Put Fear in Its Place

I was saddened to hear of the recent passing of Susan Jeffers, who was a pioneer in the self-help movement. Her book Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway was first published in 1987, and has since become a classic. Over the past few days I’ve found myself thinking a lot about fear, and how it has played a role in my own life.

Now, don’t get me wrong: Fear is an incredibly important survival mechanism. Fear is often what saves us from harming ourselves and helps us to keep our loved ones safe. However, fear becomes a problem when you allow it to take over your life. Being overly fearful of something (or being fearful of nearly everything) can be indicative of a bigger issue, and is something that needs to be addressed.

As someone who suffered from depression and anxiety, I spent a large part of my life consumed by fear in various forms. I was afraid of being away from home as a child. (I drank paint at summer camp, remember?!) I was afraid of rejection. I was afraid of failure. I was afraid of not being liked.

As I look back, I realize now that I created most of those fears myself, and I can see that they had a crippling effect on my life. In hindsight, I’m also struck by the fact that I wasn’t all that afraid of any of the “big things” like death or disease or tragedy. Instead, the majority of my fears were self-created, and that, I think, is the problem that most of us are facing today.

I’ve said it a million times, but it bears repeating—we are our own worst critics. We focus on our mistakes rather than relishing in our accomplishments. We cut ourselves down and beat ourselves up. And when you feel small and weak, it’s much easier for fear to creep in and take over.

So how can you make sure that your fears aren’t holding you back from the life you are supposed to be living? Try a few of these tips to keep your fear in check.

Build yourself up. The most important thing for you to do is to make sure you aren’t your own worst enemy when it comes to living a life of fear. If you aren’t actively building yourself up and focusing on your positive attributes, then you won’t be confident and strong in the face of your fears. Start TODAY by making a list of the things you are good at. Also, try to stop yourself from focusing on the one thing that went wrong. Instead, allow yourself to feel great about the many things you did right, and about the wonderful person you are.

Put it in writing. Our anxieties can often seem bigger and scarier the longer we allow them to float around in our heads. So sit down and write out the things that you are afraid of. As you do, consider each one. Where does this fear come from? Is it internal or is it from an outside source? Think about possible solutions for each fear. Are you in a position to neutralize or lessen any of them? You’ll probably find that putting your fears in writing can make many of them seem less overwhelming and more manageable. (Plus, many people find that there’s something very therapeutic about putting pen to paper in general!)

Think about the worst-case scenario. For most of us, the fears that are the most consuming are the ones that are based in the unknown. When a situation has an unknown outcome, fear of what might happen can stop us from moving forward. But in many of these “what if” scenarios, our fears are mostly unfounded, and there is a good chance that the outcome will actually be good.

For example, you might be afraid to change careers, or to ask your boss for a raise, because you don’t know what the outcome may be. Allowing yourself to think through all the possible scenarios can help you to alleviate the “unknown” part of your fear. Ask yourself, What is the worst thing that could possibly happen? Then think through what the ramifications of that worst-case scenario would be. Mentally preparing in this way (instead of focusing in on the “what if”) will alleviate a lot of your fear and enable you to move forward.

Create an action plan. You can tackle and conquer many of your fears by thinking about them on a real-world level. Once you have identified the worst-case scenario for each one (as described above), ask yourself how you might feasibly handle each situation. Often, developing an action plan to deal with potential negative consequences will help you to feel more empowered and confident. Write out what you would do in each case, but also think through what steps you might be able to take now to prevent the worst-case scenarios from happening.

Talk to someone. The longer you internalize your fears, the more they will grow, fester, and drag you down. Whether it’s your spouse, a trusted friend, or even a qualified professional (like a therapist), talking to someone about your fears can be an important step in moving forward. Not only will it be a relief to have your fear off your chest and out in the open, having a sounding board to talk through your fears can also give you ideas as to how you might work through them. That outside perspective can give you invaluable advice, comfort, and support.

