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3 Gratitude Exercises To Reduce Perceived Stress

Reduce perceived stress with gratitude exercises

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Stress is a fact of life for all living beings. And there are many forms of stress. Positive stress, for example, is helpful. It encourages us to get out of our comfort zone and expand. For most people, however, stress is a negative force. Financial stress, relationship stress and stress at work are manageable in healthy doses. But left unchecked, they decrease our quality of life. The most insidious type of stress is perceived stress. Increased levels of cortisol associated with this type of stress wreaks biochemical havoc on our bodies. Weight gain, sleep issues, immune deficiency, accelerated aging, hormone disruption and mood disorders all link to chronic stress. Perceived stress can be one of the greatest limitations we face. But it doesn’t have to be. Strategies that help lower stress naturally include supplementation, yoga and meditation. But one of the most compelling strategies is the use of gratitude exercises. 

What is Perceived Stress and How is it Different from Normal Stress?

Perceived stress is more or less a mental phenomenon. It occurs when something in our inner or outer environment is seen as a threat by our mind, but is actually not imminently dangerous. Perceived stress is caused by continuous thoughts and feelings of fear, worry and lack of control which the circumstances are triggering, rather than the circumstances themselves. The mind extrapolates what is happening into some future dangerous outcome that may or may not occur. Perceived stress is largely learned behaviour. It is a thinking habit that is modelled to us in childhood, which means it can be unlearned.

A normal stress response is an instinctual physiological phenomenon. It is a reaction within the body to address a change taking place within or around you in actual reality. We experience a short term spike of stress hormones like cortisol to deal with a valid imminent threat. But then the response dies down and our biochemistry regulates itself. 

Because perceived stress is caused by thoughts and feelings instead of actual tangible events, it tends to be chronic. Thoughts and feelings don’t have an easy off switch for most people because of the habitual nature of thought. And the persistent release of stress hormones has a detrimental effect on our health. Addressing the problem at the root level of our thinking is an effective way to reduce perceived stress and its negative consequences.

Why Gratitude Exercises Reduce Perceived Stress

Gratitude has recently been studied as a means to address a number of different health issues. According to UC Davis Medical Center, research has demonstrated that gratitude exercises reduce perceived stress and depression. They lower cortisol levels by 23%. Gratitude exercises were shown to reduce inflammation, neurodegeneration, blood pressure, A1C levels and improve sleep quality.

Thoughts have an enormous effect on our biochemistry through the mind-body connection. They give rise to emotions, which physiologically impact our autonomic nervous system and trigger the release of hormones. When emotions are negative, the body enters a fight or flight mode releasing cortisol, which causes significant dysregulation in the body if sustained. 

Conversely, when thoughts and emotions are positive, cortisol levels normalize and hormones like serotonin and oxytocin are released. These produce harmonizing and life-supporting biochemical effects in the body. When we intentionally direct our thoughts and emotions in a positive direction, these new thoughts replace the those of fear, worry and lack of control that are at the root of perceived stress. Practicing mind management consistently can even begin to prevent perceived stress.

3 Simple Gratitude Exercises for Beginners

Practicing gratitude has significant benefits in life, not just with our health but in all areas, including relationships and work. One of the most important benefits is simply feeling better emotionally. 

Gratitude practices don’t need to take a lot of time or energy. Like everything else, consistency is key. When you establish a gratitude practice it is wise to experiment with a few different approaches. That way you can see which approach is most accessible and sustainable for you to shape into a habit.

Daily Gratitude List

Jotting down things you are grateful for is a powerful practice especially when it is done daily. Here are the steps for this gratitude exercise:

  1. Have a notebook or journal and pen at your bedside.
  2. Choose the best time to make your daily gratitude list, morning or night.
  3. Begin or end each day writing down at least 5 things you are grateful for at that moment in full sentence form: I am so grateful…
  4. Make sure at least half of your list are things you have not written down before.
  5. Put your hand on your heart and read the items on the list out loud, pausing after each item to take time to feel the gratitude in your heart.
  6. Say “thank you” three times before moving to the next item.
Gratitude Letter to Your Higher Power

This is another written gratitude exercise that has a remarkable effect on amplifying gratitude. It can also double as a manifestation exercise.

  1. Choose a quiet time of day, usually morning or night, and open a new page in a notebook or journal.
  2. Set a timer for at least 5 minutes. The longer the better.
  3. Once you start the timer, address your letter to your higher power, “Dear Creative Intelligence,” (Universe, God, Higher Self etc.) 
  4. Then begin with a go-to lead in like, “thank you for giving me this life,” or “thank you for always showing me the way.” Starting with the same sentence each day puts you in the mode of gratitude right away without you having to think of something new.
  5. Then allow yourself to write in free form about all that you are grateful for.
  6. Express your gratitude for things in the past and present, but also be sure to be thankful for things not yet manifested that you would like, in advance. For example, “thank you for the ideal new income stream coming my way,” or, “thank you so much for restoring my skin to perfect health.” Keep these phrases in a positive format and avoid being grateful for things you don’t want.
The Thank You Mantra

This gratitude exercise is easy and versatile. It can be done as a formal meditative practice or casually while taking the dog for a walk or sitting in traffic. It is also recommended as you are falling asleep and again as you are waking in the morning.

  1. As soon as you wake, begin silently chanting, “thank you,” repeatedly until you feel a calm sense of gratitude in your being. You can continue chanting it as you walk to the bathroom, have a shower or make coffee. See how long you can keep this inner mantra going.
  2. Throughout the day, begin chanting this inner mantra whenever you have time without distractions. Fill waiting times with this mantra, in the grocery store line or on hold on the phone.
  3. If you have mala beads or an existing meditation practice, sit for at least 5 minutes repeating this mantra as part of your practice.
  4. At night, allow this mantra to repeat in your mind rhythmically as you drift off to sleep.
  5. If your mind wants to insert specific things you are grateful for while you are using the mantra, let it. It could sound like, “Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you for that amazing piece of cake today, thank you, thank you, thank you for the call from mom…”

These are just some effective gratitude exercises that help with reducing and preventing perceived stress. There are many different, fun and creative ways to cultivate gratitude, many of which are intuitive. 

Gratitude Exercises as a Prophylactic

Gratitude is a lifelong tool, an inner muscle that becomes stronger and more effective with use. The benefits of exercising gratitude daily reach much farther than just dealing with perceived stress. It is one of the most effective behavioural supplements to reduce stress on any level. 

Gratitude has the power to alter perceptual reality. It improves mood, outlook and emotional health, cultivating a more happy disposition. Naturally, happier people perform better in their lives and have more harmonious relationships. A gratitude practice is a form of insurance, mitigating against unnecessary struggle and strife. 

Gratitude is also known as a tool to harness the natural laws of the universe, including the Law of Attraction. Maintaining a higher emotional frequency not only allows for good things to happen in life but wards off undesirable events and outcomes.

With so much to gain and nothing to lose, why not start with a gratitude exercise today?

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