How Parents Can Dial Down the Pressure This School Year

In my last post, I talked about how our competitive, achievement-oriented culture is causing many young people to be overstressed, overscheduled, and burned out. This week, I want to discuss several ways in which parents can help make sure that the heat on the pressure cooker isn’t turned up damagingly high.

*First, realize you are doing damage. Even though it’s not what we parents intend, our high expectations put the most pressure of all on our children. A student who feels a few minutes’ chagrin at a teacher’s disappointment might beat herself up for days if Mom and Dad aren’t satisfied with her performance. Teens might act like they couldn’t care less about their parents, but the truth is that they do want to please us. In fact, some kids are experiencing symptoms ranging from stomachaches to severe depression due to the day-to-day stress they encounter at school and at home. So if, for instance, your daughter comes home with four As and one B, don’t ask, “What happened? Why did you get the B in this course?” Instead, focus on how great the As are. You’re still letting your child know that top marks are the goal—but you’re doing it in a much healthier and celebratory way than by being immediately disappointed over the one grade that was lacking.

*Accept that not all kids are the same. Resist the natural tendency to compare your own children to each other, to their classmates, and to your friends’ children. Never forget that kids develop at different rates, and that they also have different talents and abilities. No two children are ever going to be alike, and that’s a good thing! Our world needs variety and uniqueness. And trust me—your kids will be happy adults only if they too learn to love and be okay with themselves as they are and for who they are. So, I’m sorry if you wanted your son to follow in his older brother’s footsteps and be a straight-A student as well as a star athlete. If he is not so good at school and prefers the arts, you’d better love him for that just as well. Ultimately, the most important thing you can do to help your children is to love them for who they are.

*Be willing to let some things go. All parents struggle with striking a balance between holding their kids accountable and letting them get away with too much. Especially in today’s culture, it’s easy to err on the side of expecting too much, so take time to evaluate what expectations are actually realistic and what achievements are really important. For example, come to terms with the fact that your teen may never quite get up on time or make her bed before school. And realize that neither of those things is likely to ruin her life. Instead of getting caught up in making sure that every box is checked all of the time, try to keep the big picture in mind. Everyone will be much less stressed if you can resist the urge to micro-manage each and every task. So instead of fixating on little things that weren’t completed perfectly, focus on your children’s successes!

*Teach kids to be easier on themselves. In any given middle or high school, chances are that a majority of students tend to focus much more of their time brooding over the test they bombed than celebrating the one they aced. And as a result of magnifying what they perceive as failures, these young people reinforce in their minds just how “subpar” they think they are. If you suspect that your child has a tendency to beat himself up, help him to refocus the way he looks at life. Specifically, try to direct his attention to all of the things he does well instead of allowing him to fixate on his few slip-ups and shortcomings. The best way to teach this is to model such behavior. I think that everyone—not just young people—can benefit from showing ourselves more compassion and love. The bottom line is we’re all human—and thus fallible. So instead of demanding perfection from ourselves in every situation, we need to learn to cut ourselves a lot more slack.

*Discourage overscheduling. Between school, soccer practice, dance class, church, friends, family, community service, and more, it’s easy for kids to become overextended. In fact, many driven teens have trouble remembering the last weeknight (or weekend!) during which they had a significant amount of free time. It’s not unusual for young people to crack under the pressure of what can be sixteen (or more)-hour days, and parents often don’t recognize the strain until their children become physically affected. Outside of what’s required of them in school, encourage your kids to focus on activities that bring them the most joy. In the long run, developing their skills in a few things they’re good at will help them much more than trying to do a little of everything and burning out on all of it. If you see your teen starting to become overwhelmed, don’t be afraid to say no to the next time commitment request he or she makes.

*Get help if it is needed. You had your “bad” subjects in school, and chances are your child will too. If she is really giving this subject or class her all but is still too far below the mark, search for ways to get academic help. A tutor is certainly a good idea if you can find one who is affordable and qualified. You might also ask your child’s teacher if she can spend a little extra time with her or recommend someone who could give out-of-school help. Getting your child the help she needs can make a world of difference in her performance and boost her confidence. Even with a parent’s support, what a child perceives as a failure can have a big impact on her self-esteem.

*Promote exercise. This is extremely important! If your child is already involved in a sport or athletic activity, great! It will help him feel more relaxed and stronger, it will improve his sleep, and it’s also a great natural anti-depressant. If physical activity isn’t a big part of your teen’s life, encourage him to find a way to be active that he enjoys. As I have written in previous blogs, exercise is the single most important thing your child, you, or anyone else can do to become less stressed and happier right now. It’s a fantastic energizer, and it actually opens you up to future change by invigorating your mind and body. You might even consider making physical activity a family event! Go for a hike in the mountains, for a swim at the YMCA, or just go for a walk around the neighborhood. You’ll all benefit from the quality time together as well.

