Gratitude. A new route to mindfulness?

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Are we all a bit too ungrateful for what we have in life these days? It may be an intangible topic but at a time when we’re now all ‘always on’ and our society pushes consumerist fodder in our faces 24/7, are we stopping to appreciate anything anymore? What a bleak outlook, I hear you cry! But I ask you, dear reader, when was the last time you took a moment to be grateful for 3 things in your day? It could be the cup of tea your colleague made you, or stealing a kiss from your partner before you went to work.

I am one of those people who has started to forget what is good and often focus on what I don’t have. I know I’m not the only one scrolling through Instagram coveting the lives of the rich and famous – they don’t exactly keep it a secret from us. We have crested the peak of the saying, “we want what we can’t have”. But the funny thing is, many of us don’t know why we want these things and why they would make us happy.

I came across the concept of gratitude a few months ago. It’s all thanks to Oprah Winfrey. And now I am hooked. Gratitude is an attitude and way of living that has been shown to have many benefits in terms of healthhappiness, satisfaction with life, and the way we relate to others. It goes hand in hand with mindfulness in its focus on the present and appreciation for what we have now, rather than wanting more and more. Feeling and expressing gratitude turns our mental focus to the positive, which compensates for our brains’ natural tendency to focus on threats, worries, and negative aspects of life. 

A recent Harvard University study has officially linked the act of being grateful with increased happiness. The study reported that after 10 weeks, those who wrote about gratitude were more optimistic and felt better about their lives. Surprisingly, they also exercised more and had fewer visits to physicians than those who focused on sources of aggravation.

Oprah kept a gratitude journal which she’d write in every day for 10 years without fail. It helped her to be in the moment and to stop and notice her success. Recently though, she admitted that she’d stopped journaling. More recently she wondered why she no longer felt the joy of simple moments. She says, ‘Since 1996 I had accumulated more wealth, more responsibility, more possessions; everything, it seemed, had grown exponentially—except my happiness. How had I, with all my options and opportunities, become one of those people who never have time to feel delight? I was stretched in so many directions, I wasn’t feeling much of anything. Too busy doing.’ She is now back to journaling – electronically. She says, ‘You radiate and generate more goodness for yourself when you’re aware of all you have and not focusing on your have-nots.’ She’s got a point. What’s the use in doing anything, working hard in a job, raising a family, being in love, unless you can be present and soak it in?

A month ago I began writing a gratitude journal of 3 things I am grateful for every day. I do it at night right before I go to bed. I realised almost immediately how much happier and content I became before I turned out the light. It has been quite easy to find little gems of sunshine in my day that I should be logging into my memory. What’s changed since journaling? My perspective is shifting to the positive. That’s not to say that negative thoughts don’t come but they dissipate much more quickly.

There is a myriad of things that can be done to overcome negative feelings and it’s clear that a change in perspective leads to positive change in our lives, careers and those of others. We should all try gratitude as a route to mindfulness! If it’s good enough for Oprah, it’s good enough for us.

The start of a new journey

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So, here you are reading this…why are we starting this blog and journey and why now? It has been an eventful 30 something years. On the surface it has been plain sailing; extremely lucky enough to have a good education, great travelling experiences and eye opening meetings with people from all corners of the globe. However, there has been this constant lack of fulfilment and purpose. People can tell me many a time…but what about this or that – you did well to do it! However, I always seem to find a flaw or respond with ‘you’re just trying to be nice to me…’

What has caused this over arching feeling… well a lot to put it bluntly. A fortunate upbringing with quite a few very unfortunate events…I saw the reality of what losing everything around you means and completely changing one’s lifestyle from stability and comfort to uncertainty and constant worry. We uprooted home a couple of times but what impacted me more was witnessing first hand what financial and emotional stress can do to people. The responsibility of having a full nest but a less full bank account dictated my parents lives and it pushed them in ways I can only imagine and now only admire how they managed it. I had to keep my teenage angst and insecurities to myself as there were bigger fish to fry. It was then I had my first meeting with anxiety and the impact anxiety had on others and on me. There were not only tears but fears, upset, anger and damn right frustrations. 

I was not the most glamorous of teenagers when things were falling apart, socially awkward, slightly friendless and very spotty. I tried to be ‘funny’ as a way of winning friends… at first it was hit and miss…but soon enough it worked. Well, it worked with winning friends…not really winning the attention of the opposite sex… that came MUUUCH later…. A few years, hair straighteners and spot antibiotics later.

This experience from age 12 onwards taught me how much stress can dictate and haunt people and their minds. I saw who judged and who stuck around us in our time of upheaval. I saw what loyalty and a strong family fabric truly means in a time of turmoil that lasted well over 10 years. I saw the severe scars long periods of stress can have and still has on me and others close to me. Money has come and money has gone and so it will…but what people take for granted is that stress can come and also go but it can also stick around for an infinite period with long lasting, mental health repercussions.

For me, the repercussions are anxiety (which may not just have been experiential but caused by a pre-disposition!); fear of failure, fear of not having that stability ever again, desire to succeed to avoid any such upheaval again and it has energised me with a passion to have an impact somehow greater than myself. Despite this passion, my career progression since graduation has not reflected a successful manifestation of this. From law school (why on earth did I get put down that unsuitable rabbit hole)…to a highlight of working in NYC for a year straight to almost 18 months of unemployment… it was an all time low. At an age (mid twenties) when people were out and about doing and seeing I couldn’t do much at all…this further reaffirmed my fears, anxiety and feeling of doom that I felt growing up.

