by Shane Fookes, MA MDiv, Registered Counseling Associate
We live in a challenging time mentally, emotionally, and relationally.
We’re still not far removed from the intensity and uncertainty of the Coronavirus pandemic. And we’ve just navigated another contentious election season full of advertisements preying on our fears for political gain. As a result, we face the constant temptation to give in to pessimism, cynicism, and resentment. Seemingly small everyday concerns we used to handle with ease can flare up into unexpected bouts of anger, anxiety, and despair. And now the holiday season is upon us with all its normal stressors.
If you are feeling overwhelmed, I’d like to offer a daily habit that can tangibly decrease the stress you are experiencing or are about to experience. This practice takes the theme of the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday and embeds it into the fabric of your life: intentionally practicing gratitude.
Now, I realize that may sound too simplistic. But the explosion in recent research on the brain has demonstrated the connection between stress and what you attend to. Simply put, your brain is wired by how and what you give your attention. And it doesn’t matter if you are intentional or unintentional with your attention either.
When it comes to your attention, you face two perils in our present age: flitting attention and problem-focused attention.
First, flitting attention keeps your brain on constant alert. The innumerable “screens” in our everyday environments have normalized an oversaturation with information and make it difficult to focus your attention. Second, since savvy marketers know danger is more likely to grab your attention, you are incessantly bombarded with dire headlines and messages on those screens. This problem-focus can keep your brain’s “threat response system” overly activated. Together, these dangers elevate your brain and body emotionally and make you prone to distress.
These perils make it all the more important to intentionally focus your attention. Thankfully, the Bible offers hope and help for this important task. In particular, Philippians 4:6-9 provides both specific direction for your attention and the admonition to deliberately practice gratitude. And the one who wrote those instructions wasn’t sitting on a beach sipping a Mai Tai either. No, he was in a Roman prison cell. Focusing his attention and regularly practicing gratitude helped him find rest and peace even in the midst of tremendous difficulty.
So, how do you practice gratitude?
Well, the possibilities are endless so the practice can be as unique as you are! The key is to come up with something you can (and will!) practice regularly. Here are a few ideas that may help you get started:
- Link the practice of gratitude to something you’re already doing. For example, as you brush your teeth, challenge yourself to think of ten reasons you are grateful. Challenge yourself to think of different reasons each day.
- “Repurpose” grumbling situations. When you find yourself stuck in traffic or in a long line at the store, instead of grumbling, think of what you are grateful for. Challenge yourself to keep at it as long as you are stuck!
- Keep a gratitude journal. Place it somewhere you frequent each day – on your nightstand, at the breakfast table, on your desk, etc. Whenever you see it, write at least one thing for which you are thankful. Then take a few minutes to read back over what you’ve previously written.
Practicing gratitude under difficult circumstances doesn’t come naturally. It takes intentionality. However the more you practice, the more you wire your brain to look at the world through the lens of gratitude. Over time, you’ll discover your body is more relaxed and your mind more free from persistent anxious thoughts.
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About the Author
Shane Fookes is a graduate of Western Seminary’s Counseling program and a Registerred Counseling Associate. He served as a pastor for 17 years and is still involved in leading churches. He writes about marriage and relationship issues, anxiety, depression, and spiritual development.