Whenever I’m faced with the difficult parental task of setting guidelines and expectations, a question I now ask myself is, What kind of future am I encouraging my son, Josh, to build for himself? It’s helpful for me to remember that even if my son does succeed at the highest level, go to a top college, earn all As, and make millions of dollars, he might not be happy. Instead, he might be overwhelmed by stress and experience a breakdown, as I did. That’s certainly not a future I want for Josh, and I’m sure you feel the same way about your children.

So throughout this school year and into the future, always remember that the ability to cultivate happiness and balance is one of the best possible ways to set your child up for success. Yes, performance and doing one’s best are important—but not at the price of your child’s well-being.

Back to School; Back to Stress

It’s that time of year again: Back-to-school time (even though your kids may be in denial!). And as school systems across the country open their doors for The First Day, concerned parents are already in the throes of planning ahead for their children’s success.

I need to start looking into hiring an algebra tutor for my son, because last year’s math grade didn’t cut it. Is it too early to sign my daughter up for SAT-prep classes? Will the soccer team’s practice schedule interfere with piano lessons? Should I try to meet with my children’s teachers before school starts? And so it goes.

Yes, of course any loving parent wants the best for his or her kids. The reason why we’re asking so much from our kids and from ourselves is that we want them to stand out, to succeed, and to achieve as much as they can. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that subjecting children to relentless academic and extracurricular pressure may be doing more harm than good. We may not only be pushing our children to excel—in many cases, we’re pushing them over the edge too.

That’s why I think it’s so important to look at this topic right now, as our kids are at the beginning of a new school year. In this week’s post I want to examine “the childhood pressure cooker” a bit more closely, and next week, I’ll share some strategies to help you turn down the heat in your own home.

Kids—especially teens—are under a lot of pressure. Consider this: Hours spent on homework and extracurricular activities are on the rise among all age groups. Increasingly, every block of time is scheduled and structured. And for many high schoolers especially, every minute of the day is devoted to school, studying, homework, and other “necessary” activities ranging from sports to service work—to the exclusion of free time and fun. These teens—and their parents—are grappling with a very real fear that they won’t have what it takes to be at the top of the class, to get into a “good school,” and ultimately, to be “successful in the real world.”

Often, that pressure is too much for them to handle. Across America, teens are burning out and making self-destructive decisions. There’s an epidemic of teens and even pre-teens suffering from anxiety and depression, cutting themselves, and using prescription medications just to get through their day-to-day lives. Also, kids are drinking to excess and doing drugs on the weekends in order to escape this incredible pressure, even if only for one night. Most worrying, suicide is the third-leading cause of death among teens. Sixty percent say they’ve thought about it, and 9 percent of high schoolers admit they’ve attempted it at least once.

Is this extreme pressure cooker environment worth it? Absolutely not! Even if all of the pushing and over-scheduling and stress get your child into a top college, there is still no guarantee that he or she will be on the fast track to professional success. And is the payoff really worth the sacrifice, which some kids later describe in terms of “being deprived of a childhood”? If we truly have our children’s well-being at heart, we need to face the fact that forcing them into a mold of perfection isn’t working. If we really want our kids to grow up to be capable, creative, and inspired problem solvers, we need to focus less on their scores and grades and more on their happiness.

The change needs to start at home. In my opinion, it’s not going to be the experts who lead the way on this one. Yes, they can share the results of their studies and offer informed advice. But ultimately, it will be ordinary people changing what we are doing in our homes to help our kids grow up into healthy, well-adjusted, and fulfilled young men and women. We as parents must be the ones to make sure that the push for success isn’t eclipsing happiness. We must be the ones who teach our children that being human means not being perfect at everything, all the time.

As I said earlier, in my next post I will offer some suggestions to help you make sure that living in this high-pressure achievement culture doesn’t have lasting negative effects on your children. Until then, think about where your family’s priorities lie, what your kids’ school-life balance looks like, and what might need to change.

The Case for Meditation

Recently I was invited to speak at Deepak Chopra’s “Seduction of Spirit: Pathway to Happiness” retreat in Chicago, Illinois. Obviously, I was completely blown away by this incredible invitation from a true spiritual master. And soon, I also began to think about the retreat in more depth. Did I just want to give my speech…or did I want to attend the weeklong retreat and immerse myself in meditation and yoga for the first time—finally—at 47 years old?

