Change up your environment by going for a walk. Then, while on your walk, make a mental list of the ten things on your walk that you’re grateful for. It might be: the ability to simply walk, the warm sunshine, not to have to walk outside in the cold, a warm hat, a cute dog, or whatever strikes you in the moment. Movement and mental noting help shift your energy and pay attention to the world in a different way.
As we all know, times are tough right now. In addition to the acute medical crisis caused by the Pandemic, in our post COVID world, we are also experiencing what some have called a “mental health pandemic”.
What can each of us do to get out of this “Pandemic Induced Mental and Emotional Funk”?
One tool that each of us has access to is the simple power of daily gratitude. As a part of our series about the “How Each Of Us Can Leverage The Power Of Gratitude To Improve Our Overall Mental Wellness” I had the pleasure of interviewing Brianna Harrington.
Brianna’s quest to live better came after a major concussion and subsequent fight against depression and workaholism. Using personal anecdotes from her recovery process, she takes a refreshing approach to deliver complex insights from experts in practical, approachable steps that empower audiences to make more space for self-care and increase their stress resilience, while improving their productivity, health and happiness.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about you and about what brought you to your specific career path?
When I was 26, I got a major concussion helping a friend remove a fallen tree at his cabin. I was out of work for months, had substantial issues with my memory and nerve damage that made it difficult to talk on the phone for more than a few minutes. These symptoms lasted for over a year.
The only recommendation the doctor had for me was to rest — no screen time, no audio, no reading — just sleep. For the first month, that’s all I could do. Later, because it felt like it was taking so long to heal, I started searching for what else I could do to speed up my recovery.
That’s when I discovered how interconnected our mental and physical bodies are. I started to learn about gut health, the parasympathetic nervous system, and the impact stress has on our ability to heal. It was pretty mind-blowing.
I grew up with a midwestern mind-over-matter attitude, where self-care is selfish and productivity is a measure of your worth. It turns out if you want to operate at your highest level, you have to take care of yourself!
A few years later, I was getting my Master’s Degree in International Development and I was stunned by what I was learning. Especially, the negative impact hyper-consumption has on people and planet.
I learned that the primary reason for hyper-consumption in the United States had to do with high levels of stress and a ‘never enough’ culture. Stress is also the leading cause of chronic lifestyle diseases and premature death, and it costs the US economy nearly 1 trillion dollars in productivity loss each year.
A lack of self-care is not only harming us, it’s harming our planet.
Instead of finishing my degree, I started Seek United (www.seekunited.org). Our mission is to help people recognize that health and happiness are intertwined. When you feel good, you can do more good. Self-care isn’t selfish, it’s essential to thriving. It’s better for people, our planet, and prosperity for all.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
At the beginning of the pandemic I was asked to partner with a career guidance organization to lead the creation of a stress resilience course for displaced workers. It’s called Hope Central. (https://www.kuder.com/solutions/kuder-career-planning-system/hope-central/) It teaches people skills on how to better cope with the trauma of job loss, while helping them uncover transferable skills and discover new job opportunities. It was amazing to work with the leading visionaries in career guidance and workforce development and I loved that they understood how interconnected our mental and physical wellbeing are.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why do you think that resonates with you? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
Lots people feel like life-lesson quotes are just empty platitudes, but honestly, I don’t. I love them! They often are just what I need to hear to help rekindle my energy or reconnect with my values.
Here are my top 3:
- “Attitude is everything”
- “Happiness is not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort.” — FDR
- “Slow and Steady”.
My dad lost his dad to cancer at a very young age. At that time, he wasn’t given the tools to deal with that kind of trauma properly. As he got older he used alcohol to manage his stress, so by the time I was three, it’s somewhat unsurprising that he was an alcoholic.
Luckily for us, he made the decision to quit, and that changed the trajectory of our lives. Since then, he’s always reminded us that no matter the situation, no matter how dire something may seem, you always have a choice in your response. He’s big into ceremonial stuff, so when my siblings and I were teenagers, he presented us each with our own medallions engraved with, “Attitude is everything,” so we would have it as a daily reminder. Mine still sits on my desk.
After my concussion, in an effort to make up for what I felt was lost time, I became a workaholic. I was a rise and grind type of gal and I was extremely unhappy. I was caught up in society’s narrowly defined measure of success. This lead me to burnout and severe gastro-intestinal issues. The doctors thought that I had Crohn’s, or maybe cancer. No one asked me about my stress levels, or how much sleep I was getting. If they had, I could have identified the issues much faster. Instead, after all the tests came back negative and the doctors had no other suggestions for me, I went back to my research about the mind-body connection and realized I had lost all the healthy habits I had established post-concussion. I had to start all over again.
When I feel that itch to work long hours for days at a time, or find myself putting off the joys of life because, “I just want to get these last few things, done” these quotes remind me that health and happiness are more important than material success and that change is not something that happens overnight.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story about why that resonated with you?
Recently, I’ve been reading The Field, by Lynne McTaggert. She dives into the research that shows how we — and everything around us — are all made of energy. How energy is constantly impacting you, and your energy effects the world around you. How ideas and even thoughts energy. It’s fascinating.
