woman squints below sign that says hashtag grateful

The Unexpected Science Behind Gratitude and Anxiety Management

If you’ve spent any time at all on Pinterest, Instagram, and/or the online wellness world, you’ve probably been smacked in the face with calls to be more grateful.

Everywhere you look, there’s someone trying to sell you on the benefits of a gratitude journal or some 30-Day gratitude challenge that is going to CHANGE YOUR LIFE. 

Fake it till you make it. 

Or something. #grateful #blessed

This kind of showy gratitude reminds me of all the studies I read about how we attempt to curate this perfect, idyllic life online while secretly suffering in the real world. What’s really going on there?

woman squints below sign that says hashtag grateful
practicing gratitude


My Kind Of Gratitude

Don’t get me wrong. Gratitude is great! I am VERY grateful every second of every day to be where I am. Or, to put it another way, to no longer be where I was. 

But this made-for-Instagram version of gratitude doesn’t appeal to me. It feels manufactured. And I’ve spent enough time in my life pretending to be something I’m not. 

My gratitude isn’t really for public consumption. 

I need something less filtered. The kind of gratitude that gets into the bones. 

So I’ve invested the bulk of my time pursuing the type of gratitude that doesn’t feel put on. Before I go to bed at night, I pray (to whom, I’m not exactly sure, but that’s the best word I have for what I’m doing). 

In those prayers I call forth that bone-deep gratitude. Speak its name. Let it out. Make sure who or whatever is on the receiving end of those prayers knows that I’m aware that I’ve been spared. 

And I say thank you. 

sign that says thank you
expressing gratitude

Thank you for my life, the home I live in, the family I’ve been given and the one I’ve created, as well as a chance to start again. I always end my day with a ‘thank you’ even when I have to dig deep to find it. 

I do it because I’m trying to make up for the decades I spent being an ungrateful, entitled little shit. It’s my nightly penance for squandering all my youthful talents and taking so long to reverse course. 

But as it turns out, I haven’t been utilizing gratitude to its fullest potential.  


The Benefits Of Gratitude On Your Brain

I’ve been reading (and loving) Sarah Wilson’s “First, We Make The Beast Beautiful.” In this book, she talks about using gratitude as a tool to counterattack anxiety. 

She sites the work of Alex Korb’s “The Grateful Brain” and writes:

“Gratitude can have such a powerful impact on your life because it engages your brain in a virtuous cycle. Your brain only has so much power to focus its attention. It cannot easily focus on both positive and negative stimuli.”

Literally, you can’t be grateful and anxious at the same time. Once again, the threat system in our amygdala is overridden. On top of this, research shows gratitude stimulates the hypothalamus, a part of the brain that regulates anxiety.”

Wilson, Sarah. First, We Make the Beast Beautiful (pp. 76-77). Dey Street Books. Kindle Edition. 

She talks at length about how the perfect antidote to the fight-or-flight stress response in the brain is to find a way to trigger the automatic comfort systems. This system activates the feel-good hormones that help tamp down the threat response throughout our body. 

Like pouring water on fire.

Gratitude, self-compassion, and compassion for others is one way we can trigger those comfort systems. 

This made sense to me, so I tried it out.


Using Gratitude To Fight Anxiety

We’ve recently switched our daughter to a big girl bed. Suffice it to say, things, uhhhh could be going better.

So in this newly sleep deprived, I-don’t-know-what-else-to-try state I find myself in, there have been PLENTY of opportunities to combat some anxiety and stress. 

In moments when I feel my heart race and chest start tightening, I take a time out (and a very deep breath). I silently name something I am genuinely grateful for, like the fact that I have a healthy child and there are many parents who wish a frustrating bedtime routine was the least of their parental worries. 

And it works. 

I feel a wave of calm melt all over me. My head clears a little. I’m ready to start again. Does it eliminate the stress for good? 


But it’s a helluva lot better than grabbing a drink. 

Related Post: 9 Surprising Causes of Anxiety + How To Manage Symptoms


What does the science say?

This piqued my curiosity so I did a little more digging. Is it all in my head or is there really something happening…in my head?

If you search for “effects of gratitude on the brain” you will find a bunch of articles that cite the same three studies. So take the findings with a grain of salt. This research is still pretty young. 

Here are the primary findings. 

  1. Practicing daily gratitude activates the parts of the brain responsible for regulating emotions, memory, and bodily functioning. This translates to better sleep, reduced pain, and reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression.
  2. Gratitudes helps with stress regulation. Studies show an inverse correlation between participants’ gratitude levels and their level of cortisol (stress hormone). Higher gratitude meant lower levels of stress hormone. (And vice versa)
  3. A study out of UCLA  showed that gratitude can change the neural structures of the brain. Gratitude releases all those yummy feel-good hormones which improves our immune system function and activates the reward center of the brain. In plain English, feeling thankful makes us happy and see the world in a more positive light. Our brain says, “Oh this feels nice! Let’s do more of this.”


Journaling, specifically, has been shown to help rewire the brain to focus more on positive things than negative things. A few studies have been conducted that required a control group of people seeking counseling to keep a gratitude journal. The results consistently showed this group experienced a significant reduction in anxiety and depression symptoms compared to groups who did not record their gratitude. 

So I guess that’s why everyone is hawking gratitude journals these days!

If you’re interested in reading more, you can check out Alex Korb’s book “The Upward Spiral” on Amazon. 


Seeking Comfort in Gratitude

The initial calm I feel during my adult time out is most likely those comfort systems kicking in to override the cortisol-induced threat mode that comes with managing a nearly two-year-old who will not go to sleep. 

I also noticed that the more I tried this in-the-moment gratitude trick, the less often I needed to utilize it. I managed to stay calmer for longer. 

At this rate, I’ll be a certified Zen Mommy Master by, oh… 2027. Give or take. 

And also, maybe I’ve been too hard on the fake-it-till-you-make-it crowd. Perhaps that’s the old Bitter Betty talking. We’re all out here doing the best we can. 

I’m just grateful for another tool to toss into my toolbox.

smiling woman how to use gratitude to fight depression and anxiety
gratitude and mental health


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