I eventually decided to attend the whole retreat, but I’ll admit, I went in with some trepidation. Could a consummate extrovert like me take a whole week of inner reflection? My mind typically runs at a mile a minute; would I have the discipline necessary to truly meditate? I was also nervous simply because I had always thought effective meditation required “perfect” technique, and I didn’t want to fail and waste my time.

As it turns out, my apprehensions were for nothing. What I learned about meditation is turning out to be a true game-changer for me. Here is what I learned:

  • Meditation can actually spark positive changes in your brain’s biochemistry. (Previously, I’d thought that exercise and antidepressants were the only two things that could accomplish this!) Not only can meditation make you more mindful and content; it can also help you deal more effectively with stress, lower your blood pressure, and boost your immune system—and much more!
  • If you hold a certain intention in your mind and meditate on it, you’ll be more likely to attract that thing into your life. Some attribute this phenomenon to the Law of Attraction; others believe you’re simply more able to recognize opportunities when they crop up because you’ve been thinking about your ultimate goal so much. Personally, I have started meditating on reaching as many people with my message as possible.
  • You do not have to be a “perfect meditator” to still reap its benefits. In fact, it’s not about how well you meditate for 30 minutes; it’s about how that meditation impacts the other 23.5 hours of the day! As I mentioned before, meditation—even when it’s not perfect—puts you in a different place and allows you to handle conflict better, be more relaxed, live in the present, experience less stress, etc. As I once heard someone say, “It doesn’t change things for you; it changes you for things.”
  • Meditation gives your mind the “room” it needs to “stretch,” so to speak. I have always found that when I’m exercising I tend to find the answers I’m looking for, and I also have some of my greatest ideas. Meditation has the same effect. Because I’m not running errands, talking to people, and completing tasks left and right, my stream of conscious thoughts slow downs and I can consider more weighty subjects.
  • Meditation drives home how very simple things can be incredibly powerful, such as the exercise we did at the retreat: picking someone we’d never met before and simply staring into his or her eyes for 30 seconds nonstop while sending out messages of forgiveness, love, peace, and healing. Believe me, the nonverbal connections you develop in just 30 seconds are crazy-powerful. Try it sometime! Our eyes truly are our windows to the soul.

If you would like to learn more about meditation and perhaps even give it a try yourself, I truly believe that you won’t find a better teacher than Deepak Chopra. I suggest starting with his free 21-Day Meditation Challenge, which is available four times a year, and can be found here. Check to see when the next Challenge begins and mark your calendar. And remember, meditation is NOT about perfection; it’s about improving your attitude and well-being.

Men, Let’s Talk about Depression.

For men especially, depression is something that’s uncomfortable to talk about. Unfortunately, our society tends to believe that “real” men shouldn’t get depressed. Men are supposed to be tough, the thinking goes, and not let their emotions “get the better of them.”

Please understand: If that’s how you tend to think about depression, you’re making a dangerous mistake. The truth is, over six million men are affected by depression each year in the U.S. alone, but many don’t seek treatment because they don’t want to be seen as weak or defective. Believe me, I understand. It took a complete nervous breakdown at the age of 36 for me to directly address the feelings of anxiety, unhappiness, and stress that I had been dealing with for much of my life.

Now, I have gotten the medical help I needed for some time leading up to my breakdown. I’ve also revised my outlook on my life in general and on my mental health in particular. Because of my experiences, I believe that it is vitally important for men to educate themselves about depression so that they can recognize its symptoms and be prepared to seek help if necessary. Above all, I want all men in America to understand that depression is not and never has been something you can overcome through willpower—it is a medical illness. This week, please read these seven facts about depression as it relates to men and share them with the men you love.

*Depression is more prevalent than ever. Increasing numbers of Americans are being diagnosed with depression—and that includes men. Studies show that each generation is more likely to become depressed than the one that came before it—and more likely to become so at an earlier age, too. Not surprisingly, antidepressant use in our country continues to grow. Since my breakdown, I’ve learned that you can be prone to depression because of your genetics, but also due to life circumstances. I’ve thought for years that the way we live and work in America is unhealthy. And I know that the recent economic downturn, and the fact that it caused a lot of people to lose their savings and jobs, hasn’t helped our outlooks and mental health.

*Men experience different symptoms from women. This is a “biggie”! Because most people don’t realize that depression manifests differently between the sexes, many men fail to even suspect the true nature of what is bothering them. According to my friend Dr. Howard Rankin (who is a clinical psychologist), women are likely to internalize their negative feelings and blame themselves for their problems, while men more commonly act out on their emotions. Depression manifests itself differently in men because their emotional circuits and brains are designed differently. So instead of getting tearful, a man who is depressed might become irritable, hostile, and fatigued. Like I did, he might dive into his work or a hobby until he literally can’t carry on. He’s also likely to blame other people or other circumstances for his problems, rather than admit that he is experiencing troubling symptoms.

