Beauty After Winter

Not too long ago, I posted the following tweet: “Winter is officially past (according to the calendar, anyway) and spring is here. I can’t wait for nature to start blooming!”

After I posted that tweet, I began to think a lot about how the flowers, blooms, and buds of spring are a tangible symbol of hope and new life after months of cold days and long nights. I also thought about how a similar rebirth often happens in our own lives. Now (as you might know from personal experience), Twitter doesn’t let you elaborate too much on your thoughts. Your posts are limited to 140 characters or less. So, since I couldn’t stop thinking about that tweet after I posted it, I thought I’d write some more about it in another forum: my blog!

If you’re familiar with my story, you know that I have experienced a lot of anxiety and some depression in my life, and that I even suffered a total nervous breakdown at age 36. For several months at that point, I was a shell of my former self. Some days I could barely manage to function at all. I had trouble sleeping and eating, and my mind was totally checked out. I didn’t think it was possible for me to ever feel happy again.

For obvious reasons, I would describe that period in my life as my own personal “winter.” Things were cold, dark, and bleak, and I wasn’t experiencing any positive growth. Your experiences may not be the same as mine, but I’m sure you have been through your own winter, too. It might have been the death of a parent, the loss of a job, a divorce, or a mental or physical illness, and you may still be dealing with the aftershocks: guilt, regret, grief, sadness, fear, or anxiety, for example. You might even think that your life will never be as good as it once was, and that your best days are in the past.

Every spring, I am reminded that this isn’t true. Take a moment and think about what a miracle it is that after a freezing, icy, dark winter, nature manages to come to life again and turn into a thing of beauty. The best part is, we humans possess that same resilience. We might need the help and support of others, and it might take some time for our lives to “warm up” again, but I know from experience that it is possible to move in a positive direction after negative experiences.

I wouldn’t have believed it was possible in the midst of my breakdown, but today I am honestly happier than I have ever been. Because of my breakdown, I feel that I have discovered and tapped into my life’s true purpose: helping others learn to build happier and healthier lives.

This week, I encourage you to take a walk or two around your neighborhood or a local park. Look at the bright green grass and the budding trees, and take some time to notice the color and shape of the flowers as you feel the sun on your face. And if you’re living in the shadow of your own winter—whether it has been big or small—please try to tap into the hope that spring represents. Trust that you can and will experience life’s sunshine, warmth, and beauty again.

If you’re not sure how to begin this journey, you might want to visit the Twelve Weeks to Living a Happier Life tab on my website. Developed based on my own experiences and using small, doable steps, this program is designed to help you move from dissatisfaction, anxiety, sadness, and stress to a more fulfilling, healthy, and happy life. For each of the twelve weeks, you’ll find a video of me explaining a new task or lifestyle change to focus on. And if you’d like even more tactics to help you move out of the winter you may be experiencing, look back through my past blog posts (also on my website). Many of them elaborate on the steps of my Twelve Weeks to Living a Happier Life program.

Lastly, if there is ever anything I can do to help make your own winter a little less cold or dark, please reach out and ask. We are all in this together! You can email me anytime at tpatkin@tgpco.org.

How Not to Expect the Worst: Part Two

In my last blog post I shared six strategies to help you stop expecting the worst in every situation. I won’t rehash why fixating on negative possibilities is bad for you (look back at my March 6, 2013, post if you want to review), but what I will do is share my final six tips to help you let go of some of your worries.

Yes, I have spent quite a bit of time writing about the topic of expecting the worst. That’s because kicking this habit and rewiring your brain to live more fully in the present is so important! Trust me, friends, what you allow yourself to think about and fixate on plays a tremendous role in determining your quality of life.

I hope you’ll add the following tactics to your building-a-happier-life toolkit:

*Trust the master plan. No, the universe is not out to get you. In fact, things usually have a way of working out. Often, though, it’s impossible to see the “master plan” until you’re viewing it through the lens of hindsight. The next time you find yourself focusing on a future fear, stop and remind yourself that you’re not omniscient. You don’t know for sure how a dreaded event will ultimately impact your life. For instance, maybe the pay cut that has you so worried will force your family to cut out extraneous luxuries and activities, ultimately bringing you all closer together.

When I look back on all of the twists and turns my own life has taken, I see that many of my fears were never validated…and the ones that did come to pass often ended up being positive turning points that helped me to move in a better direction. And often, the opposite is true as well: The things we expect to be wonderful can turn out to be unhealthy and debilitating. Just think of the stereotypical ambitious businessman who is thrilled to start a high-paying and high-powered job, only to look back in ten years and realize that his workaholism has cost him his family and friends.

My point is, realizing that you can’t predict how something will ultimately impact your life—that all you can do is make the best decision possible with the information you have now—really takes the pressure off. In all situations, especially when you’re worried and expecting the worst, I encourage you to use this Susan Jeffers affirmation: “It’s all happening perfectly.” It really is!

