Sunday, August 21, 2016

To Be Happy

This week, I felt a bit wistful about starting another school year. Although I really like working with my colleagues and students, I felt sad to see our best summer ever with Alex come to a close. Because he has made so much progress, we were able to enjoy many family activities, such as going to concerts in the park, playing games at our local family arcade, dining out at a variety of restaurants, and relaxing together at home. Knowing this transition of my going back to work would mean a time of adjustments for all of us, we tried to make this past week easier for Alex. By giving him a printed agenda of the various beginning of the year meetings I would be attending, I thought it would help him be less anxious about where I was and when I would be home. As he carried around my schedule all of last week, Alex appeared more relaxed than he usually is at the beginning of the school year, and checking off the activities at the end of each day was helpful for both of us. After a week of unusual busyness, we are looking forward to getting back to the usual routine, even as Ed begins his semester this week.

On Wednesday, the first day of classes, two emails appeared in my home inbox that I found interesting, especially since they seemed to be a sign of the positive attitude I’m trying to maintain, even at the end of a terrific summer. The first, which came from our health insurance’s monthly newsletter, is entitled “Happy people: 8 simple secrets they know.” [To read this article, please click here.] Based upon research, the article offers helpful tips about cultivating happiness. This list includes the following guidelines: connect with family and friends, be grateful for good things, help others, think positively, get exercise, have fun and be creative, get rest, and be optimistic. These suggestions seem to be good goals for me to pursue as I begin the school year in order not to become overwhelmed by thinking of all the things I need to do.

Along with this article, I also found some good ideas in an email from psychiatrist Dr. Daniel Amen. In his article “The Number One Habit to Develop in Order to Feel More Positive,” he discusses the problem of ANT––Automatic Negative Thoughts. [To read this article, please click here.] Dr. Amen explains that these automatic negative thoughts he sees in his patients “were robbing them of their joy and stealing their happiness.” He adds that these ANTs are responsible for depression, anxiety, and negativity.

In order to recognize these negative thoughts, Dr. Amen describes a few of the common ANTs. For people who have panic disorders, “Fortune Telling” is common; the person predicts bad outcomes, despite any evidence. In “Mind Reading,” the person believes they know what another person is thinking, and this assumption can harm relationships. Those who engage in “Guilt Beatings” focus on “should, must, ought, and have to” as they feel badly about what they are doing or are not doing. In the “Blame” type of thinking, the person becomes a helpless victim who cannot change a situation, blaming others and not taking responsibility. Finally in “Labeling” the person resorts to name calling, which diminishes the ability to analyze the circumstances clearly. After considering Dr. Amen’s negative thought categories, I realize that I find myself in fortune telling, mind reading, and guilt beating mode at times, and I know that I need to quit making assumptions about what will happen and what others think and to stop being so hard on myself.

Dr. Amen, a neuroscientist, explains how positive and negative thoughts have contrasting physical effects on the mind and the body. Negative thoughts cause the brain to release chemicals that make hands clammy, muscles tighten, breathing shallow, and the heart rate increase. In the brain, negative thoughts impair judgment, learning, and memory. By contrast, positive thoughts warm the hands, relax muscles, deepen breathing, and decrease pulse and blood pressure; in addition, the brain works more effectively. Dr. Amen emphasizes the need to recognize and identify negative thought patterns and to take control of thoughts, emotions, and behaviors in order to “experience peace of mind and joy.” His assertion that self-awareness can change a person’s outlook on life is compelling. Clearly, focusing on the positive is essential to a happy life.

On Thursday evening, our school held its annual open house where parents are invited to meet the teachers. After I finished meeting with my students’ parents, I had the unexpected pleasure of running into a friend of mine whose child attends the school where I teach. In addition, we are both autism moms to sons who tower over us in height. As we happily compared notes about how well our boys are doing and what great summers they both had, we commented about how much we appreciate chatting with someone who “gets it,” who understands what life with autism is really like.

Instead of complaining about the obstacles autism presents in our daily lives, however, she and I began a dialogue about the positive aspects of our lives. We don’t worry about girls breaking our sons’ hearts right now. Unlike parents of typical young adults, we don’t have to worry about our sons driving because they currently don’t have the ability to do so. While some of our family and friends are dealing with the separation anxiety of having their children go away to college, ours are safely home with us. In fact, they will likely be with us for a while, and we’re fine with that, especially because they have become so pleasant, and we enjoy their company. Moreover, we’re delighted that our sons allow us to kiss and hug them without any fear of embarrassing them. For all the things in life that autism has made difficult, we are well aware of the good things that bless our lives and make us grateful to be their moms.

As I work toward eradicating negative thoughts and focusing on the positive, I have the additional blessing of a wonderful role model. Although Alex and I both deal with anxiety, we have learned coping skills that help us to fight our fears, and our faith is the most powerful tool in our arsenal. The vast majority of the time, Alex takes a positive outlook on life, savoring even the smallest of joys––decreasing gas prices, the sound of a pleasant voice, the taste of a favorite food––and realizes that life is to be enjoyed, not endured. Perhaps God knows that I need Alex’s optimistic outlook on a daily basis, so he’s home with me. While I think I have things to teach Alex before he’s ready for the world; he probably knows that he has much to teach me, as well. Until both of us are ready, we will enjoy our time together and know how blessed we truly are to have each other.

“So I concluded there is nothing better than to be happy and enjoy ourselves as long as we can.” Ecclesiastes 3:12

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