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How Gratitude Can Calm Your Nerves and Make You More Effective

Calm

“Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.” ~Cicero

Being grateful or practicing gratitude has many benefits, including improving our health, relationships, careers, sleep, and self-esteem, to name just a few.

In recent years, these benefits have been confirmed in scientific studies showing how the brain is “rewired” by continuous grateful thoughts.

However, I recently discovered (and experienced) another significant, and I believe mainly overlooked, benefit of being grateful—in the somewhat unusual setting of a major seniors championship tennis tournament I played in Palm Springs this past January. I learned that:

Practicing Gratitude Calms the Nerves and Mind

As an avid tennis player, I had struggled to play up to my ability in tournament match play. I was constantly over-thinking, too cautious, and too tight during matches.

Before playing in the tournament I read about a mental strategy recommended by sports psychologist Jeff Greenwald in his insightful book The Best Tennis of Your Life:

Play with gratitude.

Feeling there was nothing to lose, I decided to give it a try. Before my first match, I thought to myself how grateful I was that:

I was able to play without injuries.

I could play in such a magnificent setting at the historical Palm Springs Tennis Club. 

I could afford to take time off from work and treat myself to so much fun.

I repeated these blessings throughout the match, was calm and focused, and won.

My next match was against a player that had soundly defeated me the year before. I repeated the above blessings and added one more:

I am grateful to have the opportunity to play the same person again to see if my game has improved.

I played the best tennis of my life and won in two sets—and again was calm and focused throughout.

Hmm, I’m now thinking there must be something to this “being grateful reduces-the nerves-and-calms-the-mind” thing. Next match: I played another (and seeded) player who also had soundly beat me the year before.

I again won in two sets.

I’m now in the semi-finals against the #1 seeded player, a former national champion. I’m not only grateful for this, but I have been playing at a whole new level and having the tennis time of my life.

I lost in two hard fought sets, but not because I was nervous or uptight. To the contrary, I played extremely well. I lost because I played a more highly skilled and experienced player who, incidentally, shared with me after the match that he was grateful that he could still play so well in his seventies! (I think he was more grateful than me!)

Upon reflection, it occurred to me that what applies to sports and performance, probably applies equally to most life arenas. Which is to say:

There is a powerful synergy between being grateful and calmness and serenity.

I soon had the opportunity to prove this to myself again, but in an entirely different setting—a courtroom. In April, I was in traffic court for a trial to fight a ticket that I felt I had wrongly received.

While waiting in court, I was nervous as heck as I repeatedly went over in my mind what I would say, what the officer would likely say, and how the judge might rule.

Then an amazing thing happened. I reminded myself to be grateful—yes grateful. Specifically, I was grateful that I had the opportunity to be heard and present my case—something I was clearly unable to do at the time the officer issued the citation.

I was also grateful that I lived in a country where I could seek justice without a lot of constraints. With those thoughts, my nerves immediately subsided and I became very calm and grounded.

A short while later, my ticket was dismissed!

The Non-Science of Why Gratitude Leads to Greater Calmness and Serenity

I have no doubt that being grateful stimulates the brain’s neurons and in effect re-wires the brain to produce a more happier state of being. I believe, however, there are more basic reasons why gratitude bestows upon us a more calm and serene state of mind. For example, being grateful:

  • Redirects our focus from what is troubling or worrying us to what lifts our spirit. We shift from negative to positive thinking—and energy.
  • Provides us with a true perspective of what’s at stake (including “how important is it?”).
  • Reduces our anxiety creating fears.

Test the Gratitude/Calmness Dynamic

I encourage you to see if the gratitude/calmness dynamic works for you as it does for me. For example, consider trying it when:

  • You have to give an important talk or presentation
  • You have a job interview
  • You have to take an important test
  • You have to perform or go on stage
  • You have writer’s block
  • You keep procrastinating in completing an important task

Bottom line, there is no shortage of opportunities where you can test this powerful dynamic!

Please write and let me and others know how it worked for you. Were you less tense? More grounded? What was the final outcome?

Photo by Giuseppe Chirico

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About Daniel Miller

Daniel A. Miller is the author of Losing Control, Finding Serenity: How the Need to Control Hurts Us and How to Let It Go, a ForeWord Reviews 2011 Book of the Year Award Finalist and Amazon Personal Growth and Inspiration Best Seller for three years in a row. He writes about control issues at www.losingcontrolfindingserenity.com and at Danny’s Decontrol Yourself Blog.

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  • http://maximyou.com maximyou.com

    Couldn’t agree more – gratitude rules. I was myself lucky enough to stumble upon the notion that “the secret to wealth is gratitude” via Sir John Templeton, a man I so much admire I tried it for myself and as you guess, life has never been the same.

    Maybe gratitude works so well because it is outward focused on what you’re getting – the polar opposite of depression. By contrast, to be depressed and stay depressed, the popular way because it is the only way, is to focus only on yourself and what you’re not getting).

