The year 2018 was a rough one for me. My boyfriend was diagnosed with cancer at the beginning of the year and he died in early November. As 2019 dawned, I was in a very sad place emotionally. I decided to try and make myself feel better by starting a gratitude journal. I had heard good things about the practice and decided to give it a shot.
I did it daily through January and didn’t see a change. Now, I admit I was in a bad place, so I was not expecting miracles or anything. I continued to plug away at it because I wanted to give it a fair shot. In fact, I planned to do it for all of 2019.
Then came February 1st. I had struggled with thinking of things to write many days, but that day I paid my rent for another month and that gave me a clue what to write. One of my items was gratitude for having a safe, reasonably priced (for the area) place to live.
Less than an hour after I wrote those words, my landlord was at my door. We had been renting the back half of their house for about eight years. Their child had recently gotten married and they wanted to move him in where we were. We had sixty days to find a new place.
Because I had no warning, I instantly went to a super stressed mental place. My anxiety shot through the roof. All I kept seeing in my mind was that line I wrote in my gratitude journal. I felt like I had invited the chaos gods to shit on my life.
Yeah, I know that is not rational. Fear is not fucking rational.
The next day I damn near had a panic attack when I tried to write in the journal again. I tried a few times over the next couple of weeks, but each attempt was just as bad for me.
The human mind loves patterns. This love of patterns is the reason that you can see shapes in the clouds or religious figures in your toast. Our ancestors used this pattern recognition to stay alive. Way back when humans were on the menu for the larger predatory animals, those humans who could recognize the patterns of the animal’s camouflage in the distance, or a certain set of sounds, or even smells had a better chance of getting away and living long enough to reproduce.
We learned to recognize non-visual patterns as well. These days we don’t really need our pattern recognition for survival, but it still exists in our minds. Usually, it is something innocuous like weird cloud shapes. But sometimes it becomes more of a problem.
When something is traumatic or painful, it can become linked to neutral things that you will then have a negative response to. In the more extreme cases, it is things like PTSD when a person will have flashbacks when they hear loud banging noises. Sometimes that is just because PTSD people have heightened sensitivity to loud noises or novel sounds. Other times it is pattern recognition. If someone served in a combat capacity, then every time there were loud noises, some bad shit was about to happen. That is a pattern their mind has a hard time letting go of.
For most of us, its not something that debilitating. Sometimes something that seems like a preference is actually a link to something negative. For instance, I hate the color yellow. It was my abusive mother’s favorite color. The link there is obvious. I also hate orange. I have no idea why. There are other colors that I don’t care for, but they don’t produce visceral reactions. I think those colors are just preferences. But yellow and orange create strong negative emotional reactions that make me think that they are disliked for their links to other things.
I tried buying a new gratitude journal, but the result was the same. I could not write in it without extreme anxiety.
I tried typing it out on my computer instead. More anxiety.
I tried different times of day, different formats, and even calling it things other than gratitude. Like calling it a list of positive things. My mind was not misled.
I even tried just thinking about things I was grateful for. It still makes me anxious. I try periodically to test the waters and think about the positive things in my life and how grateful I am for them, but it is so uncomfortable that it is something I rarely do.
The link between gratitude and anxiety is firmly established in my mind now. I’m not sure how to change it or even if I can.
For now, I’m finding other ways to limit my pessimistic outlook because I know it is not healthy for me. Gratitude is just not one of the tools I can use.