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anticipa-a-tion …. (I hope you’re humming that song now!)

This has always been a short path to anxiety for me. Anticipation of an upcoming flight. Anticipation of someone’s reaction. Anticipation of imminent death. Anticipation … fill in the blank.

Well, today is the day before a long trip. My husband and I, new empty-nesters, are heading out on a road trip. Our first ever. We’ll be gone about a month and will travel from Florida up through the Blue Ridge Mountains…up to Niagra Falls….up into Canada. Then north of Lake Huron and west to the Upper Peninsula and over into Minnesota and down the Mississippi River. Careful to avoid flooding etc.

We’ve had fun making some plans and leaving some days entirely plan-free. All home fronts are to be cared for by a variety of helpful people. The car is nearly packed.

Its 4 pm. Ahem. The car is packed. We don’t leave till tomorrow morning. Ahem. Now what?

See, the really interesting thing about this preparation is that I have NOT had anticipation anxiety. At all. I have not imagined the fiery car crashes, the bridges that will give way under us, the hotels felled by terrorist bombs or rogue earthquakes. Nope. I’ve stayed pretty much in the moment – which was to pack. To contact a hotel or box office. To fix lunch. Etc. Very reality based.

I hadn’t realized until just now, seeing how really little there is still to do, that I have not been running ragged or holding my breath. I don’t feel overwhelmed and I don’t feel… well, I don’t feel anxious.

I am starting to see what my various teachers and mentors mean when they say that serenity has a way of sneaking up on you. And so it has.

Holding to a steady meditation practice over the last two years has effected an enormous change in me! I use that term loosely because I don’t sit on a cushion in deep silence for hours on end. No, I do some active visualization, deep and focused breathing techniques and conscious present-moment awareness. I try to do this several times a day.

It may look like I’m not doing much. But, the balanced levels of serenity and excitement tell me otherwise. I have a whole different view of anticipation now!

It’s what I’m feeling about my trip!

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I have been thinking about Fear and how it dominates our press and the affect this has on the anxious.

 

If you are an anxious person then you will be well acquainted with fear.  Any campaign designed to alert us to have a mammogram, (fear of cancer), wear our seatbelts (fear of crashing), be alert to strange unattached parcels in public places (fear of terrorism), eat the right food and exercise regularly (fear of obesity and/or death), recycle our rubbish (fear of global warming), get in stocks of canned food (fear of bird flu), use the correct moisturiser (fear of aging),  will no doubt succeed and send  the anxious out to get the next mammogram or buy out the local supermarket of canned goods.  I find myself avoiding this type of media activity as it feeds my fear, but then of course I fear that I am merely burying my head in the sand .  I can’t win!  I also wonder if the people that these types of campaigns are wanting to target ie those who don’t know about these issues, or don’t care – still don’t know or don’t care?  The only people watching and listening are the anxious (who know all about this stuff already…!)

 

So, how do I try and deal with this overload of fearful information?

  • I only listen to commercial radio in the mornings and save the “real” news for later in the day when I am awake and lucid.  Waking to endless bad news cannot be good for you.
  • I prefer to read the news rather than watch or listen.  I find TV news unbearable, it is designed for the few second sound bite, contains little information and a whole lot of fear.
  • I find talking about what I have heard is helpful. Hopefully someone will be able to challenge some of this information, and might put a different perspective on things.
  • If it all becomes too much I’ll turn everything off and have a news holiday and read a trashy book, or go to a feel good movie – anything that helps take me away from news and gloom overload.
  • Every now and then I will congratulate myself on the fact that I am a responsible person and doing the best that I can. 
  • Sometimes it helps to find out more information, and not just to take what I have heard or read about as gospel.  I believe that information can ease anxiety and help get things into perspective.  (Although you have to be careful with this one as this can lead to a certain obession which isn’t always helpful either).

It is of course important to be careful, to be alert and to be aware of our environment, our health and our political climate.  However, if like me, you are inclined towards the anxious then it is also important to look after yourself – it is all too easy to become overwhelmed.

It is easy when you are anxious to forget about those who are near and dear, who cope with the depression, the questioning, the doubts, the pain and the tears.  When I first started experiencing anxiety I was in a new relationship with the man who would become my husband.  I remember the baffled look as I pounced upon him sobbing because he was late home from a trip away, and his futile attempts at reassurance as my  fears of imminent health failure reached a crescendo.  He really had no idea about what was happening to me, why I couldn’t be reassured, and why I couldn’t just get on with things and be normal!   

 25 years on I thought it was a good time to ask him about the ways that he has coped with living with an anxious person, and perhaps what advice he would give to someone in a similar situation.

