Do You Choose Happiness?

    One time, I was having an argument with the speaker standing in front of a crowded assembly. The argument was taking place in my head rather than out loud as I didn’t quite have the energy to actually engage in a discussion right then. I thought that perhaps it would be an even better idea to present it to you to see what your thoughts would be. The speaker was making a case for happiness and I certainly can’t argue with that. He reminded us that wisdom requires that we be happy. He shared research that happy people get the job done better than unhappy ones and noted that the last decade and a half of research in “positive psychology” has led to many fascinating outcomes supporting this. He argued that people try too hard to get to the next goal and then the next, thinking mistakenly that when they only reach their goal they will be happy. This is not true, he admonished: Happiness comes from the process of living your life, not from getting to a goal. I couldn’t argue with any of that. Then he said that happiness is a choice. Some people choose to be unhappy. And that is where I part company. I could immediately think of two classes of people who are unhappy but not by choice: People who have serious troubles in their lives and people who are stuck in a cage of unhappiness that they don’t know how to get out of. In fact, I completely believe that these two categories cover every single person who is unhappy and that there...

How to Get A Good Night Sleep

This was not new for him. It was 3 AM and Herb was wide awake. Forget the fact that he’d just gone to bed at midnight and that he was bone tired. His brain went into action: But what did Gloria mean? What if she really wants out of the relationship? But no, that can’t be because of what Brian said she said…… And on and on. His anxiety was in full control. A worrying mind flits from one branch of a decision tree down another. Every branch is visited and new ones sprout as the worrier looks. Each branch must be examined and re-examined. Yes, that’s part of it: revisit each worry again and yet again because there could be a new slant on an old situation that went unnoticed before. The new slants produce more doubts, more worries, more questions, more obsessive negative thoughts, and the entire tree must be explored again with the new slant in mind. The hours tick by and sleep is a gift of the past, the one thing that eludes the watchful eye of the worrier. Insomnia. This is not just a nocturnal thing; it goes on all day, getting in the way of relationships, work, driving, studying, and living. Our brains were not meant to function this way; it’s just not efficient. And it inhibits doing the very thing that seems to be hogging the controls: thinking. Paradoxically, when we stop worrying, we can easily get the answers we want. Here’s why: We are consciously aware of only a small fraction of what we experience. The rest gets filed somewhere in...

How Your Anxiety Hurts Your Spouse and Children

The snow was piling up and Maggie paced the floor. She was so anxious, she started to feel as though she were getting a heart attack. One time, she went to the E.R. thinking that she really was having some kind of cardiac episode but after a night full of tests, they told her she was “just” having a panic attack. Just. Harrumph. They should only have one and then see if they still have the nerve to say it’s “just” a panic attack, she thought. These things are not small potatoes. And now it was happening again. She kept looking out the window. “Where is he?” She repeated to herself almost like a mantra. “Where is he?” It started to look almost like a choreographed sequence: First, she’d look out the window; then she’d pace a little; then she’d repeat her question to no one there, and then back to the window. When Ethan walked in the door, she shrieked. Then Maggie threw her hands over her face and burst into tears. Ethan was 1 hr. 15 min late. Given the weather conditions, that wasn’t bad. But for Maggie, the first minute he was not home on time, the worrying began. Ethan cradled her in his arms. They’d been through this before. “It’s a good thing you married me,” he crooned, “because I understand you.” “Yes, you do,” Maggie sobbed, “so you know why I got frantic when you weren’t home on time.” Your Anxiety Hurts Others Ethan smiled benignly. He could afford to be relaxed. After all, he knew where he’d been. He only got equally upset...

Overcome Anxiety By Doing What You Hate

Marlene had to admit that a lot of her anxiety was born of a sense of childish entitlement which went something like this: “I’ve had an awful life, so I’m entitled to cut corners here and there to make it easier on myself.” The result was that she had bounced a check. And this wasn’t, unfortunately, the first time. “If I’m going to turn my life around and ditch this foolish anxiety problem, then I simply have to force myself to do my checkbook regularly. There is no excuse for this,” she said to herself. As she stood on line at the bank, Marlene had an “Ah-ha!” experience. It came to her, with an unheard-of forcefulness that if she could get control of her anxiety so well—and she was, indeed, feeling a lot better—she could get control of some of the things that had triggered her anxiety in the first place. She had absolutely hated balancing her checkbook. It was the most boring, annoying act on earth. It took up so much time, and invariably she made countless arithmetical errors. That’s why her way of coping had been to always keep enough money in the account to protect herself from situations like this one. Obviously, it was not a good enough system because something had gone wrong. She finished with the banking and as she headed toward the door, she noticed a brochure for getting online banking. Sure enough, with this free program, she could keep up to date on her account daily. She retraced her steps and headed over to a desk to sign up for it. From...