  • brianbrawdy

    From the very second we inhale our first breath, we feel gratitude, a “YES” thought. Even though we have no inclination to words or their meanings just yet, we viscerally feel thankfulness. Gratitude is our lifelong comfort and oldest friend!

  • Sarah

    I really needed to hear this today! I’m struggling on a big research project – my PhD thesis, actually. The deadline’s creeping nearer and nearer and my internal monologue constantly berates me for not working hard enough in the past, not working hard enough now, being a failure, letting myself and everyone else down… you know, the usual negative stuff. I’d completely lost my passion for the subject, which made me start the research in the first place. I’d sit down to work and feel so anxious that it would take me hours until I could actually bring myself to do anything. Things were bad.
    I’ve just been sitting here for a couple of minutes thinking of how grateful I am that I’m funded to research something I find very interesting, that I have an opportunity to progress in my chosen career, that I have access to a huge wealth of the information I need, that I have supportive friends and colleagues around me… and I honestly feel so much better. I’ve been stuck in a rut of avoidance, anxiety and procrastination for over a week and I think I can see light at the end of the tunnel. Deep down, I know there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing. Thank you!!!

  • CP

    Sometimes the cards we’re dealt with are not ideal and our only
    option is to Accept and Settle. Gratitude
    carries me through my day to day life. Being
    thankful from the smallest to the biggest things is truly powerful.

  • Daniel Miller

    Sarah, I am so glad my post was so timely for you and thank you for sharing your insightful story about how practicing gratitude made you so much more productive. It really does help us when we feel helplessly “stuck.” Danny

  • Jason Holborn

    This is fascinating and compelling stuff; I am pretty struck by this article and I am going to endeavour to remember this advice. I do have nerves, I do get jumpy instead of calm, I do crave and yearn for serenity. I believed you right off the bat — the headline was attention-getting and it ‘clicked’ as true to me — yet the anecdotal evidence you provide, along with your appraising thoughts of how & why really sell me the extra mile. I hit up yoga class 5-7X a week and to be honest, it unnerves and stresses me. I struggle with emotions and energy on many days; this is great advice to try out tomorrow (when I also have some public speaking to do beforehand; I’ll try this out for that venture, as well). BTW it really caught me off-guard when you tied in writer’s block towards the end. I’m going to remember this advice next time I sit down at my desk. I am a believer in gratitude, thanks to Oprah and my mom. It has been good and beneficial and strengthening and uplifting to me many times over. A new, added side-benefit would be pretty amazing. I am grateful for this advice; thank you.

  • Jason Holborn

    PS the Psychology Today link was also good, encouraging reading. Thanks for that.

  • Daniel Miller

    Thank you for your kind words, Jason. Here’s another bit of anecdotal evidence that occurred after I wrote the article: While nervously waiting for over 45 minutes in a room at my doctor’s office for what is known to be a very “unpleasant” medical procedure, it occurred to me to practice gratitude. I thought about how grateful I was to have such a skilled and experienced doctor who used state of the art medical equipment, how I had good health insurance, and how appealing the art work was on the walls (I am an oil painter)–I even told the nurse that I appreciated that she was so upbeat and cheerful. This all relaxed me a great deal and the actual procedure ended up being only a bit uncomfortable, and without any pain!

  • Jeevan/Mirthu/Gupt

    Hello there…I loved how you started your gratitude/calmness experience with the story of your tennis tournament at Palm Springs! As an avid tennis fan or a better term would be a true tennis freak (although a really bad tennis player), I loved reading your story…While reading this, it somehow brought my thoughts to a lot of the professional players & their stories; particularly Federer! Thank you for sharing….

  • Daniel Miller

    Thank you, Jeevan. I must tell you that Roger Federer is my favorite player. He is so graceful and has such a complete game.

  • Portia

    Great article. I even purchased a gratitude journal months ago to keep me focused on the intention of feeling gratitude and acknowledging it. I have a job interview coming up and setting the intention to practice gratitude right before the interview for being afforded the opportunity to interview for such an amazing position was something I had not thought of. Thank you!

  • http://www.jelgerandtanja.com/ Jelger & Tanja

    Great article! Gratitude is such a powerful emotion! Since we started excercising our gratitude (by visualisation/actively talking about what we’re grateful for), we’re so much more happy in life and our businnes is blooming. :)

  • Daniel Miller

    Your welcome, Portia. I have the feeling you are going to have a great interview!

  • Donna MCAULIFFE

    I love what you have wrote wonderfull make a lot of sense to thank you I will give a go.x

  • Talya Price

    I know I should be more grateful for the things I have. I have always been a bit of a worrier, however I am learning to live in the moment and be happy with the things that I have and to stop comparing myself to other people. Thank you for writing this.