Don’t let fear keep you from living the life you were intended to live. The world is full of excitement and opportunity, and it can be yours for the taking if you’ll allow yourself to go for it. Let the legacy you’ll leave behind motivate you to move forward today.

 

 

Look at the Little Things…and Be Grateful

“Enjoy the little things, for one day you may look back and realize they were the big things.”

—Robert Brault

With Thanksgiving right around the corner, there’s a lot of talk about thankfulness. It seems to me that most of us are in the habit of focusing our gratitude on grand statements made on this once-a-year holiday. You know what I mean: “I’m thankful for my family, my friends, the fact that I live in America, my health, etc.” And that’s great—we should be thankful for those things. But what about the days when there’s not a turkey in the oven and family gathered around the table? Do you take the time to be grateful in the everyday?

It’s easy to get caught up in the hectic pace of everyday life: bills to pay, deadlines to meet, carpools to drive, and homework to be done. It’s also easy to focus on the negative aspects of those everyday moments: The chores seem endless. The bills keep piling up. Your kids misbehave, the dog makes a mess, and you can never, ever seem to find time to do anything for yourself.

But believe it or not, there are actually plenty of things that we can (and should) be grateful for in these mundane moments. Think of it as thanks-living. After all, you have a house to clean, when others may have none. You have bills to pay for things that keep you comfortable, like your heat and electricity. You have children who are healthy and full of life and a fun-loving pet that puts a smile on everyone’s face. And so on.

When you begin to see and feel small doses of gratitude on a regular basis, you’ll notice that you’ll start to feel happier, and you’ll experience an amazing shift in perspective. You’ll notice the negatives less, and the positives more.

To make habitual gratitude a part of your everyday life, start by making a list each day. Carry a small notepad and pen with you and jot down the little things that you feel grateful for as they occur to you (or type them into a list on your smartphone!). The act of physically recording them will help you to stop and truly think about each moment of gratitude. (You might also share with others how thankful you are for the small things. It will not only remind you to stay on your toes, but it might also inspire them to start the same practice!)

As this becomes a habit, you’ll find that you no longer need an actual list to remind you to be grateful.

To get you started, I wanted to share a list of “little things” that I’ve been grateful for recently.

  • A hot cup of coffee
  • Clean sheets that just came out of the dryer on my bed
  • A phone call with an old friend
  • The smell of my favorite dinner cooking in the kitchen
  • A great talk with my son

Remember, your list doesn’t have to be profound. Sure, at times, it may be, depending on life and your circumstances. But that’s the beauty of this whole thing. Life isn’t always profound. It ebbs and flows. And when we can learn to be grateful for the things we have each day, no matter what circumstances life gives us at that particular moment, we will discover one of the keys to living a much happier life. This Thanksgiving I challenge you to make a promise to yourself and to your family for the year ahead: to be grateful on this day, certainly, and during all the ones that follow.

Lastly, remember that your kids develop their mindsets, attitudes, and habits based on yours. So realize that engaging in thanks-living isn’t just something that you’re doing for yourself—it’s a gift you’re giving to your children, and to their children after them.

I’d love for you to share your own “little things”—in other words, simple pleasures that bring you joy—in the comments section of this post!

 

 

Going Deeper: Why We Shouldn’t Stop at Small Talk

Recently, a friend forwarded me a New York Times article titled “Talk Deeply, Be Happy?” As this person had suspected, it was right up my alley. It reported the results of a study on conversation. Turns out, the more meaningful conversations you have, the happier you tend to be. (And on the other hand, people who engage in more small talk are generally less happy.)

For me (and I suspect for many of you as well), these findings didn’t come as a surprise. After all, decades of experience have taught me that I feel much more alive and engaged when I’m having a meaningful conversation than when I’m chatting about the weather or something equally mundane. However, the article did get me thinking: Why do “deeper” interactions make us feel so good? And if our conversations might directly correlate to our happiness levels, how can we infuse more of the meaningful kind into our lives?