*There’s a connection between depression and stress. Stress is so prevalent that we tend to ignore it and write it off as normal, despite the fact that we’ve all heard the statistics about how chronic stress can cause high blood pressure, heart disease, and other health problems. But did you know that long-term stress can also increase your risk of becoming depressed? While depression can be related to genetics, it can also be caused by long-term stress—especially if you’re not handling it well. When you’re constantly worn down, anxious, and unhappy, you’re essentially training your brain to be that way—and eventually, your brain’s biochemistry becomes locked into this pattern. While I’m no doctor, my personal experience has been that exercise is the best way to alleviate stress—and by extension help stave off depression—because it naturally releases endorphins and manages your mood.

*Depression can damage your physical health. Depression is a disorder that’s rooted in the brain, but it can affect your body, too. Depression is accompanied by a loss of energy. It can also cause muscle pain, joint pain, digestive problems, headaches, reduced sex drive, and more—and it’s easy to see how those symptoms can disrupt your life. Consider the following statement from Dr. Rankin:

“If you’re depressed, it’s very possible that you’ll feel exhausted and in pain all of the time. It’s actually not uncommon for patients to be misdiagnosed at first because they and their doctors think that the unpleasant symptoms have another cause. That’s why it’s very important to understand that depression isn’t just ‘in your head,’ and to be completely open with your doctor.”

*Depression can also hurt your family. Don’t make the mistake of believing that depression affects only you. If you’re lacking energy or if you’re anxious, irritable, or in pain, your family will notice. And their daily lives—in fact, their basic well-being—will be impacted, too. Your spouse and children might feel that they have to walk on eggshells around you, for example, and might become anxious themselves because they can’t ease your burden. You won’t be able to give them the attention, support, and love that you used to, either. In hindsight, one of the worst things about my depression and breakdown was that I simply couldn’t be the dad and husband I wanted to be. Please, if you’re reluctant to get help for your own sake, do it for the people you love. And remember that if your kids see you moping around every day, they will be much more likely to grow up the same way, thinking that an unhappy life is simply the norm. That’s not something any father wants to leave as a legacy for his children…and then for their children after them as well.

*Depression is not a cause for stigma. This is something I’m VERY adamant about: Depression is not something to be ashamed of. While clinical depression is very different from a disease like cancer, they have one major thing in common: No one chooses to suffer from either, and no one can power through these ailments unaided. Yes, I do understand why men feel it is their job as the head of the household to ignore their depression and just continue on. But doing so can ruin your life and even lead to suicide. I’m very glad to see that our society’s view of depression is finally changing, albeit much too slowly for my liking. I’m passionate about bringing the reality of depression into the public conversation, and I’m not the only one. Well-known figures including Terry Bradshaw, George Stephanopoulos, and Mike Wallace, to name a few, have also opened up about their own struggles with this illness in order to raise awareness and dispel myths.

*Depression is treatable. Many people suffer from debilitating depression for months or even years, and if you’re one of them, you may believe that a “normal” life is—and always will be—beyond your grasp. Depression is treatable, though—and with a combination of counseling and medication, most people are able to completely regain their quality of life. Once you and your doctor do find the combination of medication and/or counseling that works for you, I promise you’ll be astounded by the results. It’s possible that just one pill a day can make you feel like a whole new man again! When my doctor and I found a medication that restored my brain chemistry, I felt like my old self in just six weeks’ time.

If you think that you (or a man you love) might be suffering from depression—or even heading toward it—please, please talk with a medical professional. Being aware of your mental health is just as important as being aware of your physical health. Above all, remember that getting help for depression is not—let me repeat that, is not—a cause for shame or stigma. In fact, it’s the best thing you can do for your health, your family, and your future.

 

 

It’s Time for Summer Camp…and Separation Anxiety

For generations, sending kids to summer camp has been an American tradition. For a lot of youngsters, camp is what their parents hope it will be: namely, a blast! But for other children, camp is something to be unsure of…or downright terrified by.

The fact is, many children experience some degree of separation anxiety when they are away from their home and parents. Many eventually learn to deal with the absence of Mom and Dad without experiencing undue stress. However, assuming that your homesick child will “get over it” might be a false—and even dangerous—assumption to make. Trust me, I know from firsthand experience!

I dealt with separation anxiety throughout my childhood, and one instance in particular was nearly disastrous. When I was ten, my parents sent me to a sleepaway sports camp in a different state. They figured I’d enjoy it because my brother did and because I loved sports. Boy, were my mom and dad wrong despite their best intentions! The first night away from home I barely slept, and the next day I felt panicked and sick.

