Can I be Positive?

All you need is by Ari Hahn
All you need is, a photo by Ari Hahn on Flickr.

People who live with mental illness, whether it is themselves or a loved one, love with too much stress and negative emotions. Much has been written about stress and certainly everybody has heard of the dangers of being over stressed.

Most medical professionals and psychotherapists work under the assumption that of you get rid of the negative in your life you will fill up your life with positive. People want to be happy and to flourish so if we remove the obstacles you will seek, find and fill your life with good healthy emotions and activities. Unfortunately, we see that it doesn’t work that way. It would if, for instance, love and fear were opposite ends of a real continuum. But if they were, you couldn’t both love and fear the same person at the same time. I sure you know of that possibility.

Science tells us that negative emotions help us focus on protection. If you are walking down a dark city street and a bunch of rowdy teenage boys come up behind you, you might get anxious or afraid. Your muscles tense, your heart beats harder, you listen more carefully, etc. Your only thought is how to stay safe.

If your kid is beginning to act out, your whole being focuses on what needs to be done to get through this episode. Hypervigilance reigns as you watch for signs that hospitalization might be needed. You ignore other tasks that seemed important just a short while ago. You feel all sorts of negative emotions and they actually can help you (in some ways) keep you and your family safe.

But what about positive emotions? How do they work? How do they effect our thinking and actions?

Positive emotions and positive interactions tend to move us in an opposite direction. When we engage in positivity our minds and hearts open up to new possibilities. Emotions like joy, gratitude, hope, pride and love help us feel expansive and we are able to be more creative. We build stronger relationships and live healthier lives. Not because of the lack of stress but because the positive emotions actually enhance these processes in our brains.

However, people do not automatically move into the positivity mode. If you have been overwhelmed with problems you might be stuck in a negativity rut. The real good news is that we all can train ourselves to cultivate feelings of joy, gratitude, awe, serenity, hope and love. If you can find even a few moments of these feelings then those moments are the seeds of a flourishing life. And there is research to show that for many people nurturing those seeds can be just as effective as antidepressants. With no side effects.

Some people need a personal coach. A positivity trainer. A professional who can teach you to refocus and cherish the good feelings through overwhelming times. I cannot think of a better investment.

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A Start on the Path to Positivity

In my last post I proposed that people suffering from complex PTSD can improve their lives by increasing positivity. Although many people see this possibility, others feel so overwhelmed that they feel it impossible. While that is the nature of C-PTSD, I have worked with these people to overcome the obstacles and progress on the strive to thrive highway.

There are many tools and techniques that have been developed by positive psychologists in the past ten years. Although I have found them to parallel techniques that have been around for thousands of years, these new formulations are based on research and fit well into our modern perspectives. One powerful and simple exercise is the “Gratitude Journal.”

The Gratitude Journal is really a very simple exercise. You set aside ten minutes at the end of the day to write in a journal three things that occurred that day that engendered some level of gratitude. Then add on to that some reason for why it happened. The events can big big or small, significant or humble, it makes no difference. Anything from, “my daughter gave birth to a healthy child,” to “a lady was nice to me while in line at the supermarket.” When citing a reason, it needs to be anything that makes sense to you. If you do this for three weeks you will almost certainly see a positive change in your life.

Some people claim it is difficult to find things to be grateful for. Of course, that’s true. But not because there aren’t reasons to be grateful. It is because you are not practiced at thinking positive. And while there are really good reasons for that, it is the lack of practice that keeps your mood negative. The purpose of keeping a Gratitude Journal is to train your mind and heart to be more open to positivity. As you struggle to find events to be thankful for you are creating neural paths of positivity in your brain. The more of positivity paths up there, the better you feel.

I have done this myself and with dozens of other people. A few people need help to begin the habit of finding and expressing gratitude. With even slight help everybody can find positive points to be thankful for. And every person who I know that has completed even a few weeks of this journal has sung the benefits.

Some people ask: how long do I have to keep this journal? Remember that the goal is to train your mind in the positive direction. So the schedule would be similar to other training endeavors. At first it is important to work on it on a daily basis. But once you’ve gained the skill, only maintenance is needed. That means only two or three times a week. On the other hand, you will find that it will become an enjoyable activity.

Hey, a healthful activity that’s enjoyable. We can all use that!

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9/11 and Recovery


I’ve been visiting my children and grandchildren on the west coast for the past two weeks, and with 9/11 upon us, it is a stark reminder that I need to get back to work. There are people out there who need to learn more and want to recover from trauma and tragedy. But, hey, isn’t that what 9/11 is all about?