At first it sounds pretty far-out, but when you think about how we use the English language, it shows that we intuitively know this. You might have a gut reaction, people drain your energy, you really vibe with a person, or you might say that someone has magnetic energy.
When you understand that everything is in a constant state of energy exchange, you realize that even your thoughts can have an impact on your physical body, and the world around you.
The research is also so striking because this idea of our interconnectedness comes up everywhere. We see it right now with the pandemic, we see it in climate change, we see it in our consumption choices. Our decisions, the way we interact with the world, really does impact people we may never meet.
If we all understood this, we would probably start to make major changes to the way we speak to ourselves and how we interact with the world — and I think that would be a good thing!
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
I’ve been working on a 2-minute quiz that helps people get a gut-check on their resilience superpowers, while giving them tips on how to grow their wellness practices. The goal is to help people build on what they’re already doing well and help them to become aware of other tools that can help them relate to stress differently. So far, people have been loving it!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My partner, Jim. He was the “friend” I helped when I got my concussion. He is one of the most resilient people I know and he has been incredible in helping to support me as I built Seek United.
He’s one of those people who has an insane amount of patience, loves to laugh, and is a great listener. When things have been difficult, when I feel like I’m not moving as fast enough or have doubted the need people have to hear my message of self-care, he has this ability to give the perfect advice, make me laugh, and help me find my flow again. He also gives the best hugs.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now that we are on the topic of gratitude, let’s move to the main focus of our interview. As you know, the collective mental health of our country is facing extreme pressure. We would like to explore together how every one of us can use gratitude to improve our mental wellness. Let’s start with a basic definition of terms. How do you define the concept of Gratitude? Can you explain what you mean?
Gratitude comes from the latin word for gratia or you might think of the spanish word for thank you — gracias. Basically, it’s showing appreciation for all the things you take for granted on a regular basis. Things like: You were able to go for a walk today. You got to the grocery store without an incident. Your kids are so healthy that they can scream at the top of their lungs while you try to meditate.
Why do you think so many people do not feel gratitude? How would you articulate why a simple emotion can be so elusive?
Practicing gratitude can be much harder than it sounds. Especially, when we’re overstressed or on the verge of burnout — which the majority of American’s are close to. It’s in these moments that we need the benefits of gratitude the most, but when it can be hardest to access real feelings of thankfulness.
Gratitude can also feel difficult because we’re not used to paying attention to what is going well. We are constantly looking at ways we can improve things and that means looking at what isn’t working.
Another reason gratitude can feel hard is we get used to our new standards. It’s called hedonic adaptation. A good example of hedonic adaptation in action is when you got your first car you were ecstatic to have autonomy, you didn’t care that your car was a little more than scrap metal. Then you got used it. You wanted something better. Then you got used to that and the whole cycle repeated.
Now, you’re more focused on how annoying it is to scrape your car in the winter when you have to go pick-up your favorite Chinese take-out, because they won’t deliver in your area. You forget to focus on how happy you are to have a car, not to have to clean up the kitchen, and the chance to listen without interruption to your own music for 30 minutes.
Practicing gratitude does get easier. It just takes time to build the habit.
Let’s talk about mental wellness in particular. Can you share with us a few examples of how gratitude can help improve mental wellness?
Gratitude has both mental and physical benefits. From a physical perspective it reduces inflammation, improves healing, lowers your blood pressure and increases energy. More grateful people are also more likely to eat better and exercise more.
From a mental perspective, gratitude improves our relationships because we are less likely to take all the little things our family and friends do for granted. It helps improve your sleep, which then has it’s own slew of physical benefits. It also helps you decrease stress, burnout, and depression because you are more focused on all the things that are going really well.
This might be intuitive to you but I think it will be constructive to help spell it out. Can you share with us a few ways that increased gratitude can benefit and enhance our life?
When you’re stressed you go back to your lizard brain. This brain state makes it’s hard to think big picture and come up with creative solutions to problems. It makes it difficult for you to imagine your mental state changing or recognize all the good that’s happening.
On the days that it’s hard to write down what I’m thankful for, I know that I’m in a funk or focusing too much on what isn’t working. I also know that these are the days that I will tend to be more critical of myself and the people I love, which doesn’t make for a very pleasant day for anyone!
The goal is to become aware of when you’re in that mental state, and find ways to get into your higher, more evolved, more grateful brain.
In my workshops I always have people use the following formula for their gratitude practices. I am grateful for ________, because_________. This formula helps you to get to the core of why your grateful and helps you start to notice all the little things that are going well.
The more little things you can notice you’re grateful for, the more likely you are to get back into your higher brain state. A state where you’re more collaborative, creative, and a heck of a lot less critical. Basically, it makes your life more enjoyable.
Ok wonderful. Now here is the main question of our discussion. From your experience or research, what are “Five Ways That Each Of Us Can Leverage The Power Of Gratitude To Improve Our Overall Mental Wellness”. Can you please share a story or example for each?
