Fighting Fear Through An Attitude of Gratitude
Updated: Apr 21, 2020
Let’s start with a much overlooked truth in mental health and self-improvement circles… fear and anxiety have gotten a bad reputation. They’ve been made the bad guys that successful and happy people somehow rid themselves as part of their growth.
To buy into that lie is to deny the value of one of the most important human emotions. Whether by evolution or by design, fear and anxiety are there to help us survive. They are a form of radar that monitors our environment for risks that can hurt us physically, emotionally or both. They’re designed to prevent trauma from occurring to ourselves and the ones we love.
But they’re also informed by trauma. In other words, the threats and injuries that have been part of our history also become part of how our brain is trained to avoid risks in the future. It becomes part of how we stay alive, learn from our mistakes, pick better relationships and learn that doing shots on an empty stomach is probably always a bad idea.
Unfortunately, for many of us, the injuries we accumulate are so substantial that our brain kicks into hyperdrive and can start perceiving any change in our worlds or anything beyond our control as a threat. It can turn friends into enemies in a matter of minutes over an unreturned text message. It can talk us out of the opportunity of a lifetime simply because there is a small chance of failure. It can turn life into a unlivable nightmare, just trying to avoid every possible tragedy.
An Attitude of Gratitude: Fear’s Worst Enemy
At the core of the Thanks A Billion Project is the recognition that gratitude and fear are functional opposites. They cannot exist in the same space. They repel one another, like a couple of magnets turned the wrong direction.
There’s an immense amount of science that backs this idea that an attitude of gratitude repels fear and anxiety, but it doesn’t take a PhD to understand why. It simply has to do with which part of our brain is running the show at any given moment… the amygdala, or prefrontal cortex.
It’s through this realization of how fear grabs the wheel and hijacks our thinking that we learn how to rescue ourselves through gratitude in moments of panic. More importantly, it’s how we’ve come to believe that an attitude of gratitude, which is acquired through daily deliberate exercises, can actually vaccinate us against excessive fear and anxiety.
Fear and Gratitude: Next Door Neighbors in Our Brains
In the simplest terms, the amygdala (a-mig-duh-la) is a set of structures buried deep within the brain that, among other things, appear to regulate fear in humans. It’s the part of the brain that drives the “fight, flight or freeze” responses that are there to keep us alive. Most importantly, when it kicks into gear, it begins limiting the more analytical parts of your brain. It’s tells you to jump out of the way of an oncoming car, in part by limiting your ability to overthink the moment resulting in you getting run over.
Next door to the amygdala is the prefrontal cortex, which empowers some of the most beautiful aspects of who we are as humans. It is where we imagine, create, laugh and enjoy. It’s also where we calculate, which is a necessary step to feeling gratitude. That’s because an attitude of gratitude measures the way life could be against the way it actually is and deduces thankfulness. It’s the part of the brain that does the math and concludes, “I could still be working that lousy job, but someone took a chance on me and now my life is so much better… therefore, I’m thankful for that person and this opportunity.”
At our healthiest and most peaceful, the prefrontal cortex is the pilot guiding us through the adventures of life. But when things get crazy, the amygdala next door acts like a rogue copilot who grabs the stick and starts trying to initiate an emergency landing.
For many of us, especially in times of crises or chaos, it’s all we can do to keep the copilot in his seat and distracted so that we can keep moving towards our goals. Some of us knock him by making ourselves incredibly busy and distracted. Others of us numb her out with substances, self-destructive behaviors or toxic relationships. Ironically, all these coping mechanisms carry the potential to add more chaos to our life, even increasing the possibility of the outcomes we fear most.
Maintaining an attitude of gratitude, by practicing the daily discipline of thanking people in our lives, is the organic and healthy alternative. It puts the straight-jacket on our fear, reels in our anxiety and allows us to function without being triggered by the hurts of our past or the “what ifs” of our future.
That’s the whole goal of the Thanks A Billion Project… to get us individually and as a community of people, to take a deep breath, calculate gratitude, put fear and anxiety in their appropriate place and lead healthier, more fulfilled lives.
Today, we’re asking you to go tell someone that you're thankful for them and to share this project with the people in your lives that battle fear and anxiety.
Together, we got this.