Twenty minutes after the migraine struck on a Friday night, I was safely at home and laying in my dark, quiet bedroom. I wondered, if gratitude is as powerful as the evidence suggests — flooding our bodies with dopamine and other feel good chemicals, decreasing pain and improving our sleep — could I use gratitude to override my migraine? Could I change the typical trajectory of this awful experience? It seemed like a worthwhile experiment.
I closed my eyes and reflected upon on all I have to be grateful for — the amazing supportive relationships in my life, the opportunity to do meaningful work by helping others to heal and thrive, a physical body that mostly cooperates and serves me well, and more. As I welled up with tears from the profound sense of gratitude I felt for my life, the pain subsided. It didn't go away completely, but it did decrease significantly, and within two hours I fell into a deep, restful sleep and awoke the next day fully recovered. It was quite an impressive bounce-back considering my condition at the onset.
The old me would’ve countered the migraine with frustration. The old me would’ve begun questioning what I had done wrong to trigger the headache. I would’ve wished that it weren’t part of my life and begged for my body to stop torturing me. The old me would’ve been irritated that whatever plans I had for that evening had been sabotaged. The old me would’ve been unkind to myself thinking that I should have made better choices in the 24 hours proceeding.
Thankfully, I now know better because I’ve got the tools I need to tackle challenges in a healthy and effective manner that reduces frustration and suffering almost instantly.
Reacting to Challenges
Do you feel resistance when faced with a challenge? Do you try to suppress your feelings and pretend the challenge isn’t there?
Do you beat yourself up and wonder what you did to create the challenge?
Do you try to place blame - maybe on someone or something outside of your control?
A Different Perspective on Challenge
This migraine was a gift in disguise. It provided me the opportunity to practice everything I’ve learned, everything I teach to others, and everything I believe to be true about how to live a peaceful existence. I accepted the moment for what it was. I embraced it. I leaned into it, and recognized that I still had a great deal of control over the situation in terms of my reaction to it.
So, what’s your version of a migraine?
What situation pushes your buttons, makes you upset and frustrates you?
What is coming up in your life that you would rather resist and push away?
The situation causing your suffering isn’t what matters. Perhaps it’s the fact that some of your colleagues are more concerned about themselves than the mission of your team. Or maybe it’s your boss who is afraid to make bold moves to push the work forward, or the multi-million dollar budget deficit and corresponding layoffs. What matters is that you recognize that every challenge we are given is a gift. It is an opportunity for us to grow, to learn, to listen to our highest selves and embrace the here and now. If you can shift from that place of frustration to a place of gratitude, you will feel the stress melt away.
My challenge to you is this…
Pay close attention over the next couple of days. When you start to feel your stress levels rise, pause. Close your eyes and think about what you are grateful for. Feel the gratitude in your body. If it’s a memory of a vacation, picture yourself back there and feel the sunshine on your face. If you think of a loved one, picture them in front of you and visualize telling them how much they mean to you and why. What you choose to feel grateful for can be big or it can be small, like a delicious meal you’ve had or that yummy cup of morning coffee. Once you’ve worked through a few items that make you grateful, appreciate yourself for having the self-awareness to recognize when you are shifting to stress, and for having the ability to shift yourself out of stress.
This may seem too good to be true. I get it! How can something so simple be the antidote to the laundry list of complaints and frustrations of daily life? But, how will you know if using gratitude for stress management is total BS unless you give it try?
You can’t inspire others when you’re not your best self, and you’re not your best self when you’re under any kind of stress, like when you’re exhausted from your 12-14 hour day. Or, when you feel like you’re losing your mind because you just finished explaining the strategy for the tenth time this week to a person who helped to create it. You've got to get the stress under control for yourself and for those you lead.
One of the most interesting studies on gratitude found that when people engaged in a one time act of thinking gratefully, they increased their happiness 10% and reduced depressive symptoms by 35%. Unfortunately, those affects only lasted a few short months. But when people began to write down three things they were grateful for each night, they showed a long-term increase in their happiness. Their happiness increased 2% immediately, then another %5 in a month, and another 9% in six months (Seligman, Steen, Park, Peterson, 2005). So, in addition to working with gratitude the moment stress strikes, keep a journal by your nightstand and spend a few minutes each night writing down what you are grateful for. It’s a very small investment of time for a huge, long-term payoff.
We tend to want the silver bullet to solve our problems. Well, guess what, friends, here it is: gratitude. It won’t harm you and will certainly help you, so please give it try and say “thank you” the next time life throws a heaping ball of stress your way.
A proven executive coach and consultant, Carrie has a doctorate in organizational development, and over 16 years in non-profits. She has consulted and coached leaders from more than 30 states, and has held various leadership positions in some of the largest nonprofits in the US.