How can positive psychology topics and practices, like gratitude, help people with anxiety about the future, more specifically high schoolers struggling with the transition to college?

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What is anxiety?

Put simply, anxiety is generally a response to stress, yet there is a difference between the two. It comes from an imbalance of activity in the emotional centers of the brain instead of the cognitive centers. This is why anxiety can become overbearing and sometimes illogical. The mind is so focused on the negative emotions that it doesn’t generate proper responses to stress because there is little reasoning.

Why does the future cause anxiety?

Anxiety about the future, also known as anticipatory anxiety, is generally a symptom of other disorders like generalized anxiety disorder or panic disorder. For some people, anticipatory anxiety is based on a fear of having a panic attack in a situation, and for others, it is surrounded by the idea of leaving the comfort of one’s home. Feeling stressed or anxious about the future is normal in moderation, but for many, it inhibits their ability to live their lives and causes an excessive amount of anxiety.

Image from Medical News Today

“Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, or 18.1% of the population every year”

Anxiety and Depression Association of America

What does practicing gratitude do, and why does it matter?

Practicing an act of gratitude has also been shown to reduce anxiety in an Italian study by Nicola Petrocchi & Alessandro Couyoumdjian. They found that gratitude “is connected to a less critical, less punishing, and more compassionate relationship with the self” and “being grateful renders individuals more prone to show kindness, comprehension, support, and compassion toward themselves when setbacks and frustrations occur.” When a student gets rejected from a dream school, or a person doesn’t get the job they had hoped for, it is important to show kindness and compassion towards themselves and gratitude is one easy way to do that. Practicing gratitude can also allow people to accept changes in their lives and even improve physical health.

Robert Emmons covers the importance of gratitude and how it can affect people.

My Response

I have built a prototype for an interactive gratitude journal that can be completed online or can be handwritten. This journal will include daily practices of gratitude– whether it is a list of things a person is grateful for that day or a prompt to write a letter of gratitude to a loved one– along with inspirational quotes, guided mindfulness, and personal stories or experiences from others. Each practice has an important purpose in helping decrease anxiety.

Explanation:

As mentioned above, practicing gratitude decreases stress levels, improves mental health, and can make a person overall happier. Gratitude can also help a person stay in the present, which limits the worry about the future and what may be undecided or upcoming. In the example below, the practice of gratitude is writing down three things a person is grateful for that day, but other examples include: writing a gratitude journal entry, expressing gratitude to 5 people throughout the day, or meditating (here is a link to more practices if you are interested). The next step of the journal is to write down one goal for that day, no matter the scale; it could be to fold laundry or finish a college application. These goals should be a task that can be accomplished that day to feel a sense of control and organization, both of which can be forgotten when anxious. Though it is incredibly important to focus on the present when a person is anxious about the future, it is important to have something positive to look forward to which explains the next question. Finally, this example shows a recommended mindfulness practice for that day, which is meditating for 5-15 minutes, and two quotes to remember throughout the day.

Example of interactive journal prompt
Example of journal when completed

Personal connection

I have struggled with my mental health for a while now, yet anxiety generally has been the most overbearing in my life. I have worried about getting accepted into a “good enough college” since 6th grade, and I have been anxious about the future for as long as I can remember. This project not only has the intent of helping others but helping myself because this semester I have learned that there is a good kind of selfishness and it is helping yourself. I hope that you take these practices of gratitude and apply them to your life, even if you do not have anxiety, as they can help your overall well-being and outlook on life. I have been practicing gratitude daily for a few months now and I have seen an improvement in my mental health.

Hi! I would love to hear your feedback or any questions that you have in the comments below or in the survey, and if you tried any of the practices let me know what you thought of them!

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8 Comments

8 comments

  1. Callie_523

    Hey Emma! I really loved your project. As a senior in high school with anxiety, I found it super helpful, and I will definitely be trying out your journal layout. I’m in the other section of positive psychology, so I tried gratitude and I found that it helped me, and I’m really glad to hear that it helped you too. Great work!

    1. Emma

      Hi Callie! Thank you so much for visiting my project. I’m so glad that you found the ideas helpful and that you also found an improvement in your mental health when practicing gratitude!

  2. Violet

    Hi Emma,
    I loved your whole page!! I found everything easy to read and user friendly. I really appreciated your vulnerability both in the intro video and in your final paragraph. It’s hard to open up about mental health issues, but it made me see how genuine your project was. Great job!

    1. Emma

      Hi Violet! Thank you so much for visiting my project, and thank you for commenting on vulnerability. I think mental health is something that can most of the time improve when we talk about it, so it is something I constantly strive to be open about– if you had asked me to talk about my anxiety 2 years ago I would have completely shut down.

  3. Tillie Spencer

    Hi Emma. My name is Tillie, I am from the abnormal psychology class. I am coming to the end of my junior year in high school and the future is definitely at the top of my list of stressors. I focused on stress vs anxiety in my project so seeing this topic from a different angle was super interesting. I love your journaling idea. I know that when I am stressed or anxious writing always helps me and I have recommended it to a bunch of my friends.

    1. Emma

      Hi Tillie! Thank you for visiting my project. I am also at the end of my junior year, so I know exactly what you mean about the future is very stressful. I’m glad that writing helps you when you are stressed or anxious because for me it is always harder to face my emotions, but it is something that I have been working on, hence the idea for a journal.

  4. Kate_227

    Hey Emma! I was really intrigued by your topic considering I am an individual who has been struggling with anxiety myself. I can totally relate to your stress as a Junior, but just know it will all workout. As a Senior, I wish I spent less time stressing and more time enjoying those moments you wish you could get back. Time flies so don’t waste it! Anyways, I really enjoyed looking more into this topic and I was glad to see nice results after mediating. Great work!

  5. Tori DaCosta

    Hi Emma! I think this is a great topic considering I did one in the past just like it! Journaling is something I have never tried but definitely something to consider! I usually think about this topic as if I were in someone else’s shoes and just think about what I would want someone to say to me and then relay that to the person even if they did not ask for it. But thinking about is from a personal perspective is definitely something I will start doing!

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