gratitude expands attention and treats anxiety

Gratitude Treats Anxiety

Learning Objectives

  • Understand the role of gratitude in treating anxiety.
  • Learn the three stages of cultivating gratitude.
  • Identify the connection between gratitude, mindfulness, and conscious choices.

Gratitude is a feeling of appreciation or thankfulness experienced after receiving kindness or generosity. Gratitude is different from indebtedness, in that a debt must be repaid. In contrast, gratitude is maximized when there is no expectation for repayment. As such, gratitude promotes improved relations between the giver and the recipient. Anxiety shrinks attention. Gratitude treats anxiety by expanding attention to include positives, thereby allowing appreciation and promoting bonding between giver and receiver.

There are several stages of gratitude. First, there’s recognizing that something good has been received. Second, there’s an internal feeling of appreciation, the emotional response. Third, there are follow up behaviors that express appreciation in some way.

Neglect of Life’s Positives is a Symptom of Anxiety

Most clients seeking therapy for anxiety disorders arrive with little sense of gratitude. They just want their anxiety, their panic attacks, their worries, their depression, to go away. And who could blame them. In the face of overwhelming negative emotions, reacting to the positives of life doesn’t seem nearly as important as avoiding the next panic attack, for example, or being able to sleep despite an onslaught of worries.

In fact, people with anxiety issues have little opportunity for gratitude. The nature of anxiety prevents gratitude. Anxiety creates a chronic perception of threat, in the form of catastrophic thoughts, worries, racing thoughts, and panic attacks. Anxiety increases arousal and narrows the scope of attention as a means rallying the organism to best cope with threat. As the scope of attention shrinks down, the good things in life—your relationships, your kids, your friends, your career, your knowledge and achievements—all of it naturally falls off your radar. Without any awareness of the good things in life, there is no emotional response. And without any emotional response, there is no gratitude. Anxiety actively preempts and prevents gratitude by excluding the positive things from your awareness. With enough anxiety, everything in life seems negative.

Step 1. Gratitude Expands Attention

Gratitude treats anxiety by opening up and expanding your attention. The first step is to make a list of the positives things in life. Recall that unless you have awareness of the positives, you cannot feel gratitude as an emotional response.

In this sense, a gratitude exercise promotes contact with reality, and contact with reality is always good. Gratitude takes us back to the foundations of our lives. You have a place to eat, sleep, and live. Millions of people worldwide do not. You have family that loves you. Millions of people worldwide do not. You have educational opportunities. Millions of people worldwide do not. You have good friends, you have a car to drive or access to public transportation. Millions of people worldwide do not. You have opportunities to advance in your career. Millions of people worldwide do not. You have time to advance your interest in a hobby. Millions of people worldwide do not. You have a spouse and a family. Millions of people worldwide do not.

You might not have all of the items listed above, but odds are you do have some of them. Everything you do have is an opportunity for gratitude, because nothing in life is guaranteed.

And that’s only the beginning. Now that you know what you have in the present, dig deeper. Go back in time and identify acts of kindness that still have consequences for your life. Perhaps someone wrote a letter of recommendation that secured a scholarship that led to your graduation from a training program which led to you being hired for a job that ultimately made possible a spouse and a family and service to society. What does that mean? Well, it means that your letter of recommendation set into motion a series of events that ultimately led to marriage and children. Wow, a letter set into motion a chain of events that played out over years and made possible the life you have now. That’s pretty cool.

Once a list is made, you suddenly have concrete evidence that huge swaths of your life are actually pretty good.

That’s not what anxiety tells you, of course. So when anxiety is whispering in your ear that threats saturate your life, you have strong evidence that it simply isn’t true. This evidence is important, because you’re inclined to believe what anxiety tells you.

Step 2. Respond with Appreciation

You can now take the second step of gratitude, which is to respond emotionally with appreciation. You can respond to the positives that exist in your life now. Assuming you dug deep enough, you may in fact discover that the entire fabric of your life has been made possible by acts of kindness that laid the foundation for everything you’ve done and achieved, as the letter of recommendation example illustrates. Gratitude treats anxiety.

That’s a lot of gratitude, if you take the exercise seriously. The goal is not to be grateful today and then anxious and negative again tomorrow. Instead, the goal is to change your awareness of the positives that exist in your life and their foundations in the kindness of others, and to develop an enduring emotional appreciation that persists day after day after day.

You may still feel anxious, or at least the temptation to be anxious, of course, but you now have a competing narrative that opens up, not shrinks, your scope of attention, a narrative that amplifies the positive, a narrative that is powerful because it is true. If you take it seriously, you begin to recognize the false narrative created by anxiety for what it is, an illusion.

Having a competing narrative strongly grounded in truth brings you to a crossroads. You have the narrative created by anxiety and the narrative created by gratitude. Further, you have the ability to hold both of these in your mind simultaneously. These narratives are incompatible. Both cannot be true. You are going to base your mood on something. Perhaps it should be the positives in life rather than the negatives. Where are you going to put your faith? Which of these narratives will guide your life? Choose and commit.

Step 3. Express Appreciation

The third step of gratitude involves taking some action based on the appreciation you feel. There are many actions you could take, but it is important to do something. Once you take action on a belief, particularly if that action is something that happens between you and another person, that belief tends to be cemented into your identity.

Lets say, for example, that you write a letter of appreciation to your old mentor, recognizing them for having secured your admission to a training program and set into motion a series of events that allowed you to build a life. You’ll feel great for having written this letter, and so will the recipient. Your letter of appreciation solidifies the bond that exists between the two of you. You are both more likely to be there for each other going forward.

Reading Comprehension Questions

1. What is the main difference between gratitude and indebtedness?

  • A. Gratitude requires repayment, while indebtedness does not.
  • B. Indebtedness promotes improved relations, while gratitude shrinks attention.
  • C. Gratitude is maximized when there is no expectation for repayment, while a debt must be repaid.
  • D. Indebtedness is an emotional response, while gratitude is a cognitive process.

2. How does anxiety affect the scope of attention?

  • A. It broadens the scope of attention.
  • B. It narrows the scope of attention.
  • C. It has no effect on the scope of attention.
  • D. It shifts the scope of attention to only positive things.

3. How does gratitude help in treating anxiety?

  • A. Gratitude minimizes the perception of threats.
  • B. Gratitude expands attention to include positive aspects.
  • C. Gratitude removes all the negative emotions associated with anxiety.
  • D. Gratitude changes the brain chemistry.

4. What is the second step of gratitude as described in the text?

  • A. Responding emotionally with appreciation.
  • B. Making a list of positive things in life.
  • C. Expressing appreciation in some form.
  • D. Overcoming anxiety.

5. What does the practice of mindfulness contribute to the experience of gratitude?

  • A. It helps to ignore negative thoughts created by anxiety.
  • B. It assists in noticing what is real and good in life.
  • C. It creates a false narrative of life.
  • D. It forces one to express gratitude for positive things.


C. Gratitude is maximized when there is no expectation for repayment, while a debt must be repaid.
B. It narrows the scope of attention.
B. Gratitude expands attention to include positive aspects.
A. Responding emotionally with appreciation.
B. It assists in noticing what is real and good in life.