All Articles Leadership Inspiration 6 ways leaders can swap anxiety for gratitude

6 ways leaders can swap anxiety for gratitude

Leaders can move out of their anxiety to a place of gratitude by practicing these six suggestions, writes LaRae Quy.

11 min read



natasaadzic/Getty Images

I grew up with a strong sense of right and wrong, and those values impacted my deepest beliefs about my behavior. They guided my decisions, including the one to become an FBI agent at the age of twenty-five. While values and morals are related, they differ because morals are our thoughts about our core values. 

Morals are universal and objective, while values are personal and subjective. Morals help us judge between right and wrong, while values motivate us to do something about it. For example, gratitude and indignation are both moral emotions. Gratitude is a positive emotion that encourages reciprocal altruism, well-being, and appreciation. Indignation, on the other hand, is a negative emotion that is closely related to anger, rage and revenge. 

LaRae Quy

We seem to hear more about indignation than gratitude because moral outrage has become a trend. One of the most popular headlines today is: “Where is your outrage at—?” Fill in the blanks to suit the topic of the moment. Whether it’s social issues, political affiliation or some injustice that has yet to be discovered, we are told we should be outraged at the lack of understanding in other people.

Anxiety is spiking

Negative emotions like indignation and constant outrage lead to exhaustion and anxiety. A study found that 57% of people are experiencing increased anxiety, and 53% are emotionally exhausted. These emotions tend to arise when we lose some form of stability in our lives. Right now, we don’t know what comes next. Living in constant state of uncertainty can feel like running a race with no finish line. While it may not address the root cause, research shows that gratitude can help balance us and reduce anxiety.

“Gratitude is an emotion that grounds us and is a great way to balance out the negative mindset that uncertainty engenders,” said Dr. Guy Winch, author of the book Emotional First Aid. When we express gratitude, our brain releases dopamine and serotonin — two hormones that make us feel more at peace and happier. If we want to take care of our minds and reduce anxiety, understanding how to trigger this feeling is an important tool at our disposal. 

Most of us don’t think much about gratitude except for a few days around Thanksgiving. It can take mental toughness to strengthen positive emotions like gratitude. Here are 6 ways leaders can reduce anxiety and make gratitude a stronger emotion:

1. Use neuroscience to change the way your brain works

In his article Why Gratitude is Good, Dr. Emmons shares, “You can’t feel envious and grateful at the same time. They’re conflicting feelings because if you’re grateful, you can’t resent someone for owning things you don’t.” He goes on to share that his research found that people with high levels of gratitude have low levels of resentment and envy. When we take time to focus on what we are grateful for, we choose positive emotions over negative ones; thus, we take steps to nurture our mental health and wellbeing.

Gratitude is a positive emotion derived from recognizing that we’ve benefited somehow. Recent studies have found that several brain regions are highlighted in the emotional limbic brain system when we are grateful.

Gratitude produces feelings like happiness and contentment, the physiological basis of which lies at the neurotransmitter level. Dopamine and serotonin are two crucial neurotransmitters responsible for our emotions. By consciously practicing gratitude daily, we help these neural pathways strengthen themselves and ultimately create a grateful and positive attitude in ourselves.

recent study brings us closer to understanding how gratitude can affect the way our brain works. Participants were asked to write simple, short notes of gratitude to other people for three weeks. An MRI scan measured the brain of the participants and found they showed greater neural sensitivity in the prefrontal cortex, a brain area associated with learning, judgment, and decision-making.

When you express gratitude, it has lasting effects on the brain. The study suggests that even months after a simple, short gratitude writing task, people’s brains were still wired to feel extra thankful. The implication is that gratitude is self-perpetuating: the more you practice it, the more attuned you are to it.

What you can do now: To be a more grateful person, remember gratitude:

  • Is distinct from joy.
  • Requires conscious effort and needs to be cultivated over time.
  • Asks you to focus on the aspects of your life that provide value.
  • Centers on being present in the moment and not worry about the future.

2. Place more importance on relationships

Scientists have concluded that gratitude is fundamentally about building and deepening relationships by creating a sense of connectedness. Whether that relationship is with ourselves or others, we become more likely to engage in behaviors that cultivate our deepest values.

Nearly a decade of research by Dr. Robert Emmons — the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude — agrees that people who have regular gratitude practices are healthier, happier and have better relationships. In turn, these behaviors cultivate resiliency because we need more robust social support networks during times of need. This, in turn, calms our minds and reduces anxiety.

Flooding your mind with a constant flow of worry, resentment and anxiety negatively impacts your wellbeing. A gratitude practice can veer into toxic positivity if we use it as a band aid to cover up what’s really bothering us. Pretending to be grateful usually means lying to ourselves about our true feelings. This only leads to a downward emotional spiral because it prevents us from seeking the necessary help and resources. 

Here is what you can expect if you practice gratitude:

  • A renewed appreciation for life
  • New possibilities for yourself
  • More personal strength
  • Improve relationships
  • Spiritually more satisfied

What you can do now:  Start or end each virtual or in-person meeting with a moment where you say something for which you are genuinely grateful. Invite a few team members or friends to do the same. Write one paragraph every day about one thing for which you’re truly grateful and why that thing is meaningful to you. Focus your gratitude on meaningful things and relationships, such as friendships, family, passions and purpose in life.

