I’ve heard an interesting revelation brought up by a couple of people in my life lately: “Gratitude and anxiety cannot coexist in your brain”. It turns out, there’s scientific research to back it up. This notion is intriguing, to say the least… So, what is the scientific connection between anxiety and gratitude, and what does the Bible have to say about it?
With all the busyness and pressure of this fast-paced world we live in, stress and *anxiety are on the rise. It’s easy to let one negative situation spiral our thoughts out of control. I don’t know about you, but it seems more natural for my brain to worry about what’s not going right than think about all the things that are. We can tell ourselves or others to “think happy thoughts” or “stay positive”, but that’s much more easily said than done! What does it look like to put gratitude into practice? It doesn’t mean pretending everything’s perfect when it’s not. It doesn’t mean we don’t allow ourselves to grieve or feel sadness.
*The term “anxiety” is thrown around a lot. I believe there are different levels of anxious thought. It’s one thing to have worries, moments of panic, uncomfortableness, or uncertainty around situations, that make you feel anxious. It’s another thing to endure crippling, all-consuming anxiety. I’ve only experienced the latter once in my life and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. In the midst of the restless panic, I could not get my brain to focus on the truth and be thankful, no matter how hard I tried. So, I do think certain situations of severe anxiety require more than just a positive thought process to get out of, such as therapeutic or medical intervention. I’m not telling anyone they can just think their way out of a panic attack. What I’m referring to in this article, is the every day anxious thoughts that creep in.
Being intentional about catching our anxious thoughts before they spiral helps prevent them from growing and demanding our attention. Practicing regular gratitude can help train our brains to see and appreciate the good in life, not letting our negative thoughts consume us.
So what exactly is gratitude and how can it combat anxious or stressful thoughts?
Gratitude is defined as “the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness”. Another definition I like is: “Gratitude is the act of recognizing and acknowledging the good things that happen, resulting in a state of appreciation” It’s interesting that neither of these definitions are idle. Even the first one talks about preparing to act when it says “show appreciation” and “return kindness”. The second refers to gratitude itself as an act. This means it’s more than just a fleeting feeling, but something we can choose to participate in each day.
Getting into a daily practice of gratitude can help set the tone for our mindset of the day.
What Does Science Have to Say About Gratitude?
What effect does a grateful heart have on our body and minds? More than you might think! I’m not well-versed in scientific terms or the anatomy of our brains, so I’ll keep it simple. The feeling of gratitude can boost serotonin levels and produce dopamine, which is our brain’s pleasure chemical. This means, we actually have some control over how much serotonin and dopamine our brain produces. How cool is that! By focusing on the things we are grateful for, big or small, we can redirect the pathways in our brain – impacting both our emotional and physical health.
What Does the Bible Have to Say About Gratitude?
I find it interesting, that so often scientific studies come out that match what God’s Word has been telling us all along. For instance, how time spent in nature is good for us, or how owning less possessions can lead to a more abundant life. In this case, it’s that gratitude is a tool that fights against worry.
Countless verses in the Bible talk about being thankful and offering praise to God. I think it’s easy to oversimplify the concept in our minds, without truly putting it into practice. God offers us this wisdom time and time again with reminders spread throughout his word. He desires for us to live out this act, as it is something that brings Him glory and also enhances our overall well-being. Gratitude centers our minds on the things of Christ, allowing us to better serve Him and others.
The Bible paints a clear contrast between worries and thankfulness in several Scriptures.
One of the most well-known verses about this is Philippians 4:6-7.
“ do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
The Bible is telling us, not only, “don’t worry”, but “do this instead…” and the result is: the incomprehensible peace of God.
Prayer + Thankfulness – Anxious Thoughts = Peace
How to Practically Apply Gratitude
Okay, now we know that scientific research and the Bible both back up how beneficial gratitude is for us. However, it’s one thing to know something is good for us, and another to actually make a habit of doing it. Just think about trying to eat healthy or establishing an exercise routine… those take intentionality and daily effort. Same with gratitude!
Here are a few practical ways to establish a habit of gratefulness:
Make a list daily of things you are thankful for.
Write it down on a piece of paper, take pictures of things you’re grateful for, or simply keep a running list on your phone throughout the day. All of these will accomplish the same thing – they’ll give you something tangible to look at that reminds you of specific blessings.
Schedule a moment of gratitude.
Set aside a time of the day, to have a quiet moment, where you can rest in God’s presence and recognize His goodness. This is difficult to do when life gets busy, but it’s so important (especially in the busy seasons) to slow down.
Dwell on the good – morning and evening.
When you wake up in the morning before getting out of bed and when you lay down at night, think about 3 specific things you are thankful for. In the morning, it will set the tone for your day. At bedtime, it can help calm your mind and remind you of God’s goodness.
Tell people “thank you”.
When someone does something kind for you or you simply notice the positive impact they have on your life, let them know you appreciate it. It’s easy to think these thoughts without actually saying them. This expression of gratitude will benefit your well-being as well as theirs.
Turn opportunities to complain into grateful moments
For example, when your first thought is, “Ugh, I have so much laundry to do…” As you’re sorting through the mountain of mismatched socks, thank God for the people in your house, the clothes you have to wear, the clean water to wash them in, etc.
The Impact of Gratitude in My Life
I like to think that I’m a generally positive person. However, in doing some self-evaluation lately, I’ve noticed that when one little thing goes wrong I tend to shift the majority of my attention to it. I can easily let the negative thoughts consume me, instead of giving the situation over to God and being thankful for the abundant blessings in my life.
Being intentional and specific in my thankfulness has really helped to reset my focus. My favorite way to practice gratitude is by making a tangible list. If I try to do it in my head, my thoughts wander and I easily get off track. I’ll admit, sometimes it’s hard for me to get started and I’ll stare at the blank paper for awhile while my mind freezes… but once I jot a few things down, they just keep coming! Looking at the list afterward can overwhelm me with just how good God is! I’m a visual person, so I like to make my lists look pretty (colorful pens and highlighters, calligraphic writing, doodles, etc.) This helps me to want to come back to it later as a reminder.
The days when I’m stressed out, pressed for time, or just don’t feel like being grateful, are the most important and impactful days to do this. Sometimes, if our morning is off to a rough start, we might think, “What do I have to be grateful for today?” That’s why sitting down to really take time to think about it is a game-changer.
Regular gratitude has helped me to appreciate the little things, be more content in the present moment, and surrender the things that are out of my control.
How Can You Practice Gratitude?
Hopefully by now, you have some ideas of how you can incorporate the practice of gratitude in your own life. You know yourself best, so maybe experiment with some of the ideas above, and find what works best for you!
Of course, there’s the overarching things that we should never take for granted: God’s love, food on the table, our loved ones, etc. While, you can absolutely include these things on your list (and it’s a good place to start), I’d challenge you to get more specific. How have you seen God’s love today? What food did you specifically enjoy? What did your husband or kids do to bring joy to your life recently?
If you have any unique ways you like to express gratitude or combat your own anxious thoughts, please share!
I’d like to give a couple of shoutouts for the inspiration for this post:
- To the lady in my Bible study who informed me “anxiety and gratitude cannot coexist in your brain.” I couldn’t stop thinking about it once you mentioned it.
- To my MIL/BFF who brought up this same fact to me just days later and has continued to processed it and discuss it with me. So thankful for you!