Soon, I was experiencing full-blown anxiety attacks (though I didn’t recognize them as such). My heart was pounding so hard I thought I was going to die. After seventy-two hours away, I was willing to do anything to get home…so I tried to drink some of the paint in the art shop to force my ticket home. Luckily a counselor caught me before I could really harm myself, and my parents were called to bring me home early.

While my story may seem “extreme,” my point is that to kids, anxiety and apprehension are real. Homesickness won’t necessarily go away on its own. So if your child is anxious about a separation, please take his or her concerns seriously. Here are a few facts and pieces of advice that you might find helpful if camp is in your child’s summer plans:

*First, gauge your child’s level of anxiety before making summer plans. According to my friend Dr. Howard J. Rankin (a licensed clinical psychologist), about one in twenty-five children suffers from Separation Anxiety Disorder. It goes beyond “normal” homesickness and can have long-lasting negative effects on your child’s development. Specifically, kids whose separation anxiety is severe may:

  • Worry that something might happen to you or other loved ones while you are separated
  • Suffer from nightmares
  • Manifest physical symptoms, such as a stomachache or a panic attack
  • Cling to you, especially in an “age-inappropriate” way
  • Refuse to go to a particular destination, such as school…or camp

If you suspect that your child might have Separation Anxiety Disorder, please seek the advice of a medical professional! As my story proves, sending a child who suffers from Separation Anxiety Disorder away may end up doing more harm than good.

Now, what about children who are nervous or apprehensive about leaving for camp, but who are not severely anxious? Here are a few things you can do to alleviate their worries and ease the transition:

*Talk it over with your child. Before signing up for any camp or away-from-home activity, talk to your child about it. Ask him how he’s feeling and what he thinks about these plans. Above all, be sure to acknowledge your child’s feelings as legitimate. Even if you don’t believe there’s any real reason for him to be upset, remember that his feelings and fears are very real in his own mind. It’s a good idea to let your child have some say in decision making—if he flat-out doesn’t want to go to camp, don’t force him! I repeat, do not force him!! You might also consider giving him a choice—day camp as opposed to sleepaway, for example.

*Stay calm and positive. If your prospective camper voices worries, acknowledge them, but don’t feed into them by adding your own apprehensions to the pile. (And certainly don’t bring up worrisome what-ifs yourself—for example, “I just don’t know how I’m going to make it a whole week without you here, Junior!”) Instead, focus on camp’s positive aspects. Remind your child of how much fun she’ll have and what she’ll learn. And don’t make a big deal out of the drop-off—if you get emotional, your child is more likely to lose control too. Lastly, if you do receive an upset phone call, email, or letter, don’t make a fuss that your child can feed off of. Instead, try to talk to a counselor or camp administrator about your child’s homesickness before making a decision regarding how to proceed.

*Feed your child’s interests. Sometimes homesickness can be sparked by boredom and unhappiness—so don’t assume that just because you enjoyed science camp in your youth, for example, your child will too. It’s always a good idea to make sure that any camp you’re considering for your child is a good fit for him. After all, if he’s happy and engaged, his attention is more likely to be focused on what’s right in front of him, and not on what he’s missing.

*Let your child take “home” with her. Your child may be traveling miles away, but there’s no reason why she needs to leave home behind altogether. Send familiar objects with her, such as a favorite stuffed animal, a small picture of you, a handwritten note, and/or phone numbers. She’ll feel less cut off from everything that’s familiar and will therefore be less likely to experience severe homesickness. It’s even better if she can go to camp with a friend from home.

Ultimately, I believe that there are very few children who won’t at least feel a twinge of homesickness when overnight camp—or any significant separation—rolls around. But if you approach the situation positively and rationally and encourage your child to do the same, you’ll both be better prepared for the separation—and you will be better equipped to determine if your child’s anxiety levels aren’t normal or healthy.

 

Say No to (Needless) Stress

“Stress is a killer.” Yes, we all say it, but how many of us really believe it? If you’re like most Americans, you probably just accept stress as an inevitable part of life. Stress, the thinking goes, is the price we pay for our jobs, houses, cars, and relatively comfortable lives. To some extent, that’s true. After all, no success, job, or family has ever been—or ever will be—stress-free. And you certainly can’t control big-time stressors like the economy or a parent’s degenerative illness.

That being said, it’s also true that most of us are paying a much higher “stress price” than we have to, and this lifestyle is incredibly unhealthy. Stress prevents you from enjoying your current blessings, and it can also trigger long-term effects including high blood pressure, insomnia, depression, and anxiety. Now, you may think I’m crazy when I say that it’s in your power to reduce the amount of stress in your life, but it’s true! (And it’s also imperative that you do so for the sake of your health, happiness, and future.) In this post, I’d like to share two stress-reducing strategies that have worked for me.