Well, I think the answer to my first question—Why do “deeper” interactions make us feel so good?—is pretty simple: Our lives are driven by and centered around relationships. Whether you’re an extrovert who thrives in a crowd or an introvert who prefers small-group settings, that statement remains true. So any time you have a meaningful conversation, you’re getting to know another human being better. You’re learning about his or her opinions, motivations, and plans. You’re forging a deeper connection.

The fact is, everybody wants to feel valued and appreciated. And when someone encourages you to go beyond the facts and share your very own emotions, views, and beliefs, you get that feeling (and vice versa). It’s like your subconscious is thinking, Wow, out of all the things this person could be doing, he or she is choosing to hear my take on the world. I must be pretty special. Plus, by hearing from someone else, you’re learning new things and expanding your worldview.

Now, on to my second question: How can we infuse more meaningful conversations into our lives? Here are a few of my ideas:

*Seek out people who like to go deeper. This tip is pretty obvious—if you want to have more meaningful conversations, spend more time with people who feel the same way. For instance, you probably know “that” coworker or friend who is always willing to get into a good-natured debate, no matter the subject. Set up a weekly lunch or coffee date! And on the flip side, you probably know someone who, despite your best efforts, insists on sticking to sports scores and celebrity gossip. I’m not saying you should avoid all contact with people in this last group—just don’t beat your head against the wall in a fruitless attempt to delve into their emotions and motivations.

*Let others know you enjoy their conversations. If you think someone else is particularly insightful, entertaining, engaging, authentic, etc., let them know! In my experience, “I honestly enjoy talking to you” is one of those compliments people don’t give or receive very often. However, that one simple sentence might be all it takes to draw someone even further out of his or her shell and into more frequent discussions.

*Join groups of interesting people. I have noticed that often, our relationships with the people we love and spend the most time with can fall into ruts. It’s not that you don’t want to engage more meaningfully; it’s just that (to give one example) you and your spouse get into the habit of only going through the next day’s schedule and reporting any significant news before falling into an exhausted sleep each evening. A good way to break this pattern is to expose yourself to new individuals and situations. If you have time, think about joining a book club, taking a woodworking class, or even gathering a group of neighbors to walk around the block in the mornings. Getting to know others will give you the opportunity to introduce new subjects into your conversational repertoire—which will, in turn, give you new stories to tell and new subjects to talk about with your close friends and family.

*Be interested, not interesting. No, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t try to talk about things that other people will find informative and entertaining. Rather, I mean that your number one goal when you talk to someone else should be to find out as much as possible about him or her. When you try to dominate the conversation, you’ll all too often end up looking selfish and arrogant. But when you show a genuine curiosity in others, you’ll encourage them to go deeper, to open up, and to be honest. And you’ll probably also find that they, in turn, want to know about your thoughts and opinions—giving you the opportunity to tell that story you wanted to share in the first place. So the bottom line is, if you want to encourage a meaningful conversation, start by asking thoughtful questions and truly listening to the answers you receive.

 

 

 

Treating the Dorm Room Blues

Time really does fly. It seems like back-to-school just happened, but somehow, we’re already staring fall break in the face! Realizing how far we are into the school year has caused me to think about a topic that’s really close to my heart: the often-difficult time young people can have adjusting to college. If you’re a longtime follower of my blog, you may remember the posts I wrote last September regarding depression and anxiety on college campuses. This year, I’d like to share my thoughts on homesickness.

I think that many parents probably feel a huge sense of relief when their child gets into college. Years and years of hard work (your child’s and your own) have finally paid off. She’ll be having the time of her life, you think to yourself multiple times a day. Or, I just know he’ll fit in and do well—he was made for that school. Then you get the call: “Mom, Dad, I miss you. I’m homesick. I don’t think I like it here as much as I thought I would.” Now you’re shocked, bewildered, and maybe even a little disappointed. College (not to mention paying for it) has been the ultimate goal for years—what’s going wrong?