  • Jeevan/Mirthu/Gupt

    He is my Tennis God! I feel there is much to learn from him as a thorough sportsmen & moreover, as a human being…he truly is an INSPIRATION, whose spiritual presence got me through some very difficult times in my life..:)

    By the way..can’t wait for RG to start next week…and the inevitable countdown to Wimbly ( those two weeks are my holy week every year) haha! What do you think of the overall state of the ATP/WTA lately..?

  • http://www.beenthere1.com/ BeenThere

    Gratitude has taught me to live with the past and not in it! When I let go of yesterday which robs me of joy, I am able to be grateful for today and all the possibilities that can happen when I practice the Presence. Meditation on Gratitude has allowed so many good experiences in my life, and my acceptance of things just the way they are has become much more easy. I am not in control no matter how much I try! Surrender has brought me victory and serentiy, and when I get upset I need only surrender again….sometimes more than once a day!! It’s a process, but as I learn better, I do better, even tho I need to practice the Presence everyday. I also found that awakening to a mantra has helped me as well. When I open my eyes, I immediatedly talk to God and say “Thank You for another day, I will try to do better today. I arise, O Lord, to do thy will.”

  • http://www.lovelynbettison.com Lovelyn

    I’ve been doing this to deal with my worry and anxiety and it has worked great. The only problem is remembering to actually do it every time. I think that will come with time and practice though.

  • Daniel Miller

    Lovelyn, you have raised an important point about gratitude: remembering to practice it! I find when I’m in the throes of things, it’s often not on my mind.
    However, as you indicate, practice and awareness of its amazing gifts brings it to the forefront of my mind earlier and more often.

  • Daniel Miller

    Agreed. The synergies among gratitude, acceptance, trust, serenity, expectations, surrender (or as I like to say “losing” control), stress, fear and the like are very strong and I have been exploring them a lot in my own blog writings.

  • Tess

    Thank you for this article! I am a performing artist who focuses on classical singing, a sometimes stressfully exposed high-wire act, and so I have plenty of opportunities to put gratitude into practice. In fact, when I get too stressed/fearful, and try too hard to prove I can do my craft, rather than appreciating the moment and focusing on my musical storytelling, my skin can blotch bright red – an interesting physical barometer of stress. I tried conscious gratitude out yesterday in a vocal lesson, and I found I was able to focus on enjoying refining the physical technique in the moment, rather than worrying about anything out of my control. I am singing in two concerts next weekend, singing some fabulous but very difficult music, and will make a concerted effort to practice gratitude as I go. I’m looking forward to perusing your blog.

  • Daniel Miller

    Tess, thank you for sharing your story. I, too, have found that practicing gratitude enables me to focus and enjoy the moment. I’m sure your performance next weekend will be great. You are already expression gratitude for the “fabulous” music! When you have the time, check out the short article “Free Your Creative Control by Letting Go of Control” that I recently added to http://www.losingcontrolfindingserenity.com.

  • http://smilesnomatter.blogspot.com Riley

    I really enjoyed this post, especially the quotation that you highlighted at the top. It’s amazing all the things that you feel improving–just simply by writing down a couple of things you’re grateful for every day. It’s always a breath of fresh air to remind yourself all that you’re blessed with :)

  • infinite

    How can you calm,
    Meditation is the best way, however,
    Meditation in Buddhism is called “dhyana”
    There are hundreds of meditation method in India,
    In other religions also have different meditation,
    The purpose of meditation is different also,
    Buddhist meditation is built on the correct insight,
    Simple said is “the Noble Eightfold Path” and “Three marks of existence”.
    Noble Eightfold:
    The right idea
    Positive thoughts
    The right language
    The correct behavior
    Proper vocational
    In the right direction to develop
    The consciousness of the right
    Correct method of meditation

    Three marks of existence:
    Right way is to “not clinging to ourselves”
    impermanence
    Nirvana silence

    When you have the correct insight is can meditation,
    Meditation is orderly,
    Such as the “nine zen method”
    “Yoga corresponding”, etc.
    Different meditation,
    Have different functions,
    But no matter what kind of meditation,
    All is based on the correct insight,
    For starters, the easiest way to get started is “breathing”,
    You can refer to this article:
    http://zenspeaking.com/meditation/feeling-your-breathe-in-meditation/
    I’m glad to share with you

  • msophelia

    i’ve been thinking about this article, and working on gratitude, for the past few weeks. and in most cases, it’s really helped. there are some situations, though, where i’m really struggling to find the thing to be grateful for – when there’s something unrelentingly negative (custody situation and ex, in our case), how do we (i) find the positive?

  • Andrea

    Maybe you can view the custody situation like the other person genuinely wants to have a relationship with their child. For example, my dad only calls when it’s convenient for him. He doesn’t care much to get to know me. He never fought for custody, (although my parents shared custody) he just wasn’t there like my mom was. View it like they care for your child. I hope this helps.

  • Jason Holborn

    Well I have kept that in mind, and the original post as well, and I have found it useful so far.
    Im trying to keep it in mind more often.
    Thanks again for this