Strategy number one is as simple as changing the way you think about something that’s causing you anxiety. For example, when I was first starting out as a leader in my family’s company, I was literally making myself sick over several types of emergencies that I had to deal with: store managers quitting without giving notice, store break-ins, and employees stealing from our company. Thanks to the Tony Robbins tapes I’ve blogged about before, though, I learned that I could reframe how I thought about these problems. Instead of treating them as five-alarm, code-blue emergencies I shouldn’t have to deal with, I chose to see them as part of my job description.

That change of perspective made a huge difference in how I reacted to and managed these situations, and the same can be true for you. By retraining yourself to act differently in difficult situations, you can drastically improve your quality of life. Whenever you don’t have the power to change a stressful situation, try to view it as a challenge instead of as a hardship. Come up with a game plan for how you’d like to react and visualize yourself doing so until this more positive behavior becomes second nature.

Another way to reduce the amount of overall stress in your life is to identify the two or three things that cause you the most grief on a consistent basis and do something about them. Actually, I’ve found that these “problem spots” are often deceptively small. We don’t realize how big of a difference the so-called little things can make in our overall contentment levels, so we allow them to continue being thorns in our sides.

In my book, I use the example of a clean house when I talk about taking control of your everyday stressors, because I think it’s something a lot of people can relate to (and if not, something of similar magnitude probably bugs you). Let’s say that whenever your house isn’t vacuumed, swept, and put away, you feel stressed, so you spend a large chunk of your after-work hours straightening and scrubbing. It doesn’t end there, though, because you now feel bad about not spending the time with your family, and that type of guilt eats at you for days. Here are the stress-reducing suggestions I give in my book to help you break free of this hypothetical cycle:

  1. Hire a housekeeper. It may not be as expensive as you think. In fact, you could pay the housekeeper with the “guilt money” you’ve been spending on buying “stuff” for your children to make up for the time you don’t spend with them.
  2. Get family members to share the load. Why is all the housekeeping your job, anyway? You may need to have a frank discussion with your spouse and kids about dividing up the chores so you’ll all have more time to spend together.
  3. Rethink your need for super-cleanliness. Which is more important: getting the floor mopped three times a week or spending the time relaxing with your spouse or reading to your child? You may well decide you can overlook a little dirt!

Obviously, this is just one example among thousands of things that might cause you to feel stress rather than serenity. (And yes, it’s true that you’ll never be able to make your life totally stress-free.) But hopefully you can see that with a little thought and motivation, you can make changes that will drastically impact your happiness, and by extension, that of the people you care about.

 

 

 

 

 

When Do You Live?: The Importance of Being Present in 2012

In just a few short days, we will all be ringing in a brand new year. And across America, people will be making New Year’s resolutions aimed at improving their lives. That’s why I wanted to make my own suggestion as to how you can make 2012 the best year yet. As you’ll see, my recommended resolution doesn’t have to do with weight or money or exercise or any of the “usual suspects”—but I think it can still make a profound impact on how happy and fulfilled you are.

First, let me tell you about a TV segment I saw several years ago. An elderly woman was being interviewed because she had recently celebrated her 100th birthday. One of the questions the interviewer asked was, “What is the most important lesson you’ve learned during all of your years?” After a little thought, the woman replied that as she looked back over her life, she realized that she had spent a large amount of her time on earth worrying about things that never actually ended up happening. She said that she now regretted all of those hours she had spent in anxious—and ultimately useless—thought, and she told viewers to be careful not to fall into the same trap.

As I watched that interview, I realized that I had spent much of my own life doing exactly what the 100-year-old woman said not to (and I figured that she knew what she was talking about). Just like her, I had spent what probably added up to years of my life wondering about frightening what-ifs and worrying about bad things that might come to pass in the future. On top of that, I also tended to replay my mistakes in my mind and beat myself up for them, over and over and over again.

In other words, I had spent a lot of my life not living in the present moment. I was so fixated on the past and concerned about the future that I wasn’t enjoying all of the blessings and wonderful people who were already around me. Now that is a real tragedy. So, please join me in resolving to make 2012 the year we all really live more in the present.

Here are three relatively simple steps to help you keep this resolution from January to December…and beyond!:

1. Let go of the past. In my experience, this is the most difficult of the three steps to accomplish. That’s because in order to stop dwelling on things that have already happened, you have to forgive yourself and others for insults, mistakes, and wrongs that you’ve been holding on to. I could write an entire book on the subject of forgiveness (other people already have!), but it’s important to realize that by allowing anger and resentment of this kind to reside in you, you are essentially welcoming toxic thoughts, harmful stress, and even physical illness. When you experience true forgiveness, though, you are preserving your health and literally freeing your thoughts from negative bonds.