J: What was your first reaction when you realised that I had anxiety?

SJ: Probably to be worried! And then to think how could I help?

J: What happened for you when you realised that you couldn’t help?

SJ: Well it took many counselling sessions for me to realise that the best thing to do was actively listen, to not offer advice but to just be attentive and talk.  Just hang in.

J: What advice would you give to someone now?

SJ: the best way is just to “be”. It’s about being attentive, making time to be together and to share.

J: How do you look after yourself?

SJ: Having work and pleasure apart from you is important, at the same time as also making time and sharing things with you too.

J:How important is the time away?

SJ:Time apart is important in any relationship, I don’t think it is any more important when living with an anxious person

 J:  What have been some of the frustrations?

SJ: Mainly that I couldn’t wave a magic wand and make it all better.  Also when I get a bit down and tired myself, and don’t take the time to listen and share things with you, I can get a bit frustrated.  Sometimes I worry that I can’t make you laugh.

 J: Are there any gifts from living with an anxious person?

SJ: It has made me develop good ways of talking and listening.  I hadn’t realised that listening was so hard! It’s about really hearing what the person you are talking to is on about, without trying to solve everything.  I learnt to ask open questions, and to encourage conversation rather than to stifle it.

J: We have done couple counselling.  What do you think the affect of this has been?

SJ: I was struggling to cope with your anxiety at that time, and counselling helped me to cope and to look after myself, as well as become really aware of what would help you.

J: Could you have done this without counselling?

SJ: No I would have struggled much longer.

J: What advice would you give to an anxious person?

SJ: I would say to keep talking about it.  Sharing an anxiety or a vulnerability brings people together.

In the end there is no magic answer.  I think that for us it has been about listening, talking, challenging my thought patterns at times, getting help when we needed it, and trusting and respecting each other.  Doesn’t sound any different from any other relationship does it?

I have noticed a funny thing happening over the last few years.  Many of my friends have an anxiety problem.  Is is because of me?  Perhaps I am contagious?

My suspicion is that once you start talking about your own experiences of anxiety and/ or depression, is gives other people the opportunity to admit that they may have had similar experiences.  Somehow it no longer signifies failure, lack of self control or negativity. It isn’t something to feel ashamed of, and in fact you may find out that your good friend suffers from the same problem!

My friends are without fault a glorious bunch.  Many have had some tough times, and there is something wonderful about knowing people who have struggled with life, but are coming out the other side.  We laugh a lot, and for me that’s what makes all of this worthwhile. 

“Happiness is an imaginary condition, formerly attributed by the living to the dead, now usually attributed by adults to children, and by children to adults.” — Thomas Szasz

I found this wonderful quote a while back. It is an elegant way of saying that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. I myself am guilty of this thinking, and I imagine that you are too. We always seem to think that happiness is something that exists just outside our grasp… if only we could reach it. I don’t think I need to tell you that this type of thinking is plain wrong and that searching for happiness is like searching for your own head.

I often joke about this with my wife. When we look back on our life together, we find ourselves saying, “That was a good time.” A “good time,” as defined by us, is generally one with relatively few problems: financial, marital, job-related, etc. One day, my wife said to me: “Why is it that all of the times in the past are good times but right now seems so tough?”

“That’s because we don’t remember the bad things,” I said.

And it’s true. Even those “good times” we were referring to had bad parts to them. Yet, as time passed, the bad memories faded and lost their potency, while the good ones remained in tact. By and large, humans connect emotions to our experiences. When we recall a memory, we often experience the emotions we’ve attached to it. As time passes, the negative emotions fade, and the good ones often stick around. I’m not sure why this is, but I’ve found it to be true in myself and in others I’ve spoken to about it (not a scientific study, of course, but good enough for me). This isn’t to say that some negative emotions remain firmly planted in our psyche. PTSD is a good example of how such emotions can become tied to specific memories, sounds, sights, or smells. Regardless, as time passes, like water rushing over river rocks, it smooths the rough edges of our memories.

So is the grass really greener elsewhere? Or are we just too busy looking for greener grass that we’ve failed to look beneath our own feet?

It’s been a few months since I’ve blogged here. Not because I haven’t wanted to — but mostly life flows on in some new directions these days and I have not had enough time to sit quietly and gather my thoughts!

This is a good place for me, being in the flow, because so much of my life I have fought that sense of movement. Things “moved on” before I was finished with them, or people flowed out of my life and I didn’t want them to.

