I’m just going to put this out there. If there’s an opportunity to panic, stress or overreact, I’m your person. Spill your milk or set the house on fire…it’s all the same to me in terms of my emotional response.
In fact, I’m a proactive panicker. If I even THINK something remotely bad could happen, I preemptively react. In the battle of gratitude vs. anxiety, you could place a solid bet that anxiety would win every time in my world. Knowing this then, you can likely imagine my response when an alarm of epic proportion occurred at my house.
I had just sat down in the calm, cozy, quietness of my home to start penning some thoughts onto my laptop when I noticed that the WIFI wasn’t connected. In fact, our home network wasn’t even showing up on my computer. “Maybe it just needs a restart,” I thought.
I walked over to our security panel to check the settings. Not only was the WIFI down, but it was also telling me that everything was disconnected. No power, no heat, nothing. I flicked on a light switch just to confirm. Nothing.
I was puzzled, but still fine. Cue the emergency in 5…4…3…2…1.
All fourteen of our house alarms go off in a blaze of glory. And I mean all of them. Flood, fire, security, probably the carbon monoxide too—the entire house was reacting like a cuckoo clock on steroids. My phone dings with the following text message: “WARNING! Fire has been detected at your home…”
Oooook. So you know, at this point, I should be firing (pun intended) on all four of my anxiety cylinders. Yet strangely, I’m not. Even as the security company calls me through the emergency telecom system to verify my wellbeing, I calmly shout back to her over the ear-piercing alarms, “Yeah, um…I think so?”
I surveyed each room, sniffing for smoke and searching for foul play. There was none. As it turns out, it ended up being a false alarm—likely triggered by a blown transformer that took out an entire grid or two of our city.
About ten or so minutes later, the alarms subsided, the power returned, and I began to process why only half of an anxiety cylinder went off. Sure, I was feeling some stress and sensory overload from the sheer volume of the alarms, but I was also keenly aware of how my thoughts had begun to shift toward gratitude in the midst of it all.
“Wow, that’s good to know that in a real emergency, all the alarms work. And bonus, someone was alerted and called to check on me,” I thought. “And you know what? Even if our house burned, I’d be ok. My family would be ok. We would get through it. I’m so thankful for emergency responders.”
Gratitude in the midst of anxiety-producing circumstances is so not normal for me. But I was winning the battle of the mind—and here’s the reason why.
For the three days leading up to this epic non-emergency, I had been doing some intensive Google research on the relationship between anxiety and gratitude, and as it turns out, both the Apostle Paul and neuroscience have a lot to say about it. From his prison cell in Rome around A.D. 61, the Apostle Paul writes a letter to the church at Philippi, encouraging them on how to remain positive, hopeful, and full of joy.
“Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand” (Philippians 4:6-7, NLT).
Don’t be anxious. Be grateful.
Paul was on to something. Not only was he the lyrical predecessor to Bobby McFerrin’s Grammy award-winning song, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” in 1988, but turns out he was a neuroscience pioneer as well.
Lots of research and studies have been emerging recently on the connection between anxiety and gratitude. As it turns out, it is physiologically impossible for the brain to respond to anxiety and gratitude at the same time. They cannot coexist. Our minds cannot focus on both positive and negative information at the same time.
When we experience gratitude, our brain releases neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin—the “feel good” emotions. Anxiety on the other hand, triggers neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine to be released—aka the stress hormone.
And here’s the real kicker. Author Alex Korb of the ‘Grateful Brain,’ notes that our brain is conditioned to function in a repeated way. That means those of us who are constantly worrying are subconsciously re-wiring our brain to only process negative information. If we make a conscious decision to practice gratitude however, we can train our brains to focus on positive emotions and thoughts, which in turn reduces our anxiety and worries.
Let’s be clear, though. Choosing gratitude does not mean you’re ignoring the reality of your situation or circumstances. But it does put you in the driver’s seat. You can control how you respond. I love how author Tanya Peterson puts it: “You don’t have to ignore reality; instead, you choose what part of reality you take in…. Cultivate the perspective you want to have, even when you’re anxious. It’s a powerful way to disrupt anxious thoughts, worries, fears, and obsessions. The more you respond by finding things for which to be grateful, the more you’ll strengthen positive responses in your brain.”
Friends, we can do this. We can literally rewire our brain to be more positive. We can win the battle over anxiety by not giving it a place or space in our mind. We can find victory through our gratitude.
Trust me, I know. I’ve walked through some anxiety-ridden landmines in my life. Unbearable grief from losing a loved one. My husband’s cancer diagnosis. Loneliness and insecurity. But, I’ve also known the peace that comes from focusing on the good. From choosing faith over fear and gratitude over anxiety. And if this proactive panicker by nature can do it, well then, there’s hope—and joy—in store for us all.
**For more science behind anxiety and gratitude, check out these helpful articles:
• The Neuroscience of Gratitude and How it Affects Anxiety & Grief by Madhuleena Chowdhury
• Gratitude and Anxiety: To Be Less Anxious, Be More Grateful by Tanya Peterson