How practicing gratitude can help you through times of difficulty and stress

There have been multiple occasions this year where I have found myself staring at an email or a news article in shock about what was happening in the world and wanting nothing more than for this chaos to end. 

The hardest hit was receiving the email that told us Azusa Pacific University was switching to an online format for the Fall 2020 semester. This email came only a mere six days after students were notified of their housing assignments. My first reaction? Frustration, anger and sadness. Though tempted to dwell on these feelings, I chose to switch my thinking around and find the good in staying home and doing school online.

This was not easy. Changing your mindset when all you want to do is pout and wallow in self-pity is difficult. It took some deep-breathing, fresh air and hard reflection, but eventually, I came to a place of gratitude and contentment. 

Trying to turn a negative situation into a positive one often feels forced and fruitless. Sometimes, we need to sit with sad feelings and let ourselves feel the extent of our emotions. But we can’t live in feelings of frustration and self-pity, especially when it comes to the things we cannot change. When faced with situations that are out of our control, our perspective is the one thing we still have control over.

Dr. Caroline Leaf, a Christian neurologist, said in her book titled “Switch on Your Brain” that, “we cannot control the events and circumstances of our lives, but we can control our reactions. Don’t be reactive; take time to slow down and think.” 

Leaf reminds us that we often face situations that are out of our control. When this happens, we must not let negative feelings and attitudes get the better of us. Instead, take the time to slow down and think about them. 

“Our five senses activate an emotional response almost immediately, but if we don’t take the time to process them, the unprocessed emotion will dominate,” Leaf writes.

Our first reactions are emotional ones. If we don’t slow our minds down and give ourselves room to process, it will be more difficult to cultivate a positive attitude.

After discovering APU was moving to online courses for Fall 2020, I chose to slow down, think through my situation and focus on the silver linings instead of everything I was upset about. Choosing to focus my attention on the positive aspects of my situation — no matter how small — brought me a greater sense of peace and contentment. 

“Whatever you think about the most will grow, so the more the cycle moves with a particular thought, the stronger it grows,” Leaf said. 

 Because I chose to think about the benefits and silver linings of staying home, my sense of contentment rose more than if I had chosen to dwell on my feelings of frustration and disappointment.

Even though I’ve been able to stay positive about staying home for school, I still catch myself stuck in a cycle of thoughts that are negative when it comes to life in 2020. While it’s easy to read Leaf’s advice and feel inspired to incorporate more positive thinking into our lives, it’s much harder in practice.

However, there are practical solutions to combat negative thoughts and feelings that help you shift your mindset from one of discontentment to gratitude.

One way to cope with the torrent of negativity we are met with on a daily basis is by practicing gratitude. Intentionally practicing gratitude can increase feelings of well-being, protect us against burnout and counteract materialism, according to the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. One way to start practicing gratitude is by writing down three things you’re grateful for every night, also known as gratitude journaling.

Gratitude journaling is something I practiced throughout high school until it subconsciously became a habit of mine. Even after I stopped writing down the things I was grateful for, I still reflected on them each night and gave thanks to God for them.

Recently, I’ve picked back up the practice of journaling three things I’m grateful for at night before I go to sleep in order to combat negative thoughts and stress. It is a simple practice that doesn’t require much, yet it can shift your perspective in powerful ways and produce positive effects on your overall mental health and wellbeing, according to Summer Allen, a researcher and writer with the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. 

This exercise can be even more effective when you challenge yourself to look for new things each day. Looking for new things to be grateful for can help draw your attention to the areas in your life that you may take for granted or overlook, and it might also change how you go about your day. Instead of focusing on the bad taking place, you will start actively looking for the good. 

Gratitude may not be a cure-all for negative thinking or dealing with hardship. However, Psychology Today said that there are mental and physical benefits to implementing this practice.  Even writing in a gratitude journal only once a week — with a longer list — can improve your outlook, mood and sleep.

If you find yourself struggling with stress, sadness or other troubles that come with adjusting to online school and living through a pandemic, try practicing gratitude. Start writing down the things that you’re thankful for, both the big and the seemingly insignificant, and take note of how your perspective starts to change.