I eventually had a breakthrough in what I thought was a perfect opportunity… but only was a stuffy corporate job without the perks. A toxic atmosphere that quashed my passion and my self esteem further.

Fast forward to today and I have decided to take fate into my own hands. Battle head on with my career satisfaction and the anxiety that lives around me. I want to do, create and have impact through my own thoughts and ideas and ultimately by learning, giving back and helping. This sentiment comes more and more to the forefront of my mind especially as we enter an inflection point on mental health, the stigma attached to it and it’s overarching impact on society. Every week, 1 in 6 people in the UK will experience a common mental health problem. For employers, this causes a £30bn annual loss due to lost production, recruitment and absence (Source: Mental Health Foundation).

Now, the solution is not just to help others by giving a finite resource but by giving stress and anxiety coping mechanisms that can be used. There are a plethora of resources out there (many of which I’ve tried) but we want to learn more, delve deeper and share more, through Thought Candy. One of the most effective tools I’ve found so far – that I should have implemented for the last 30+ years – is simply speaking and opening up. This ensures thoughts, especially negative ones, can be aired and not left to fester and define our behaviours. An active way of doing this daily is actually using the notion of gratitude. Focus less on what you do not have and more on what you have. The simplest of pleasures, an iced cold ribena on a hangover – that’s mine! – to the people you take for granted every day. Would you rather have them or that promotion? Yearning or appreciating? What really will give you the best antidote to your negative, anxious thoughts…come on this journey with us and we’ll find the answer together.

Why write a blog about anxiety and stress?

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What has brought me here, to start writing a blog on all things mental health and anxiety/stress management? I am 32 years old and I have had to find my own ways of dealing with stress, worry and insecurity as I move through life. On the outside my life looks enviable; a happy marriage, house and exciting business. That’s not to say that I am not grateful for these epic things and that they are less than they are but inside my mind is spinning with what I don’t have, that I need to be a better person, that I am greedy for more in my life, do my friends actually like me?? Yes, it might sound stupid but these irrational thoughts dwell.

In the past I let my worries take over. The panic would come like waves and would knock me, making it difficult to think clearly and rationally. I would make terrible decisions because I didn’t give myself the space to think about the problem. Ridiculously, many times I would worry about a problem that hadn’t arrived yet. And I still do. I have let negative thoughts fester to the point where I have spent weeks struggling to get out of bed and face the day.

A few years ago, I was in a job I didn’t enjoy and my managers were not supportive. I was put in a tricky situation and blamed for something that wasn’t my fault. Being junior meant that things couldn’t go my way. I started to lack confidence and make mistakes, which then made things worse. I was cautioned at work and put on a disciplinary plan to keep me on track. Humiliating? Much. Worrying? Much. I am a hard worker and diligent – how did I get to this stage? I started dreading going to work. I couldn’t get out of bed. My partner would sensitively and encouragingly implore me to rise and get to work. The weekends became depressing and dark too. My partner would drag me round the park to get me out of the house. Luckily, I escaped the job and moved to a fresh, exciting role, which immediately changed my outlook on things. But it didn’t happen overnight. I read lots of books about how to focus on positivity and mindfulness. I turned to yoga and exercise to wear me out so I could sleep. What I learnt is to take my attention away from myself and focus on other things. And sharing my feelings has been helpful in hearing my thoughts being played back to me. I am lucky to have a supportive partner who won’t stand for my wallowing in darkness and self-pity. He helped me to get through the dark patch and there are still some periods when I won’t want to face the day but I have to tell myself to get up and do some exercise or get out of the house – creating distractions to the bad thoughts. It’s not easy. Learning to cope with these feelings takes time and effort. And here’s the thing; I am still learning!

I read a really amazing blog by Oprah about her solace in writing a gratitude journal. She said that she was running through life, success, fame and fortune and she realised that she wasn’t being truly present and grateful about everything in her life. She’s got a point. What’s the use in doing anything, working hard in a job, raising a family, being in love, unless you can be present and take in these amazing things.

I have always struggled with my appearance, and inevitably end up starting and ending diets and intensive exercise to lose weight. Living in London and being a young female consumer of the media and social media being constantly exposed to sartorial, aesthetic and nutritional advice, I have insecurities about what I look like. I am not alone in the slightest. Don’t get me started on my terrible relationship with food. I have a constant battle of guilt for having that Danish pastry. I can never be grateful for the enjoyment of the buttery pastry goodness. Added to that the nature of my work I am often stressed and drained. I have tried many meditation apps and they simply don’t work. I do some yoga and exercise which help alleviate stress but they don’t combat the negativity and focus on myself. One thing’s for sure, I need to find ways of focusing on the positives. Literally flipping everything around. It’s time to try. If it helped Oprah, it’s worth a go.

I know that out there many people are experiencing much worse negative thoughts than me and the degrees to which they manage them are varied. And far worse, many are going through depression. As Maya told me, the brain is a muscle, so just like exercise I need to keep training it otherwise it will stop working and bettering itself. It’s time to start training it with understanding what’s out there to help aid the mind to a healthier state. I want to learn what techniques and tools can make people, including myself, happier, relaxed and better people.