The Gratitude Protocol:
How to Disrupt Anxiety

Maria Nemeth
Apr 2, 2020 · 9 min read

You have the power to train your brain!

I’m going to give you an exercise to train your brain to focus where you want it to focus. Especially during times of unpredictability, our brains normally begin to focus upon danger and what’s not working. It’s called the Negativity Bias. There’s been a lot of research on this phenomenon, and many attribute this bias to the fact that our brains haven’t changed much in about 100,000 years. The theory is that those of us who survived and evolved had a brain that would look for danger first. So naturally, at this point in time, many of us may experience being flooded with anxiety as we are drawn to read new accounts of the spread of a deadly disease.

The point is: where do you want your brain to focus? Wouldn’t you want it to listen to you when you direct it to go from anxiety to a steady state of calm? One of the brain structures, the amygdala, has a central role in anxiety responses to stressful situations. According to research, it is possible to train the brain to disrupt this anxiety. This article will show one way that has been very effective with people all over the world.

I will use the metaphor of training an animal to begin with because it provides the clearest and simplest way to look at what happens when our brain is and is not under our control. This metaphor is a good point of departure as we look at how to disrupt anxiety.

Imagine you are walking down the street. On one side you see someone with their dog on a leash. The dog tugs at the leash, barking at everyone who passes by. The owner tugs back, yelling “No, stop!” in an effort to get the dog to be quiet.

At the same time, on the other side of the street is someone with their dog on a leash. But here, the dog is walking calmly beside their owner, who lets them stop and sniff at occasional tree trunks. Because that’s what dogs do. However, the dog returns to the owner’s side whenever it’s called back, and the two continue down the road.

In which scenario are both the dog and master happiest? It’s obvious: the second one. Even though the dog isn’t given total freedom to run around wherever it wants, research indicates that this well-trained dog is, in fact, enjoying the walk more than the one in the first example. It is taking cues from the master about where to focus. It is experiencing certainty. In certain respects the dog considers the master to be the “alpha,” in other words, the dominant one in the relationship.

Why training your brain works

In order to begin this brain-training procedure, here are a few ideas you need to consider in order for this to work for you:

  • First, you are not your brain. You have two eyes, a nose, a mouth, and a brain. You are that which has the ability to observe what your brain is thinking and the power to direct it where you want it to focus.
  • Second, although your brain thinks brilliantly (for the most part), it is primarily an organ that serves as the center of the nervous system. It has the capability to think brilliant thoughts, and as an organ, it is possible to train. It can be trained in a way similar to the way other animals are trained, a fact that lies at the heart of both scientific and spiritual research.
  • Third, in order to train your brain, you must convince it that you are the master so that it will take cues from you about where to focus. This isn’t much different from teaching a dog that you are the alpha.

If you’re willing to entertain the above, then you’ll find what comes next to be as amazing as it is simple. You are going to teach your brain to deliberately think about something that makes you feel anxious, and then purposefully focus upon something that makes you feel grateful.

In other words, you are going to show your brain that you are the boss!

And you will do it with a gentle, powerful, and compassionate training protocol.

The Gratitude Protocol: A simple practice for disrupting anxiety

A protocol is a set procedure for carrying out a scientific experiment. In many ways, this is exactly what you will be doing. Use what you’re about to learn as a scientific experiment. That is, judge for yourself if this works for you… as I am convinced it will when you carry out the instructions in this personal experiment.

You are going to follow a training schedule. If we know one thing about training, we know that it must be consistent, preferably carried out at the same time each day. I suggest you do this three times each day for at least one week. Then, go on to the next training level. You can always come back to this part whenever you want to disrupt anxiety at the moment it occurs.

  1. Find two index cards. Two small pieces of paper are ok for this, although they should be thicker/heavier than usual paper.
  2. On the first card, write: “What I am anxious about:” at the top, and then go on and write what it is, using just a few words that really describe the source of your anxiety. Make sure it is something which, the moment you think about it, you feel your body tensing up, or your heart beating harder or faster.
  3. On the second card, write: “What I am grateful for:” It could be anything: the smile on your young daughter’s face, the flowers that are growing in your garden. You can let it be anything at all. The only feature is that the moment you think about it, your heart opens. Maybe your body relaxes. It can be something big or small. Size doesn’t matter, just the quality of your experience.
  4. Place the cards/pieces of paper side by side, with what you’re anxious about on the left.
  5. Now, look at what makes you anxious or nervous for 7 seconds. Yes, that’s right, 7 seconds. No more and no less. This is important! When you train your brain, you must create a context of certainty and clarity. That keeps your brain from getting confused.
  6. Next, look at what you’ve written on the gratitude card. Focus upon this for 17 seconds. Neurophysiologically, this gives your brain time to shift mood states. As you focus upon your gratitude item, notice your body sensations. Has there been a shift in your breathing, in the area around your heart?
  7. This is one repetition. You want to do three repetitions that constitute a “set.”
  8. Complete three “sets” per day for at least one week using the same cards.