Actually, homesickness is more common than you might think. According to the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute, 65 percent of all college freshmen suffer from homesickness and the condition often continues into subsequent academic years. And now that the initial adjustment period of moving in, attending new classes, and making friends has ended, homesickness is starting to hit many students full force. At this point in the semester, many young people are reaching the I’ve-never-been-away-from-home-this-long milestone, and they’re missing their old surroundings, routines, and support systems.

I’ve been there. As you may already know, I struggled with homesickness and separation anxiety throughout my childhood and into college. In fact, as a college freshman, I didn’t hesitate to drive 45 minutes to my home on a near-nightly basis. To this day, sticking it out and graduating from college in spite of the difficulties I had in adapting remains one of my proudest accomplishments. And while I don’t want to needlessly alarm parents, I also know from experience that if not addressed, homesickness can lead to more serious issues such as anxiety and depression.

If your child calls home expressing feelings of homesickness, it’s important to know how to address the situation. Here are some of my tips:

*Don’t downplay your child’s worries. “Don’t worry,” you might instinctively want to say. “You’ll get used to your dorm and your classes, and I know you’ll make friends quickly.” Squelch that impulse. If your child calls home and says that she is worried or misses aspects of her “old” life, always talk to her about what could be causing her feelings. Is she under a lot of academic pressure? Does she like her classes? Does she have problems with her roommate? 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.

*But don’t rush to school to pick up your child, either. If your child seems to be experiencing a normal level of homesickness (i.e., not depressed or experiencing dangerous levels of anxiety), then it won’t help him if you rush to his rescue. You can help in small doses from home, of course—just don’t drop all of your weekend plans to make a last-minute collegiate road trip or immediately start researching local colleges for a transfer. Learning to rely more fully on oneself without a parent in the next room is something that we all have to do sooner or later. And if your child goes through these growing pains now, he’ll be setting himself up for more success in the future.

*You can help take the edge off by making a few plans together. In an unfamiliar new environment, it can be difficult for your student to accurately picture what next semester, next month, or even next week might look like—and that uncertainty might be feeding her feelings of homesickness. In this instance, simply making plans to see you or to visit home in the near future might be just the remedy the doctor ordered, as long as the discussion is confident and encouraging. Also, take advantage of technology like Skype and set (and keep) a weekly date. However, do not make a pick-up bargain (if you start to feel homesick or if it doesn’t go away, we will come get you). Kids can end up using this as a crutch—after all, what incentive do they have to proactively build a fulfilling college life for themselves if they know Mom and Dad are on the way?

*Help them to re-create the security they feel at home at school. Part of the insecurity that new students feel when they are living on their own for the first time stems from the loss of the routine and comforts they were used to at home. For example, figuring out simple tasks like laundry and grocery shopping can be daunting when you’ve always had your parents’ help. If you suspect that this issue is impacting your child’s happiness at college, send a pre-emptive email or care package full of advice and guidance. For example, you might include a sample schedule for laundry and instructions on how to wash darks vs. whites. Or if your child cooks for himself, talk about what grocery staples he should have on hand and perhaps send him recipes for a few of his favorite homecooked dishes (with shopping list included!).

*Realize that you and your child aren’t locked in. Yes, you have paid a deposit, moved your child into her dorm, and maybe even started to tackle those daunting tuition payments. While this does signify a big commitment, it’s important to realize that your child is not locked into remaining at her current college. And if her homesickness doesn’t abate despite your best efforts, she shouldn’t stay there long-term. Some students, like me, may not be able to find a healthy balance far away from home. In this case, know that transferring to a school that’s closer to home is an option, and may be the best possible alternative. I’ll be honest: I think that attending a university only 45 minutes away from my parents’ house might have saved my life. I’m not sure how well I would—or wouldn’t—have coped with my anxiety had they not been so close and so continually supportive.

While anyone who has been to college knows that it isn’t one big never-ending party (nor would most parents want it to be!), it should still be a positive, fulfilling, and growth-inspiring period in your child’s life. If your child’s happiness seems to be compromised at any point by homesickness, be ready to listen and educate yourself on what you can do to alleviate the pressure. It is my hope that together you and your child will be able to achieve the amazing college experience both of you have been hoping for.

