Gratitude and Mindfulness at Times of Uncertainty

How mind training can affect well-being

Posted Nov 30, 2016

Newscaster Dan Harris had a panic attack on national television.

You can watch it here.

What might you notice? His breathing is a little awkward, heavier than it should be for someone accustomed to being on TV. His voice is shaky. He looks nervous, uncomfortable. But, honestly, if I didn’t look at the news clip knowing that he was having a panic attack, I might just think he was having a bad day.

He calls that day “the most embarrassing day of my life.”

I think of Dan Harris so often as I consider what “mental illness” looks like to the general public and compare that to what mental illness feels like to people with mental illness.

Harris is (and was) a successful guy. He’d made it, in many of the ways we consider important. Yet, his self-doubts drove him to self-medicate his anxiety and he experienced a debilitating mental health crisis. His drug use led to the panic attack that we saw.

As he sought a new solution, he discovered mindfulness meditation. He writes about his experiences in the book 10% Happier and he’s the lead voice on the 10% Happier podcast.

His schtick, mindfulness, is very trendy. Everybody’s doing -- or trying to do it. Some people, like Harris, are meditating. Others are chronicling their moments of gratitude. These concepts are connected, and they’re inescapable, which sometimes can make them seem a little too good to be true.  

But, there’s research to back up assertions that these kinds of practices help well-being in measurable ways, such as the work being done at the Greater Good Science Center and the Center for Healthy Minds. Mindfulness practices are at the heart of one proven-effective therapy for difficult-to-treat mental illness, Marsha Linehan’s Dialectical Behavior Therapy.

So where can those of us with curiosity begin?

Writer Carla Naumburg created an accessible approach to mindfulness called the Mindfulness S.N.A.C.K. Naumburg suggests creating moments of calm awareness by stopping, noticing, accepting, and bringing curiosity and kindness to what we see. This approach allows for the interconnection of mindful awareness and gratitude (and is broken down further in the graphic below as well as this article).

Mindful
Source: Mindful

Right now, I’m thinking a lot about mindfulness as we enter into a season where we’re seeking meaning and hope, and as we exist at a moment of undeniable uncertainty.

The truth is, we have always been existing in moments of uncertainty. But, our minds work better if we can feel certain. So, we do things to help us feel in control. We create stories, truths, and rituals that ground us, that make us feel healthier, happier, safer.

We are not always actually healthier, happier, or safer because of those stories, truths, or rituals. We just feel that way. I don’t say that to invalidate what we feel, but to say that there isn’t truly a time when we are definitively certain, healthy, happy, safe. Life is more fluid, more complex than that. And that’s a very uncomfortable reality.

We’re at a particular moment in history when we’re doing a lot of painting things as all good or all bad. But our experiences, truly, are both-and. What does it mean to live in a mental place where it’s possible that two diametrically opposed truths are real, at exactly the same time? Or to be in a moment when paying attention to what's happening is incredibly uncomfortable?

Mindfulness, at its best, teaches us how to be open to both-and. Ongoing mindfulness practice aims to cultivate comfort with discomfort.

Whether beginning with a mindful S.N.A.C.K. or working on developing a more comprehensive mindfulness practice, this exact moment may be the one to begin exploring how mindfulness may be able to help with anxiety and uncertainty, or as Dan Harris suggests, opening up the possibility of being even 10% happier.

Copyright 2016 Elana Premack Sandler, All Rights Reserved

Carla Naumburg also writes about when gratitude is elusive. You can find her piece here