1.) Be Curious. Approach un-grateful moments with curiosity. If you feel like you’re just going through the motions when practicing gratitude, it make you feel bad and you’re also not reaping all the benefits. Instead of getting down on yourself, approach those moments with with curiosity.
What’s blocking your feelings of gratitude? Are you feeling overwhelmed? Are you comparing your skills, worth, or material possessions to others? Are you frustrated because things are taking longer than you want? Being mindful of why you’re not feeling grateful helps give you awareness of your mental state and choice in your response.
Try to focus on really little things that are going well. Maybe, you’re grateful for your cup of coffee, or your friend canceling on you so you get to finish reading your book.
Every little call-out helps build your ability to practice gratitude, and if you have to “fake” the feeling for awhile, that’s okay!
2.) Change your questions. Reframe your questions so that you can help others search for the best part of their day. Instead, asking, “How was your day.” Ask people, “What was the best part of your….day, week, vacation.”
We get used to answering questions by highlighting the worst thing that happened, or the most annoying, or the most difficult. When you shift the framework of the question, their response shifts, and hopefully you get to share the most joyous moments.
That helps to shift to shift the energy of your conversation toward what is going well, rather than simply dwell on the negative.
3.) Relate on positive experiences.
Often when we share experiences, we focus on what didn’t go well. Instead, try to focus on the parts of the experience that you did enjoy. That way each time you share a story or experience you get to re-live the parts that went well, instead of focusing on what didn’t.
A few weeks ago, we rented a cabin to go downhill skiing. When we arrived, the plumbing backed up and we didn’t have access to a toilet for over 24 hours.
When people asked us about our trip, we could have focused on the fact that the hotel refused to reimburse us for our stay, how horrible the smell was, or that we didn’t have access to a bathroom!
Instead, we chose to focus on how much fun we had skiing and what an amazing view we had of the lake. Both stories are true, but one allows us to relive all the things that went well over and over again, and the other reinforces what didn’t.
This can transform how we relate to small inconveniences and how we relate to each other.
4.) Take it to the shower.
Try incorporating your gratitude practice into daily activities, like your shower. As you wash your feet, your arms, your legs, your hair, your skin, offer a little token of gratitude for how well they allow you to move effortlessly through life.
We tend to treat our body like a machine and only take note of them when they don’t work properly. This practice can help you to strengthen your ability to notice all the things that are going well and reconnect to your body in a healthy way.
5. Try a loving-kindness meditation.
Loving-kindness meditation helps to strengthen skills like sympathetic joy (being able to feel joy for others achievements) and equanimity (perspective, and a knowing that all humans experience pain and joy, and nothing lasts for ever) and lessen unskillful habits like a comparing mind.
If you find difficult to be grateful for your own home because your friend just bought a new one, this practice helps you show up with sincere enthusiasm for your friend’s good fortune, while recognizing that there will be moments in the future (equanimity), where your friend may also be comparing their lives to yours.
Meditations help us to notice the world in a different way, and that’s exactly what we need if we’re working on building a gratitude practice.
Is there a particular practice that can be used during a time when one is feeling really down, really vulnerable, or really sensitive?
Here are three things to try when you’re feeling really down, or in a mental rut.
- Change up your environment by going for a walk. Then, while on your walk, make a mental list of the ten things on your walk that you’re grateful for. It might be: the ability to simply walk, the warm sunshine, not to have to walk outside in the cold, a warm hat, a cute dog, or whatever strikes you in the moment. Movement and mental noting help shift your energy and pay attention to the world in a different way.
- When you get back. Sit down and Write down ten positive statements about yourself, or kind actions that you’ve done.
- Do something kind for someone else. You might send a friend a note saying how grateful you are for them in your life, buy someone flowers, or do a five-minute favor.
Forcing yourself to write positive statements about yourself can help highlight how your inner critic is often a bully and doing something kind for someone else helps prove to yourself the contrary.
Do you have any favorite books, podcasts, or resources that you would recommend to our readers to help them to live with gratitude?
Try a loving-kindness meditation practice, everyday for at least a month. I especially like the one guided by Sharon Salzburg in the Ten Percent Happier app. I’ve found that when I feel more grounded and less critical of myself it’s easier for me to connect with authentic feelings of gratitude.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Deep listening. There is such a powerful feeling of connection when you feel like someone was really listening to what you said. It is amazing to feel your emotions affirmed, without someone trying to fix your issue, give you advice, or immediately relate it to an experience they had.
I believe life would be better for everyone if we actually were present when people were talking to us. If we chose to formulate our questions and answers AFTER a person was done speaking, and not before.
A great way to practice this is: When you ask someone what was the best part of their day was, just listen. Don’t try to give advice, don’t think about how it relates to you, definitely don’t look at your phone, just be curious about what they’re saying. Then leave a moment of silence and ask a follow-up question that starts with, “how” or “what”. Such as, “How did that make you feel?”, “What specifically about that situation was so magical to you?” (Try to avoid why-based questions as those can make people feel defensive.)
You’ll be amazed at how much you learn. How much it increases your ability to connect with others, and how good it feels to really be heard.
What is the best way our readers can further follow your work online?
Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!