 

 

 

Portrait of a Great Coach

Everyone who knows me personally is aware that I am a huge sports fan. I love to support all of my local Boston professional teams. But without a doubt, my favorite sports events of all are those in which my son, Josh, is a player. (This may be a father’s pride talking, but he is a whiz on the basketball court!)

I know I’m not the only parent who wants his or her child to succeed athletically. That’s why I’ve been thinking a lot lately, as fall sports start up, about what a huge difference coaches can make in young people’s lives—for good or ill. While my own son has always been fortunate enough to work with supportive, uplifting coaches, sadly that’s not the case for all young players. In fact, it is amazing to me how often I am asked by “struggling” parents how they should handle their son’s or daughter’s upsetting coach.

With that in mind, I think it’s very important for parents to first understand that most coaches are doing their best, are not paid, and are giving of their time and energy very unselfishly. But you should also protect your kids by staying aware of how coaches interact with your children and what type of influence they’re having, and most importantly, to hold them accountable. While I don’t advocate becoming a so-called “helicopter parent,” I do think that as a parent you should always be vigilant when your child’s well-being is at stake. Don’t hesitate to step in if you feel that a coach’s attitude or actions are harmful to your child. If possible, discuss the situation with your child before approaching the coach so that your child doesn’t feel blindsided or betrayed by your involvement. And yes, the older your child is—especially if he or she is in high school—you might want to think twice about taking on a coach unless actual harm is being inflicted. Ultimately, though, always remember that no sport or tournament or trophy is worth sacrificing your child’s self-esteem and emotional well-being.

So, as this athletic season gets underway, take some time to think about how your child’s coach interacts with athletes. Here are some things to consider when evaluating a coach, as well as some qualities I think great coaches possess:

*Realize that harsh coaching methods do cause damage. There’s no question that harsh coaching methods, such as calling players out, getting in their faces, and “motivating” them through fear, do more harm than good. In the short term, these tactics cause anxiety, shame, and low self-esteem. Over time, a bullied athlete’s weakened confidence and sense of self-worth can eradicate motivation and love for the game. And worst of all, it can transfer to other areas of the young person’s life, making him or her less confident socially and academically. After all, it’s a short step from believing I’m not good enough on the field to I don’t have what it takes to succeed at all.

*Think about what a coach’s job really is. Your child does not play on a professional team. His coach’s goal should not be to build a career, but to teach and guide young people who are in the midst of their mental, emotional, and physical development. Ideally, what a coach teaches during practice will also help kids develop the skills they’ll need to succeed in many other areas for the rest of their lives. When you look at it that way, coaching is as much about growing children through positive motivation and attitude as it is about imparting the mechanics of swinging a bat or kicking a ball. So in addition to making sure that your child is learning the rules of the game, make sure he also feels special, valued, and encouraged.

*Watch a replay of the coach’s motivations. While there’s nothing wrong with wanting to win, make sure that your child’s coach does not use her position primarily to brag about her successful seasons and coaching record. Also, to some extent, a coach’s goals should match the level of athletics in which your child is engaged. For instance, if he is doing YMCA coach-pitch baseball, his coach’s main motivation should definitely be centered around having fun and helping kids. But if your son is a high school baseball player and his team has a legitimate chance to go all the way to the state championship, it’s okay for the coach to put more of an emphasis on winning vs. losing…as long as the players’ physical and psychological well-being are still a firm first priority.

*Has the coach done some emotional intelligence warm-ups? If you aren’t familiar with the term, emotional intelligence is a quality that enables you to be empathetic, an effective communicator, to navigate conflict, etc. If you’re emotionally intelligent, you’re better able to manage your own emotions, pick up on what others are feeling, and react constructively to setbacks—all of which are qualities that coaches should strive to have. Remember, everyone, but especially the young, can be made or broken by others’ words. A coach has the responsibility to make sure that he or she is setting kids up for present and future success, not filling them with self-doubt and hurting their self-esteem. So if you’re watching a practice or cheering at a game, try to gauge what the coach’s emotional intelligence quotient might be, based on his behavior. If you come to believe that it is really hurting the players, don’t be afraid to act, whether you speak to the coach or even try to find a different team for your child.

