Mental health and wellbeing is very close to our hearts, and while we truly aim to have an always-on approach to covering all aspects of mental health, we have chosen to shine an extra bright light on #WorldMentalHealth today, and for the rest of October.
We bring you The Big Burn Out — a content series made up of honest personal essays, expert advice and practical recommendations.
I've had some trouble with gratitude. Sure, I say thank you all the time. I acknowledge people's actions. I show appreciation toward others for the things they bring to my life through words, notes, and gifts. Gratitude, though, is something different.
I've learned being grateful is acknowledging in your own soul you have been given something good. It's embracing goodness in the present moment without hesitation, fear, or worry about future implications or potential consequences. I've learned being grateful isn't easy, but for me it is a necessary practice to relieve stress and stifle panic attacks.
I constantly worry that if I get my hopes up, I'll inevitably be disappointed in myself.
I first realized I was ungrateful (though again, not unthankful) when I got a promotion at work. A moment that should have been a celebration instead caused excessive stress. A kind co-worker asked me if I was excited for my new role. She knew I'd been working toward this position for years. Rather than saying "Yes, I'm thrilled," I immediately vented all of my anxieties about the promotion. I listed off the panic-inducing issues: I felt underqualified. I felt like I wasn't good enough. I was scared I might not do as well as I'd hoped. I have a chronic hormonal condition that causes fatigue, dizziness, and feelings of disassociation — what if I'm not well enough to take on the stress of this new job? What if I can't manage it, and it makes me feel worse? With my illness, I constantly worry about being a burden, and I constantly worry that if I get my hopes up I'll inevitably be disappointed in myself.
She cut me off as I continued to complain and asked if I'd even taken a moment to acknowledge all of the opportunities I had just been given. Had I realized how many people had believed in me? She asked if I had thanked the universe or myself for all the work I had done to get here. She asked if I'd thanked my body, even with its imperfections, for giving me the strength to get this promotion, regardless of what it might not be able to handle in a week, a month, or a year. Her blunt questions shocked me.
We're taught humility is a virtue, but how often in an attempt to be humble do we neglect to be grateful? I had been so worried that every good thing came with a price. I rarely personally accepted the good things I received out of the fear something else might be taken away. I thought by deflecting my excitement, I would avoid disappointment if the job didn't go perfectly. Instead, I was just being ungrateful.
The night before I started the new job, I had a panic attack. The first moments of a panic attack are filled with dread. Everyone is different, but in my case my mouth begins to go numb, my vision blurs, and my ears start to ring. I feel like I've overdosed on caffeine. My body heats like an oven from the inside out, making me dizzy, my heart beats erratically, and my limbs tremor. I started to pray, because often it does help, but in this case I couldn't get my mind in the right place. I needed to do something physical. I needed to stop the pattern. My co-worker's words hit me. I needed to be grateful.
I grabbed a notebook, and I began to write a list of everything that could go wrong with this promotion . . . None of these problems involved the world ending.
I grabbed a notebook, and I began to write a list of everything that could go wrong with this promotion. I could completely fail my first project. My boss might get frustrated with me when I have to take off for medical and therapy appointments. I might end up crippling under the stress of the job and end up worse physically than when I started. What if I got fired? As I reviewed the list, I began to realize how extreme it all sounded. In my mind, these issues seemed perfectly plausible, but on paper they seemed so unlikely. Sure, I may end up having hormonal issues, but I have always gotten through my fatigue and dizziness. I have learned techniques to cope with this. I have failed before, learned from my mistakes, and produced excellent work. My last job overwhelmed me at first, and now I could do it with my eyes closed. I explained my medical issues upfront to my new boss, and he still chose me. Finally, if I got fired, I could find another job. None of these problems involved the world ending.
Next, I wrote down everything I have to be grateful for. For one thing, I had an amazing new job that aligned with my passions. It would allow me to work from home and take vacation and provide insurance for my illness. I was still healthy enough to walk, learn, and go into the office most days. My hormones may make me dizzy and fatigued some days, but not all days. I have an understanding boyfriend and wonderful friends who know about my condition, and if I can't handle this job in the long run, they won't disown me. I have value, and I am grateful for that.
As I concluded this first rocky attempt at gratitude journaling, I realized the most intense feelings had subsided. The anxiety wasn't completely gone, but I wasn't crying anymore. I wasn't on the verge of hyperventilation, and the dizziness had straightened out a bit. I could be present rather than stuck in an alternate world in my brain where all the horrible possibilities were playing out.
I continued to expand on this practice. I started gratitude journaling every morning writing down what might be a concern for the day, then countering it with all of the wonderful things happening in my life. I've now started to create themes for the day, like: "I am grateful for these accomplishments" or "I am grateful these sounds exist in the world" or "I am grateful for these humans in my life," and each list helps me remember life can be good if we take a moment to notice.