the increased stress wasn’t even helping me to burn fat- it was helping me to store it!! (Honestly, just remembering that awful time in my life, I can feel my stress level rising!)
So what does this have to do with gratitude? Have you ever tried feeling stressed or negative while you are experiencing a positive emotion? What happens to your body and your mind when you are feeling positive emotions? Your attitude lightens up; your mind is clear and cheerful and your spirit is lighter. Your body relaxes and any tension eases. You breathe more deeply and your blood pressure goes down. Feeling positive emotions has a positive effect on your body. It gives your body a break from the constant grind. You get a chance to slow down and take some physical and mental rest. In time, it helps you develop a more positive outlook in general, which is a good thing. You appreciate the important people in your lives more deeply because you are constantly focusing on just how important they are to you, and in turn, they are usually more appreciative of you too! No one wants to go through life being miserable and unhappy (except maybe my former boss!) or being around these kind of people. My stressful situation was a little extreme, but most of us have stress in our lives from jobs, family, and other things, and being in a constant state of stress keeps cortisol and blood pressure elevated; it interferes with sleep and rest, with appetite and eating habits, and it eats away at the mental functions too. The more you are trying to do, the more you are trying to focus on multiple things, the less efficient you are and the more likely you are to forget things, which just adds to the stress! Your mind and body always feel like they are under attack (because they are!) and like me, it’s always ‘ON’ and trying to defend itself. Eventually, your health starts to deteriorate because your body never gets a chance to rest and recuperate from the constant barrage of stressful messages coming in. This is what happened to me before I finally left. Bottom line: stress kills your quality of life before it ultimately kills you through poor health.
If your life is as stressed as mine used to be, you really need to take stock of your situation and maybe make some hard choices. But giving yourself a few moments every day to focus on who and what are positive about your life is one way to give your mind, body and spirit a break. It can ultimately change your focus to something lighter, happier and more positive. How you choose to engage in gratitude is up to you. Whether you choose to do this through writing, through meditation, prayer, or through quality family time is your choice and you can’t choose wrong! Find a few moments each day to focus on what’s good in your life. It may not cure all your ills, but it will make your life a better, happier place to be!
(If you are interested in learning more about gratitude, please google the Tiny Buddha website: Turn Pain to Joy)