*Does the coach score points through caring? People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. And in sports, it’s crucial that coaches care about athletes as people, not just as players. Watch to see if your child’s coach gets to know her on an individual basis and incorporates that knowledge into their regular interactions. It’s always a good sign if, for instance, a coach keeps tabs on your daughter’s academic achievements and compliments her for doing well on a test, or asks her, “I know your family was going to go hiking over the weekend. Did you enjoy it?” Showing genuine interest and caring is the greatest motivator I know of because people, kids included, will do anything to keep getting those things. And when players know that they mean more to their coaches than the numbers on their jerseys, they’ll naturally have a greater desire to excel.

*Does the coach strike out through criticism? Many famous coaches in sports history are known for berating players and shaming them in front of the team. Unfortunately, these approaches tend to only alienate players and make coaches an object of fear rather than respect. In my opinion, a good coach should criticize only in private, not in public, by pulling a player aside for a one-on-one discussion rather than yelling at him in front of the whole team. Also, a good coach should make sure the player knows he cares about more than just the mistake. Ideally, he’ll try to accompany each criticism with a few compliments. Remember, we all tend to be our own worst critics—even kids. Many young athletes will tend to focus on what they’ve done wrong, not the many things they’ve done well. The ratio of compliments to criticism they receive from their coaches can shape their self-perception for a long time to come.

*Does the coach scout each practice for all-stars? On the sports field, compliments act as confidence—and thus performance—boosters, and they also improve motivation, team spirit, determination, and more. With that in mind, a good coach will always start each practice with the intention of catching as many players as possible doing well, then praise them in public and in private whenever the opportunity arises. If she wants to go the extra mile, a great coach might even send out a team newsletter that includes short write-ups of players who improve, who are team players, who give their all in practice, etc. Again, kids will work hard to keep getting recognized because it simply feels good.

*Has the coach added “positive thinking” to his or her paraphernalia? With few exceptions, players will develop their attitudes, outlooks, and expectations based on what they see from their leaders. Coaches should be proactive about getting their teams in a winning mindset by saying things like, “We’re going to have a great practice today,” or, “I know everyone will do their best during the game,” etc. Here’s a great saying I’ve found to be true: People generally perform at the level that is expected of them. So without putting negative pressure on the athletes, your child’s coach should let them know that she believes in their ability to accomplish great things. I can’t help but think of Lou Holtz, the legendary college football coach whose philosophy of positive thinking was instrumental in inspiring his teams to achieve many amazing successes, often against the odds.

In conclusion, I hope everyone has fun and stays positive during this fall sports season. I know I’m looking forward to cheering for all of my son’s teams!

 

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.

 

 

Let the Sunshine In

Summer is a time of warm temperatures, sunny skies, green leaves, neighborhood cookouts, family vacations, ice cream cones, and more. You’d think that summer and all it entails would boost the happiness that most of us feel. But instead, I’ve noticed that a lot of people drift through these warm weeks in the same hum-drum fog they’re lost in during the other three seasons…and I think I know why.

If you’re anything like I was before I had my happiness breakthrough, you’ve probably become numbed by life. You might feel like a victim of circumstance who is simply trying to survive each day. So while a refreshing dip in the swimming pool might put a smile on your face as long as you’re submerged, your positive mood usually doesn’t last long.

Now, here’s the good news: As I have said time and time again, happiness is a choice because you can always decide to think and act more positively. The best news of all is that summer is an ideal time to start changing your focus. That’s because for many families, the daily pace is less hectic, and you’re more likely to spend time relaxing. Plus, since summer is a time of warmth, light, and growth, it’s naturally uplifting. Put together, that all means that over the next few months, you’ll have more time and (hopefully) energy to devote to making meaningful lifestyle changes.