*Stop being so unkind to yourself. Beating yourself up, dwelling on how inept you think you are, and engaging in negative self-talk are all unhealthy behaviors in general. What’s more, they encourage you to view the future through a worst-case-scenario lens. For example, if you don’t get the promotion you had hoped for, you might think to yourself, I’m so stupid and incapable. I’m never going to move up in this company because I don’t deserve to. Nothing ever works out well for me. Then, you’ll probably go on to list all of your past failures in order to prove your own point.

If this is how you tend to think, I can’t stress how important it is that you stop. Remember, we are all human, and we will all make mistakes from time to time. In the future, realize that this is just one promotion that you didn’t get at one particular time. That doesn’t mean you won’t be chosen the next time a spot opens up. Don’t generalize your failures, and don’t let your disappointment bleed into the future. Instead, make a point of celebrating your successes and reminding yourself of all the things you do well.

*Try giving others the benefit of the doubt. Do you find yourself assuming the worst about other people when it comes to their attitudes and actions, especially toward you? Say, for example, that your spouse is unusually quiet because she has a mild headache and is preoccupied with a work problem. However, you didn’t ask her what was wrong when you both got home for the evening—you “read her mind” and decided that she wasn’t talkative because she was mad at you. As a result, you have needlessly spent the whole night in a state of anxiety.

Unless you actually work for the Psychic Friends Network, remind yourself that you aren’t a mind reader the next time you find yourself assuming the worst about someone else’s thoughts or motivations. Most of the time your guesses will be incorrect and will only be an upsetting waste of your time. Instead, have a conversation with the person in question. If that isn’t possible, put yourself in his or her shoes and list reasons why you might behave in a similar way. Unless you’re mean-spirited, cruel, and selfish, you’ll probably realize that the other individual isn’t out to get you after all.

*Live in the moment… Seriously, take time to smell the roses! While it might be cliché, this old adage is fundamentally solid advice. To put it simply, when you’re engaged in the here and now, you’re focused on a reality that you can control, and you’re in a position to notice and appreciate all of the blessings around you. But if you’re fretting about what might come to pass, you don’t have enough bandwidth left to enjoy other aspects of your life. You’re exacerbating your anxiety and unhappiness by choosing to dwell on things you can’t change or control.

I used to spend a majority of my time worrying about what might happen in the future, which did nothing for my peace of mind or self-esteem. But now that I’m making a conscious effort to live in the present, I’m actually enjoying all of the great things in my life instead of letting them pass me by unnoticed. Plus, I’m a lot more productive now that all of the mental space that used to be occupied with worries has been freed up!

It may sound simple, but the following exercise has really helped me. Whenever you catch yourself worrying about the future, stop what you’re doing and close your eyes. Concentrate on breathing in and out for a few moments. Then, open your eyes and use all of your senses to anchor you to the present moment. Look out the window and enjoy the view. Smell the scent that’s coming from an air freshener or a candle. Pet your dog and notice the soft feel of her fur. Then, consciously shift your attention to solving a problem or completing a task that you do have control over. Often, that’s all it takes to break out of a debilitating mental rut!

*…but take a mental trip to the future when you find yourself dreading the worst. When we’re expecting the worst, we tend to wear mental blinders. All we can see is the thing we’re dreading. As far as we’re concerned, the world ends with that event or outcome. But…does it really? Take a step back and look again. The truth is, even when things don’t go our way, life goes on. That’s why it’s so helpful to take a mental trip to the future when you’re dreading the worst.

Try this exercise: Imagine that your worst expectations come true. Now, fast-forward six months, a year, or even five or ten years in your mind. Is that dreaded event still impacting your life? Has it made you permanently unhappy, restricted your options, or blown your bank account? In most instances, the answer will be no. In fact, in six months or a year, the thing you fear probably won’t even be on your radar anymore. (And if it is, figure out what you can do now to prevent it or minimize its impact.) “Traveling to the future” is a great tool for putting negative expectations into context…and more importantly, out of your mind!

*Write it out. Our anxieties can often seem bigger and scarier the longer we allow them to float around in our heads. The remedy? Sit down and write out the things that you are afraid of. As you do, consider each one. Where does this worry come from? Is it internal or is it from an outside source? Is it likely to happen? How will it impact me if it does?

Sometimes the simple act of putting pen to paper can help you to break the vicious cycle of mental worrying. It helps me to make the things I dread seem less overwhelming and more manageable. I recommend recording your fears in a format you can revisit, such as a journal or saved computer document. Once the crisis has passed (or failed to happen), look back at what you wrote and compare your expectations to what actually occurred. This will help you to hone an increasingly balanced perspective as you move into the future.

If there’s one thing my quest to find happiness has taught me, it’s that things really do have a way of working out. It can be hard to accept that truth and choose to let go of your worrying, especially if it’s a long-standing habit. But I promise, when you learn to manage your mind by taking the focus off your fears and by being more productive in the present moment, your life will be so much healthier and happier.