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Safety Through Gratitude

In this day and age, it seems that it is increasingly difficult to feel safe. Part of this can be chalked up to the ubiquitous infiltration of the news media into our daily lives. One or two generations ago, people's sources for news were limited - a few TV/radio channels and a daily newspaper. Heck, once upon a time TV and radio stations would actually stop broadcasting and "go off the air" each now. Now we are constantly inundated with news updates through TV, radio, social media, phone, tablets, etc. We are subject to a much higher diet of information content that the human brain either has to process or screen out. Add to that the fact that much of the information we are presented with appears to be negative or threatening (global warming, economic issues, racial tension, violence, wars, poverty, etc.) A center or two ago, people really only 'had' to worry mostly about immediate issues to their local area or personal problems. This was mostly dictated by circumstance - the simply did not have easy, immediate, constant access to news from all over the world.

Now, because of the hyperconnectivity of the current era, we have easy, immediate access to information about all of the. bad things happening all over the world. This information draws our attention by default, it's part of how we seem to be programmed. Media companies know that negative news stories draw our attention and they capitalize on this for their own benefit - bad news tends to draw more viewership and thus generate higher ratings and profits. Where does this leave us? Constantly bombarded with anxiety provoking and threatening news that leaves the threat/survival system of our brains chronically activated.

You can think of the human brain as having three separate but interrelated emotional circuitry systems. The Drive System which focuses on pursuit of pleasure, reward, achievement, excitement. The Threat System which focuses on dealing with real or perceived threats to our well-being and safety. This systems involved the flight/fight/freeze response and also generates feelings of fear and anxiety. The Settle and Soothe System (also referred to as the Rest and Digest System) which focuses on helping us feel calm, safe, and relaxed. This systems is also intimately involved in helping us to feel connected to others in relationships.

The problem described above leads to over activation of the Threat System and under activation of the Settle and Soothe System, putting the two systems out of balance. One solution might be to engage in strategic targeting news blackouts to give your brain and mind some rest from the bombardment of negative news (that is another post for another day).

Another solution to bring some balance to the systems is gratitude exercises. There is a wealth of research on the benefits of gratitude practices. A regular habit of conscious, mindful gratitude shifts the brains attentional bias away from input that activates the Threat System, towards input that helps activate the Settle and Soothe System. When we take time to focus on specific positive experiences, blessings, special people, and good circumstances in our lives it helps the brain to shift into a state that cultivates feelings of safety, joy, and calm.

There are a wealth of specific gratitude practices and journal prompts available online. Most of them will probably work well as long as you are intentional, mindful, and specific. The goal is to pick something you can be grateful for and then really mentally savor it through journaling, prayer, or meditation. Here is a simple classic practice: Three Good Things.

For one week, at the end of each day, take some time to reflect on the past 24 hours. Pick three good things you experienced, achieved, or witnessed in the last 24 hours. Review in detail what happened, how it happened, and why it happened. Write down your answers or mental savor the experience by thinking about it in detail. Do this for 7 days and you will feel an increased sense of happiness and well-being. (Credit to Martin Seligman). You will likely also experience a lasting decrease in anxiety and depression.


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