3. Make it intentional

Intentional behavior is moving ahead with a thoughtful and deliberate goal. To do so, we need to seek out and identify specific acts for which we can, and should be, thankful. Gratitude only works when you’re grateful for something real.

We perceive an act as more worthy of gratitude when:

  • It costs someone (either time or effort)
  • We perceive it to be of value
  • It is not obligatory or habitual in nature
  • The result produces relief or happiness

Further research suggests that gratitude is also crucial in helping individuals and teams persevere in challenging tasks.

What you can do now: Take inventory of how and when you experience gratitude by answering the following questions:

  • What have I gotten to learn recently that has helped me grow?
  • What opportunities do I currently have that I am grateful for?
  • What physical abilities do I have but take for granted?
  • What did I see today or over the last month that was beautiful?
  • Who at work am I happy to see each day, and why?
  • Who is a person that I don’t speak to often, but if I lost them tomorrow, it would be devastating? (Take this as a cue to reach out today!)
  • What am I better at today than I was a year ago?
  • What material object do I use daily that I am thankful for having?
  • What has someone done for me recently that I am grateful for?
  • What are the three things I am grateful for right now?

The answers to these questions can help you direct your attention to the things for which you are grateful. They can also help you identify the unrecognized instances that brought you happiness.

4. Keep focused

Most FBI agents and law enforcement officers enter their careers to arrest criminals who exploit the needs and weaknesses of others. Over time, however, their idealism is threatened because life is rarely lived in absolutes. The black and white of justice frequently morphs into shades of gray. Good is often found amid the bad; bad sometimes results from good intentions.

We become mentally tough when we learn to live with the paradox of contradiction and not run from the mystery of life. It’s essential to remain grateful when life takes a downturn and anxiety raises its ugly head.

  • Seek out events and people that represent the things that embody your morals and values.
  • Express gratitude when you see them.
  • Let go of your need for the “right” way to be “your” way.
  • Clarify what you know as truth in your heart and get to know it better.
  • Remember that truth is its own best argument.

What you can do now: To keep focused, think about what the absence of a positive influence in your life would mean to you. What would life without meeting your spouse or partner? Or if you hadn’t taken that job transfer? Or if you hadn’t moved to your neighborhood? Take something positive away from your life, and you’re forced to focus on what brings you happiness and gratitude. Something that, perhaps, you had started to take for granted.

5. Use gratitude to build resilience

Since 2001, the suicide rate among US soldiers has been at an all-time high. The number of soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress is also very high. In 2008, Martin Seligman was invited to lunch with General George Casey at the Pentagon. Casey said he wanted a fighting force that could bounce back and cope with the trauma of persistent warfare. Seligman and other researchers implemented the Army’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness (CSF) program, a preventive program that seeks to enhance resilience among members of the Army community. The program aims at prevention rather than treatment of PTSD.

To build resilience among US soldiers, the CSF brought in elements of positive psychology and discovered that gratitude is an essential component of positive thinking. Because here is the thing: it is impossible to grateful and negative at the same time. Gratitude is the most powerful emotion in the world. Why? It allows you to love not only yourself but others as well.

What you can do now: How do you manage the bad things that show up in life? Even bad or negative events can have positive consequences. Choose an experience from your life that was unpleasant or produced anxiety. Focus on the positive aspects or implications of this difficult experience. As a result, is there anything for which you now feel thankful or grateful? Has this experience made you a better person? Have you grown? Did the experience help you appreciate the truly important things in life? Can you be thankful for the beneficial consequences as a result?

6. Keep an eye on ego

Narcissists believe their presence entitles them to special rights and privileges. They often make selfish demands of others. People with large egos tend to be ungrateful. Instead, they believe they deserve the favors and gifts others give them.

Deepak Chopra makes these points about ego and gratitude:

  • Ego can get stuck on being right or wrong
  • Real gratitude isn’t passing and temporary
  • Gratitude takes openness and the willingness to set your ego aside
  • No one is grateful for things they think they deserve.
  • Gratitude is unearned, like grace
  • When it is deeply felt, appreciation applies to everything, not simply to the good things you hope will come your way

It’s impossible to give full attention to both ego and gratitude at the same time. When you appreciate something or someone else, your ego must move out of the way.

What you can do now: We strengthen our gratitude emotion when we seek out and find people and circumstances for which we can be grateful. We also need to focus on the priority of being grateful, especially in tough times. And finally, we need to demand the ego be put it in its proper place.


LaRae Quy was an FBI undercover and counterintelligence agent for 24 years, during which she exposed and recruited foreign spies and developed the mental toughness to survive in environments of risk, uncertainty and deception. Find out if you’re mentally tough with Quy’s FREE, evidence-based Mental Toughness Assessment. Quy’s new book is “Secrets of a Strong Mind (2nd edition): How To Build Inner Strength To Overcome Life’s Obstacles.” Follow her on TwitterFacebookInstagram and LinkedIn.

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.


Subscribe to SmartBrief’s FREE email newsletter on leadership. It’s among SmartBrief’s more than 250 industry-focused newsletters.