Transforming Chaos into Calm

“Almost everyone feels completely overwhelmed by the pace and pressures of daily life, and that exhaustion is exacting an enormous toll on family wellbeing.”
–The Secrets of Happy Families by Bruce Feiler

Reading things like that just overwhelms me. It’s like when people would say to me about my daughter Ella, “Oh, I just love that age! Appreciate it now because it goes by so fast!”  Really? I already feel enough pressure to be there in every way with my child- to nurture and protect her when appropriate, and to let her fall and take risks and learn her own lessons- all while knowing this time is so fleeting, and she’ll be grown up “before I know it.”

But really those well-meaning reminders are true. We DO need to appreciate where they, and we, are now- not out of fear that it’s all slipping through our fingers and we’ll never have those moments back (hello, anxiety), but simply because when we’re living in a state of appreciation, our lives are so much more enjoyable and we feel more connected and present.  And when Ellen Galinsky, author of Mind in the Making, asked children what they want from their parents, what did they say? They want us to be less tired and less stressed. Um, YES PLEASE. I want that too. Now, how are we going to get there?

First, awareness. As we become more aware of the patterns and habits that pull us into chaos, often beginning with our thoughts, we can start to make different choices. In the moments of chaos and stress, we can pause, notice our tension, and ask the simple question, “What am I grateful for right now?” Just asking the question causes our bodies to release more dopamine and serotonin, the neurotransmitters that elevate mood and shift our biology. “It’s not finding gratitude that matters most; it’s remembering to look in the first place,” says Alex Korb, PhD, author of The Upward Spiral. “Remembering to be grateful is a form of emotional intelligence. One study found that it actually affected neuron density. These density changes suggest that as emotional intelligence increases, the neurons in these areas become more efficient. With higher emotional intelligence, it simply takes less effort to be grateful.”

Having a gratitude practice is the foundation of any spiritual path and has even been identified by author and speaker, Dr. Brene Brown, as a daring greatly strategy for overcoming the tendency to numb or shield ourselves from feeling vulnerable- therefore unleashing our courage, creativity, and unique strengths.  In her book, Daring Greatly, she writes, “If the opposite of scarcity is enough, then practicing gratitude is how we acknowledge that there’s enough, and we’re enough.”

When we are in “scarcity-mode,” the part of our brain that regulates the fight-or-flight response, or stress response, is active.  We are focused on survival, adrenaline and cortisol levels rise, our perspective narrows, and we are often focused on what isn’t working rather than what is.  We may have racing thoughts, feel scattered, ungrounded and overwhelmed.  If we’re not careful, it’s incredibly easy to live in scarcity most of the time, constantly hustling to get more and do more.  In fact, that way of life is so common in our culture that we might not even notice it’s happening. It’s also incredibly exhausting and a sure way to miss the good in our lives. 

I used to think that just knowing this information was enough for me to reap the benefits of gratitude.  I mean, come on, gratitude is so simple.  My mom raised me right, to be polite and say thank you- isn’t that enough?  But I have discovered that practicing gratitude in the hardest moments strengthens my resilience to stress and brings a whole new level of goodness that I have access to at all times. 

To be clear, this isn’t about dismissing painful or difficult emotions by being polite and positive. A practice of gratitude calls us to a deeper level of engaging with our lives by choosing to focus on what is working, what is abundant, and what is good.

So, what are you grateful for right now?  How can you express it? Here are a couple of ideas:
- Jot down a list on a piece of paper, planner or journal
- Post a Facebook status update
- Write a thank you note
- Take a picture and share it on Instagram
- Call someone you're thankful for and tell them.

For more:

“How to Make Stress Your Friend” by Kelly McGonigal