The search for serenity may be more necessary than ever in today's anxiety-ridden world. Thankfully, it is also very possible.
Let's turn to science to better understand the purpose of anxiety for all of us as well as today's impact of anxiety (Price, 2003):
Modern times are not like the times in which our ancestors evolved. The environment of evolutionary
adaptation (EEA) usually refers to the habitat of our immediate ancestors who are thought to have been
hunter-gatherers living in bands of about 50 adults, but is really an abstraction which covers all environmental
influences going back over three hundred million years to the common ancestor of humans and present-day
reptiles. The “mismatch” between now and the EEA is thought to be one cause of psychopathology. “Bad news” is
a source of anxiety. We now have daily, or even hourly, access to the bad news of six billion people, more than
could be generated by a hunter-gatherer band.
"Bad News" has been at our door step all year. Anxiety is not only a state of mind, but also a state of our physical being. "All anxiety disorders involve bodily arousal, threat-related thoughts and beliefs, and avoidance, each influencing the others to maintain the experience of anxiety" (Westra, 2012). An anxiety state is triggered by external cues or triggers, or "internal cues (e.g., heart racing or dizziness, obsessive unwanted thoughts, worry itself) that signal the presence of the threat." Often these situations cause us to have catastrophic or worst-case scenario thoughts and fears. We tend to lose any sense of personal control, become hypervigilant, and anticipate encountering fearful situations, and a waning ability to focus or concentrate.
Anxiety is an emotion that tells us our well-being is threatened in some way. How we respond to the feeling of anxiety is "determined by our character and our personality" (Gerzon, 1998). Constant feelings of worry, fear, dread, and rumination can contribute to tremendous emotional suffering. "Anxiety is the shadow cast by human consciousness. Because it is a natural--even sacred part of life, we need to learn how to become anxious about the right things in the right way, one that leads to serenity."
Easier said than done.
Angst and anger are additional obstacles on our quest toward serenity: "...besides, anger and other negative emotions at times could be so strong and overwhelming that one might forget the interdependent nature of all the phenomena" (Der-lan Yeh, 2006). "As a member of the human race, we all contribute directly or indirectly, with action or inaction to violence, be it war, conflict, or exploitation. This realization unveils the share we have in participating in the web of violence, and hence could weaken the "us" versus "them", the "good guys" versus "the bad guys" dichotomy in minds of many peace makers and allows them to face the adversary with a more inclusive, understanding attitude thus opening to more creative no-violent alternatives of promoting peace, a genuine peace by peaceful means."
A rather simple practice can foster motivation that can break the worry cycle of rumination, as well as enhance optimism. This is the practice of gratitude. It is rather fortuitous that we are in the month of November, of an extremely difficult year. Thanksgiving reminds us of the importance of gratitude. "Gratitude may be broadly defined as the appreciation of what is valuable and meaningful to oneself" (Sansone & Sansone, 2010).
Wood and colleagues (2010) suggest there are 8 aspects of gratitude:
(1) individual differences in the experience of grateful affect
(2) appreciation of other people
(3) a focus on what the person has
(4) feelings of awe when encountering beauty
(5) behaviors to express gratitude
(6) appreciation rising from understanding life is short
(7) a focus on the positive in the present moment
(8) positive social comparisons
Seligman and colleagues' (2005) research included the practice of a gratitude journal. A gratitude journal includes writing down a brief description of three good things in life each day. In clinical work, my recommendation for an added existential dimension, includes having a client also note the role he or she played in each good thing they were grateful for. Sometimes it is hard to identify a role one played, so I describe an example: If you expressed appreciation for the sunrise that morning, the role you played was that you noticed it.
A regular practice of a gratitude journal resulted in a positive correlation with well-being. Research continues to show that consistent journaling about what one is grateful for each day improves depression and positivity. Wouldn't that be a step in the right direction?
Remember, it isn't the destination that counts, it's the journey. If we absorb all of the lessons for growth we can along the way, and continue to take the next best step; the journey itself will make a difference.
The practice of gratitude can help. Each intentional step we take brings us another step closer to serenity.
Teresa Jacobson is a Doctor of Behavioral Health and Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor Supervisor who is counseling Ohio adults of all ages and life experiences via secure Telehealth visits. Teresa can be reached through emailing her at firstname.lastname@example.org,calling (513) 234-9184, or visitingwww.jacobsoncounseling.org
Der-lan Yeh, T. (2006). The way to peace: A Buddhist perspective. International Journal of Peace Studies,
Price, J. (2003) Evolutionary aspects of anxiety disorders. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience, 5(3):223-236.
Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3181631/
Sansone, R.A., and Sansone, L.A. (2010). Gratitude and well being: The benefits of appreciation.
Seligman, M.E.P., Steen, T.A., Park, N., and Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical
validation of interventions. American Psychological Association, 60(5) 410-421. DOI
10.1037/0003-066X.60.5.410. Retrieved from
Westra, H.A. (2012). Motivational interviewing in the treatment of anxiety. New York, NY:The Guilford Press.
Wood, A.M., Froh, J.J., and Geraghty, A.W.A. (2010). Gratitude and well-being: A review and theoretical
integration. Clinical psychology review. Retrieved from https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/pdfs/GratitudePDFs/2Wood-GratitudeWell-BeingReview.pdf