If you’ve been reading my blog for long, chances are you’re already familiar with some of the concepts I’m about to introduce. Whether this post is “review” or brand-new to you, I hope you’ll take the following suggestions to heart this summer.

*Enjoy the weather: Exercise. Take advantage of the wonderful weather and up your activity level! (Summer is perfect for walking, biking, swimming, sports, and much more.) Exercise will relax you, make you feel stronger, and improve your sleep. It’s also a natural anti-depressant that will boost your attitude and outlook. And as time passes, you’ll gain the added bonus of being happier with your physical appearance as well. Take your kids along too—you’ll be instilling exercise in them as a great habit that will benefit them for the rest of their lives.

*Get some new sunglasses: Be easier on yourself. Most people tend to go through life as though they’re wearing glasses with prescriptions that allow them to focus only on the negative things: their failures, mistakes, worries, etc. This summer, put on a new pair of shades with a more positive prescription that enables you to focus on all of the good things in your life, too! The fact is, we’re all human—and thus fallible—so it’s normal to make mistakes. However, it’s not healthy or beneficial to dwell only on them. As you’re out and about this summer, let yourself bask in your family’s compliments when you grill a great meal, for instance, or savor your neighbor’s praise of your backyard garden. You’ll be surprised by how much better you feel when you celebrate your many successes more often and focus less on your weaknesses.

*Plan some fun activities: Play to your strengths. The days are longer, schedules are more relaxed, there are several holidays to look forward to, and you’ll probably be taking some vacation days. Resolve to spend some of that time developing your special abilities and talents! If you want to be happy, you need to recognize, use, and share your gifts. Each of us has been given special, unique strengths, and when we are using them, we’re happier and feel much better about ourselves—and the world at large is better off, too! Think about it this way: Your kids get to go to special-interest activities and camps during the summer…so why shouldn’t you get in on the action, too?

*Smell the roses: Live in the present. There are so many moments to treasure throughout our lives, and they’re often especially vivid in the summer: the sound of your kids playing outside, the scent of the herbs in your garden, the feeling of sand between your toes and sun on your skin. The question is, are you really experiencing and enjoying these moments…or is your mind obsessing over the past or worrying about the future while only your body is physically present? I can’t stress enough how important it is to truly appreciate the present moment. Try to be aware of what your thoughts are “doing” over the summer, and by autumn, you’ll be closer to living the adventurous, wonderful life you were always meant to. And remember, your kids know when you are with them only in body (while your mind is elsewhere) and this can make them feel very bad.

*Break out the barbeque: Strengthen close relationships. Summer is known for cookouts, pool parties, and front-porch sittin’. Don’t be “that family” who always keep to themselves—try to host at least one or two events between now and September and invite the people you love over for some fun. The truth is, it’s worth putting work into improving your relationships with your family and friends all year round, because the quality of your bonds with the people closest to you can make or break the quality of your life. And (this won’t come as a surprise to my loyal blog readers) be sure to spend some one-on-one time with your spouse or significant other. Summer is a great time to pick a bouquet of wildflowers, plan a romantic getaway, or purchase tickets to an outdoor concert that you’ll both enjoy, for starters.

*Smile and say hello: Be friendlier. You’re not the only one who ventures outside your front door more often in the summer—so make a conscious effort to be friendlier to others you encounter, too. Introduce yourself to the family next to you at the pool or beach, for example, and say hello to folks you pass while walking in the park. (You’ll also be setting a great example for your kids.) I have found that extending simple human kindness to others can make a huge difference in their lives…and in yours. When you make friendliness a habit, you’ll attract kindness and smiles in return…and you’ll feel great about yourself for making a positive difference in the world!

My hope is that you’ll incorporate these habits into your life and experience a more sunshine-y summer…and that you’ll remember this season as the beginning of your journey toward more happiness. It’s true—what may seem like small changes in your actions and attitudes today really can make a huge difference in how you experience the rest of your life!

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.