Resisting the flow of life didn’t get me much more than a good dose of Panic and Anxiety. Recovering from these has included a process of envisioning my life as a flowing river or stream. That I’m both the water and I am *in* the water. There is a time for things to happen and un-happen, and there is also a sort of timelessness about my life.

Maybe I’m just getting old. 🙂

But I find that I am no longer feeling the pinch of time, as if I don’t have enough of it. I feel like some of my days are longer than they’ve ever been!! I am enjoying the weather – even when it is weather that I usually don’t like. I’ve been pretty Panic-free now for a good long time.

I’m still busy – but not filled with busy-ness.

So I guess this is what I mean by being “in the flow.”

The Washington Post has a fascinating article on morality, empathy, compassion and their relation to happiness. More importantly, however, recent studies have shown that this morality is actually hardwired into the human brain, likely the result of an evolutionary adaptation that made our species more successful than those without a sense of morality.

While the whole topic certainly provides a lot of food for thought, I’m sharing this with you because I believe that being a moral person is beneficial for everyone, including ourselves. In a sense, having compassion and acting morally can also be selfish as such action brings us joy, happiness, and a sense of self-worth. This model of belief is an ancient tenet of Buddhism and many other religion and spiritual traditions and I find it amusing that only now are scientists investigating this. As much as I love science and rationality, I often find that the uber-skeptics are the same people who completely disregard tradition wisdom in the belief that it’s all nonsense. The research noted in this article verifies the hypothesis that morality has a positive effect on the brain:

The results were showing that when the volunteers placed the interests of others before their own, the generosity activated a primitive part of the brain that usually lights up in response to food or sex. Altruism, the experiment suggested, was not a superior moral faculty that suppresses basic selfish urges but rather was basic to the brain, hard-wired and pleasurable.

So again, I urge you to consider the possibility that one of the best methods for treating anxiety and depression is to stop focusing on yourself and begin to turn your thoughts outward. I’ve personally found this to be a wonderful antidote to anxiety, but I don’t believe I’m alone in this. Helping others is not just something we should do, it’s something we must do.

Read the rest of the article. There’s a lot of interesting speculation about the role this plays in our bodies, minds, human cultures, and even our system of laws.

Zen Habits, one of the best blogs on the internet, has a fantastic article that everyone should read. Even if you follow half of these suggestions, I have little doubt that they will be of great benefit to you. Check it out!

Time has an interesting piece on happiness, and how the topic is becoming a point of research among social scientists and psychologists. It’s a fascinating topic, and one that I personally believe to be undervalued in our uber-consumerist Western society. One of the happiness researchers has a few tips for us:

  • Be attuned to what gives you genuine satisfaction. Although many people assume that popular activities like watching TV are enjoyable, their own reports generally indicate that they feel more engaged, energetic, satisfied and happy when doing other things.
  • Study yourself. To better understand their own happiness, Csikszentmihalyi says, people should systematically record their activities and feelings every few hours for a week or two. In recording your observations, try to focus on how you actually feel, rather than what you think you ought to be feeling or what you expect to feel. Afterwards, note the high points, particularly, and the low ones. Then try to adjust how you spend time according to your findings.
  • Take control. Repairing unhappy conditions requires active effort. People often assume external conditions will change for the better or let chance determine their response. That’s a mistake. “Get control,” Csikszentmihalyi says. When things aren’t right, “you have to put in the same effort you would if your business were in trouble. Just as markets move, life changes too.”

Zen Habits, a blog that covers all sorts of topics related to positive life changes, has a good post on the three secrets to happiness. I think most of us here at WW already have some basic knowledge about what doesn’t bring happiness. When you live every day as if you were on the cusp of tragedy, it certainly brings into focus the basic truth that wealth and material gains won’t help much to alleviate our pain and promote well-being. Regardless, our perspective also causes us to lose focus on some of the other important aspects of happiness and health.

If you take a look at the Zen Habits post, pay particular attention to #3. This is something that I think most of us have a very difficult time with.

As far as #2 — positive thinking — this is a controversial topic amongst the professional worrisome. Personally, I try not to advocate “positive thinking” here on this blog because most people confuse it with thought control. Controlling your thoughts is impossible. Trying to control your thoughts as if you could you change your mind by brute force is a complete waste of your time. So, once again, let me remind you that positive thinking is not related to controlling your thoughts. Rather, think of it like positive redirection. By redirecting your attention (not simply your thoughts) to more positive things, you’re able to give yourself a unique way of approaching your problems. This positive redirection can become an unconscious habit if you work at it.

Read “The Three Secrets to Happiness” at Zen Habits.

"Drag your thoughts away from your troubles... by the ears, by the heels, or any other way you can manage it." -- Mark Twain

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