Overcome Anxiety With Positive Thinking

When Marlene started the steps to anxiety reduction, she didn’t realize that her anxious behavior was accompanied by negative thoughts. What she learned was that these thoughts actually propel the anxious feelings and behavior. She had to do some quiet reflection to recognize those underlying thoughts, and eventually she was able to pin them down. Then, she had to challenge them. Here are the arguments she came up with for each one: “There is always an end to misery,” “I need to get calm so I can think of a solution; there is always a solution,” “Being human means you have problems.” Meanwhile, she was practicing deep breathing along with visualizations. She thought of a lovely mountain cabin she had once stayed at on vacation. She carefully filled in the picture with the plants, the furniture, the trees, everything about that cabin. When she got into it, she could smell the mountain air and hear the birds cawing. She was amazed to notice how nice and relaxed she would become when she did this. Then, one day, a check bounced and, out of habit, she retreated into her usual pattern. “Now I have an extra charge,” she moaned, “and there isn’t enough money to cover it! What will I do? What will I do? Oh, God, why does this always have to happen to me? I hate this!” She started breathing rapidly; she started to sweat. Marlene began to feel faint. She collapsed on a chair, weak at the knees, her head swimming. This is a common reaction to stress. Neurons in the brain fire in the old patterns...

How Anxiety Starts In Your Family and Why You Need to Overcome it

Marlene is a perfect example of a person who thought she had an anxious personality. She understood why she had it, but that didn’t change anything. (It usually doesn’t.) Her father abandoned the family when she was young and then her mother had to work, leaving her in charge of younger siblings. She was responsible, but that was an awfully heavy burden to place on a child. It was scary. Little kids do not have the emotional resources to tell themselves “This too shall pass” the way adults do when something bad happens for the first time in adulthood. Hers was a normal reaction to a bad situation given that she was only a child when all this started. So the world became a scary place and Marlene became anxious at many things. Any time the stability of her life was threatened, she would overeat; she would feel her blood pressure go up; she often got queasy or lightheaded. She frequently thought she was headed for a panic attack and had so many of them that she started to label herself as having a Panic Disorder. Along with this, she would think: “Oh, no, I see no end in sight,” or “I don’t have a clue how to get out of this!” or “Why did this have to happen to me?” Marlene tried the approach described in last week’s post, with a great deal of irritation. That’s common. “Why,” she complained, “Do I have to be the one to work on myself when it was not my fault that I was treated badly and became an anxious person?” She...

Overcome Anxiety With Mindfulness Meditation

Anxiety is a learned behavior. Can you imagine! The brain actually learns how to become anxious. Research shows that brain development in traumatized infants is significantly different than that of normally-raised babies. It predisposes them to adult struggles with stress and emotional illness. Anxiety Research [See Allan Shore, the Effects of Early Relational Trauma on Right Brain Development, Affect Regulation, and Infant Mental Health, Infant Mental Health Journal, Vol.  22(1–2), 201–269 (2001)] The good news is that the anxious brain can also heal. Research on what happens to the brain during meditation shows that even newbies at it can start to reach for changes that Tibetan lamas have mastered in a lifetime of training. [See Daniel Goleman, Finding Happiness: Cajole Your Brain to Lean to the Left, New York Times, February 4, 2003] So if you say, “I’m an anxious person,” it sounds like, well, that’s that. But if we stand in awe of our brains and marvel at the fact that they can re-learn how to respond to similar situations that triggered the old responses, hey, we have a fighting chance of overcoming history. Anxiety Hurts Relationships What does your attitude do to your relationship? It gives you the permission to spout your anxiety all over the place and your husband (or wife) can’t do anything about it (or so he thinks, but that’s another post). Do you see where we’re going here? Your thinking is plum wrong. You do not have permission or any excuse to act up and make him scared or unhappy or nervous himself just because you are used to feeling and acting anxious....
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