I have a friend who has a fear of flying and, when I suggested that, in order to stave off that fear, she spend the first part of a long-haul flight to the US making a list of 50 things she’s grateful for, she was intrigued…
The different parts of the brain that process the emotions of fear and gratitude can’t work in parallel. If we’re experiencing one emotion, we can’t experience the other concurrently. That’s why making a ‘gratitude list’ is an easy, powerful way to build a sense of calm and confidence and to ease anxiety.
I say it’s ‘easy’, but the activity can be more challenging than it sounds. It’s usually straight-forward enough to rattle off the first few items that you appreciate in your life – whether that’s your loved ones, the roof over your head, your health or the fact that you’re employed. Once you get further into the activity, however, you’ll find yourself pausing – even struggling.
That’s where the gold is. You’ll be forced to go deeper, and to look for the ‘simple things’ that make your life lovely in small ways, without the fanfare we expect from life’s highlights. At some point, while writing your list, the focus will inevitably shift from what you don’t have in comparison with others, to just how much you do have.
Your brain makes the shift at that point from ‘lip service gratitude’ to the real thing. True gratitude is often accompanied by a sense of awe – as you realise that, no matter what’s going wrong, or how tough this year might have been – you’re in a better position than you realised to start fresh with what you have. You’re equipped to face new challenges, using the experiences of your past.
As you keep thinking of more and more ways to appreciate the people, events and ‘things’ in your life, you may start noticing traits about yourself that you’ve brushed under the carpet and trampled on with the ‘I’m not good enough, thin enough, earning enough…’ chatter.
You might think of ways to be grateful for the times you tripped up. The lessons you learnt. The ways you grew and changed. You might realise that, yes, you’re a few kilos overweight but wow – you have legs and arms and a safe country to exercise in. Maybe your relationship has lost its ‘zing’, but there’s a whole lot of stuff that your partner gets ‘right’ and some opportunities to change your own approach.
If you take the spirit of this activity and run with it, you’ll hit the mark – which is to come out of this process feeling stronger, luckier and happier, with more choices, opportunities and hope.
What better time to ponder how much you have than New Year? Traditionally we spend time as 1 January rolls around, thinking about the gaps in our lives. The things we’re getting wrong. The ways we’re ‘broken’ that need to be fixed.
We ‘tut tut’ ourselves, resolve to be a better person and then our resolutions typically last about 3 weeks, before we cave, forget, or get swept up in the routine of life again.
So, here’s a fresh approach.
1. Set aside some time and write a list of 50 things you’re grateful for going into 2012. Give yourself time to dwell on the list afterwards and let that wonderful sense of thankfulness sink in. Some people like to buy a special journal to record these thoughts in as an ongoing activity.
2. Now, choose just one area of your life that – were you to focus on changing it – would make the biggest, brightest, boldest difference to how you feel this time next year.
3. Once you’ve selected the change that will give you the biggest ‘bang for buck’, become clear on the very next step that you need to take – no matter how small that step might be. And take it.
4. From there, notice the next step and take that.
5. Keep going, like you’re tip-toeing across stepping stones from the side of the river you’re on now, to the side where you want to be. Notice that each small step is easily manageable on its own. Often there’s no giant leap required.
As for my friend with the fear of flying – she started her gratitude list the night before her journey and was in ‘full flight’ with it by the time she took off, had a wonderful trip and is looking forward to flying again…
Emma Grey is the author of Wits’ End Before Breakfast! Confessions of a Working Mum (Lothian, 2005) and director of the life-balance company, WorkLifeBliss.
Read more on her blog at www.emmacatherinegrey.blogspot.com