One reason it’s important to practice these sets:

In consciously telling your brain where to focus your attention, and for how long, you are systematically shifting your relationship with it.

Look at it this way: in directing your brain to change from one emotional state to another, you’re creating an experience of what Julian Rotter, PhD called Internal Locus of Control (ILOC).

People with high ILOC know that they are authors of their own experience. In his research in the 1960s, Rotter found that people with high ILOC tend to be happier, more successful, and believe that they generally have control over their life. They also showed less risk of developing burnout.

On the other hand, those with External Locus of Control (ELOC) usually experience themselves as being the victims of fate. They believe that there’s little that they can do to change situations or circumstances. This makes them more prone to stress-related illness and burnout.

The points above regarding burnout are important to us in looking at how to disrupt anxiety. Chronic anxiety is one of the recognized causes of burnout. The brain gets tired of trying to fight off these thoughts and feelings. It finally throws its imaginary hands in the air and says: “Stop! I Can’t take any more of this!” However, you can come to your brain’s rescue by gaining control over where it’s focused.

Research shows that it is possible to teach people to increase their ILOC. With this protocol, you are gaining mastery over your brain by training it to gather the thoughts you want it to think. It is possible that, by doing this, you are raising your own ILOC. In other words, you are showing your brain that you, in fact, are the alpha. And that, by all accounts, feels good!

Following this exercise, take a moment to thank your brain as well as your body for going through this training with you. You might wonder if that will make a difference. In my experience, as well as that of others, this form of self-acknowledgment creates a warm and gentle response.

A number of years ago I was talking with Jill Bolte Taylor, author of the bestselling book My Stroke of Insight, who told me that our body contains trillions of sentient cells — cells that are able to perceive or feel things. She said that she frequently acknowledges all those cells by saying something out loud, like: “Good going, girls!” And she can feel the response. It was one of the practices that helped her heal from her fairly massive stroke. Since our talk, I’ve noticed that every time I thank my body or brain for something, I “feel” a reaction. Like a moment of lightness around my heart. You might want to try it out for yourself!

During the time you’re building your brain’s ability to focus where you want it to go, you might find anxiety “breaking through” from time to time. When this happens, say to your brain the following: “It’s ok. We’re going to look at anxiety later on today. You don’t need to concentrate on it right now. I promise we’ll look at it later.” Talk to your brain. Be compassionate with it. It is learning a new skill set and it takes time to master any new skill. However, in answering it back, you’re developing a relationship with your brain that’s based upon mutual trust. This may sound counterintuitive and a bit “out of the ordinary,” but try it. Remember: your brain is an organ that, once trained, will partner with you more easily on your hero’s journey because you are treating it with dignity and respect.

How to build your skill over time

Practice the above sessions 3 times per day for 1 week. During the second week, see if you need to change anything on either of your cards. For example, you might find that you’re no longer anxious about what you initially wrote. See if there is something else that creates anxiety and use it to create the 7-second focus experience. Or, you may discover that it’s no longer necessary to focus upon the anxiety-creating card at all. If this is the case, simply focus upon that for which you feel grateful for the same number of sessions. Keep track of any change of mood over time. If you truly wish to develop this as a habit, practice this gratitude-only format for 30 days.

The final step of this protocol: find ways to experience gratitude on a daily basis.

This article describes only a small portion of what it means to partner with your brain to disrupt anxiety with gratitude. After you have finished, and possibly while you’re looking for something upon which to focus your brain, let me give you one of the most powerful ways to do it. Watch this video: A Good Day with Brother David Steindl Rast.

Brother David has mastered the art and science of gratitude. This 5-minute video takes you on a journey to discover gratitude in everyday living. You can do no better than to treat yourself, and your brain, to his healing words of wisdom. I suggest that, following your work with the Gratitude Protocol, you will be in the optimal place to benefit from his words.

Let me know what you think about the Gratitude Protocol by contacting me at acecoachtraining.com. Thank you!

© 2020 Copyright Maria Nemeth, MCC, PhD

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Maria Nemeth

Written by

Director of the Academy for Coaching Excellence, Master Certified Coach, PhD Psychologist. More at acecoachtraining.com

Academy for Coaching Excellence

Coach training, leadership development, and personal growth programs for purpose-driven people and organizations