2. Think ahead (realistically). Whenever you find yourself worrying about what might happen in the future, confront that worry head-on. First, determine how likely it is that your doomsday scenario will actually happen at all. In most cases, it will be a relatively small possibility. Next, think through all the implications of this possible event if it did happen. You’ll probably have to admit that it would not kill you or destroy your life forever, and you might also see that there would be a remedy within your reach even if it were not that desirable. Now that you’ve mentally dealt with this worry, you can stop dwelling on it.

 

3. Be aware. Lastly, simply make an effort to experience now. Notice and appreciate what is going on around you and use all of your senses. Also, try to be aware of when your thoughts start “living” unhealthily in the past or in the future, and then make a conscious effort to come back to the present. This will take time and effort, so don’t be discouraged if you find yourself falling back on your old mental habits more than you’d like. In fact, just be happy for now that you noticed your mind negatively focusing on the past or future. As time goes by, you’ll notice that your emotional and mental states are increasingly positive and present as you spend more and more time in the here and now.

Ultimately, I don’t want to look back on my life with regrets like that elderly woman in the interview—and I bet you don’t either. I truly believe that by living more fully in the present, we can all live the wonderful lives we were meant to live! And 2012 is the perfect time to start.

Beat Up or Build Up: Choose to Be Easier on Yourself

In an earlier blog post, I talked about how we all have the power to choose happiness for ourselves and I gave a few short examples of what that might look like in your life. I don’t want to stop there, though. Being able to make choices that increase your happiness is such an important concept to understand that I’d like to devote my next few blog posts along the way to elaborating on it.

In all situations there are responses that will make you feel better and more positive, and responses that will only increase your stress and unhappiness.

For example, let’s see how we can choose to be easier on ourselves after making a mistake:

Let’s say you’re giving a presentation at work. You feel fully prepared and you know what you’re talking about. The first part of the presentation goes smoothly, and the few jitters you felt at the beginning have been entirely replaced by confidence. When you look up from your notes to make eye contact with your coworkers, though, you lose your place in your notes. There is a long pause while you frantically search for the next point you wanted to make. You are a bit shaken, but you carry on and finish out your presentation without any other problems.

Choose this: Focus on all of the things that went well in the presentation. When people tell you that you did a nice job, accept the compliments with a genuine smile and thank them. Tell yourself, Overall, the presentation was very good, but next time I should organize my notes a bit better. Then you get to work on your next big project!

NOT that: You fixate on the pause during your presentation and disregard everything else. When people tell you that you did a nice job, you respond, “That’s nice of you to say, but I could just kick myself for messing up.” Throughout the rest of the week, you continue to tell yourself, I am a failure.

Why? One of the keys to happiness is choosing to be easier on yourself. Why let the one thing you did wrong ruin the hundreds of things you’ve done right? It is human nature to focus on the negative, but you have the power to change your thought process. As long as you learn from your mistakes, you should accept them as a part of life—you’re not the only person who has ever messed up! Plus, the mistakes you make usually pale in comparison to your accomplishments. Happy people acknowledge their achievements and keep their mistakes in perspective.

I think it’s a shame that people tend to torture themselves for not being perfect—but I understand why they do it. It took me a very long time to accept the fact that I am human too, and thus fallible. The truth is, we all make mistakes, and I’ve learned that it makes more sense to laugh at and appreciate your own humanity, fallibility, and mix-ups. Believe me, no one cares about that little mistake you made in your speech (or any other minor slip-ups that might occur!), so don’t allow it to dominate your whole week and infect your outlook with negativity. We all must learn to be our own best cheerleaders, building ourselves up every day—not the reverse!

Get Active to Get Happy: Why Exercise “Works”

If you’ve leafed through my book or spent more than a few seconds on my website, I’m willing to bet that you’ve seen what I call my “Twelve Weeks to Living a Happier Life.” This program is based on my belief that our happiness (or unhappiness) is based largely on the choices we make regarding our actions, habits, attitudes, thoughts, and priorities. (If you missed it, I blogged about choosing happiness HERE.) Since my “Twelve Weeks” are such a big part of my own life, I’m going to blog about each week’s happiness-boosting change. First up is exercise!

Everywhere you look, our culture bombards us with the topic of exercise, from infomercials touting the latest piece of home-gym equipment to fliers in the mailbox advertising a gym’s grand opening. No matter how sick you are of hearing that you ought to be more active, please bear with me for a few paragraphs, because while I agree with that advice completely, I’m not as concerned with your muscle definition as I am with your mindset.

In a nutshell, I think that physical activity is the single most effective thing you can do right this minute to make yourself happier and much less stressed. I’ve actually been living by this principle for most of my life, though I didn’t realize it until after my breakdown. I was a very athletic kid growing up, and as an adult I’ve always hit the gym on a near-daily basis…until I fractured both of my feet at age thirty-six. This forced inactivity was one of several “triggers” that sparked my breakdown!

Turns out that exercise makes you feel more relaxed, stronger, and more capable of handling life’s challenges. It is also scientifically proven to improve your sleep, and it functions as a natural anti-depressant that will help your attitude and outlook. No wonder I felt unable to handle my stress after I was sidelined by fractures! My single most important coping mechanism was suddenly out of my reach.

I now know that even if you’re not living an out-of-balance lifestyle (as I was before my breakdown), exercise can still do quite a bit to improve your attitude and outlook. In addition to the benefits I listed above, physical activity actually opens you up to future change by invigorating your mind and body. (In fact, my coauthor, Dr. Howard Rankin, who is a licensed clinical psychologist, tells his patients he won’t see them for any reason—whether it’s depression, marriage counseling, or something else—unless they agree to start exercising first.) And as time passes, you’ll gain the added bonus of being happier with your physical appearance as well.

No matter what your current attitude toward exercise is, I recommend that everyone make it a part of their routines (if it isn’t already). And there’s no need to sign up for a boot camp-like class at the gym or hire a personal trainer, either. Actually, that would be a bad idea because the key to making an exercise program successful is to make it doable. Don’t force yourself to do too much too soon.

To start, try taking just a twenty-minute walk every other day. Even better, bring your spouse and/or your children along on your walks. In addition to spending more time together, you’ll be instilling great life habits in your kids. If you make activity a regular part of your life, so will they…and unfortunately, the same goes for living life as a couch potato.

Ultimately, no matter when, where, or with whom you choose to be active, the point is: Don’t make exercising such a big deal that you stall at the starting line. I promise you, you’ll be surprised at what a big difference this first step makes if you keep at it!

 

 

 

 

Apprehension Adjustment: Helping Your Freshman Fret Less

In my first post I talked about the very, very important topic of anxiety in college students. Once again, as the fall semester is taking off, I’d like to remind you of how important it is to be aware that depression, anxiety, and—most unfortunately—even suicides are growing problems at colleges and universities across America.

That said, my intent isn’t to make every parent who reads my blog panic. The truth is, while stress can escalate to dangerous levels, it’s actually very normal for new college students to feel anxious. After all, college means a lot of big changes! Your student will be leaving the familiar faces and surroundings of high school and getting used to a totally new environment away from his support system. Plus, even if he doesn’t admit it to you, he’s probably at least a little concerned about doing well in his classes. In these kinds of circumstances, jitters are totally understandable.

The best news for us parents is that educating yourself about how you can deal with (and possibly alleviate) your student’s anxiety can make a huge difference in the kind of college experience he has. My own son won’t start college for another two years, but since this topic is close to my heart, I’m already reading up on it and talking to friends who have been there, and I would like to share a few things I’ve learned with you:

  • You can help take the edge off by making a few plans together. Specify when you will see each other next—being able to look forward to a planned visit or two can make the future seem much less intimidating and give everyone something to look forward to. For instance, you can come to your child’s campus for the homecoming football game, and he can come home for fall break. Also, take advantage of technology like Skype and set (and keep) a weekly date.
  • Follow your child’s lead. Yes, it can be difficult for us parents to suppress our instinct to protect and guide our children at all times. However, try to remind yourself that college is the time when your child is supposed to begin coming into her own. So if she’s ecstatic to be leaving home, do your best to swallow your melancholy and be happy with her. On the other hand, if she seems a bit wary of being out by herself, don’t be overly excited about your impending empty-nester freedom or chime in with your own worries. Instead, help her to talk through her anxiety. Lastly, allow her to guide college-to-home communication. Remember that the phone is not supposed to be an umbilical cord, and it’s okay to be a bit disconnected from your teen if that’s what she wants. And if your child prefers email, get on the digital train.
  • Don’t downplay your child’s worries. If your child calls home and says that she is worried or depressed, always talk to her about what could be causing her feelings. Even if you honestly think she might be overreacting, don’t assume that things will work themselves out in a few months. Ask if she’s under a lot of academic pressure. Does she have problems with her roommate? Is she homesick? Remember that adjusting to college is different for everyone: some may take days; some may take months. If your student does not seem to be adjusting at all and has been homesick for weeks, it might be good to suggest that she look for resources through the counseling and wellness department at her school.