OK. 9/11 is not only about recovery from trauma and tragedy, but recovery is a really important factor. One of the most important lessons from this terrible tragedy is not what most people focus on. It is about those people who seem less effected by the terrorist events. I am not referring to people who were not effected at all, but those who seem less effected because they quickly bounced back to normal. Most Americans were able to resume normal lives quite rapidly after that fateful September morning, even those who were terribly shaken by the attacks. What does that teach us about surviving and recovering from other trauma? How can we learn from their experience to improve the lives of others who have experienced other tragedies, trauma and abuse?

The technical term for the ability to bounce back from negative events is called “resiliency”. We know that some people are more resilient and others are less resilient. We also know that regardless of a person’s natural resiliency, it can be broken through multiple and consistent trauma. On the other hand, we know that, at least in regards to childhood trauma, resilience is bolstered when the child has at least one supportive relationship. One adult who believes and supports a maltreated child can often (but not always) save that child from the ravages of complex PTSD.

But people with high resilience are not often studied. They are the ones that have a good life (or reasonably goo life) despite the trauma they endured. They do not go for therapy, and they see no reason to dig into painful past memories. This is most unfortunate, because they certainly can shed light, or offer insights into the strengths needed to change a terrible life into a flourishing thriving life.

Fortunately there were some scientists who were thinking this way ten years ago. Most prominent among them was Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina. Looking at the whole population she found that people who bounced back had a greater amount of positivity in their lives. They recognized and felt the full impact of the tragedy, but also had the strength to reinstate hope and planning for the future.

If you suffer from PTSD you are probably saying to yourself, “Great. But what about me? They are the lucky ones. My life is overwhelmingly negative.” While that might be true, there are many techniques and exercises to build the ability to add positivity in your life. Some are simple and some are more work. But there is definitely some way of adding the positive in your life.

I am not talking about the Pollyanna, “look at the good side”, “just get over it” type of work. I am also not saying that the work of reducing troubling symptoms is not important. Not at all. One needs to address anxiety, flashbacks, anger triggers, etc. But it is not really enough. You need an additional focus on the things that make life worth living. Activities that engage you. Ideas that give meaning to your life. Relationships that that fill you with joy. Achieving goals that raise you up further and further.

In each one of us there are seeds, saplings or trees made of one (or more) of the following ten emotions: joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration, awe, and/or love. Even if it is just a seed of one of them, you have the ability to grow, thrive, survive, and flourish.

Scientists learned that from 9/11. We can learn from them now. We can not only get rid of negativity but let’s work on the positive also!

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Beautiful and Deadly

Beautiful and Deadly by Ari Hahn
Beautiful and Deadly, a photo by Ari Hahn on Flickr.

Kaaterskill Falls is famous for its beauty. It was a favorite spot for the painters of the Hudson Valley School of Art. America’s first artist colony was in nearby Palenville, NY. While the whole Catskill area is beautiful, Kaaterskill Falls is especially captivating.

But it can also be deadly. Every year somebody gets too close to the raging water and meets real tragedy.

Beautiful and Deadly

Anybody who has experienced bi-polar disorder up close knows a special dimension of these words. Most of the time the metaphor used for bi-polar is a raging sea vs. the calm. Of course, that is a good metaphor. But the beautiful and dangerous waterfall is just as valid, but from a different perspective. The person who suffers from bi-polar disorder experiences the rush of a raging ocean vs. the dead calm of a stagnant pond. Often that is the experience of the caregivers also. But there is another category of loved ones that can see things differently. They can see the beauty in the dangerous side. They can love the person for the whole range of emotions and behaviors even while appreciating that it is dangerous and distance is often the prudent procedure.

I just read a book called “where are the cocoa puffs?” by Karen Winters Schwartz. It is a novel about an 18 year old girl who descends into the depths of bi-polar disorder. It is a wonderful and highly recommended book with many great qualities that I will not discuss right now because I want to focus on just one aspect. The protagonist, Mandy, picks up a boyfriend during one of her first manic stages. The boy, Ryan, falls madly in love with this hyperactive, hyper manic, hypersexual, beautiful girl. I suspect that part of the reason that he stays with her after some very extreme behavior is because he was accepted into her successful loving (but suffering and struggling) family. However, since he loves the whole person, he views her more like an extremely beautiful and powerfully dangerous waterfall. He just happens to be one that can also engage the waterfall.

Since the book is very realistic (although, by necessity cannot portray the true depth of emotions that family members actually experience) and since it is a novel, I plan to come back to this book often to illustrate things that I see in my clients.

The book is available at amazon. (I wish I knew how to put one of those “buy it at Amazon” links here.)

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Why Contradictions are Good.

Pondering the depths by Ari Hahn
Pondering the depths, a photo by Ari Hahn on Flickr.

Contradictions. We tend to think of them as negative, but in contradictions we can find the greatest truths. It is more than just a quirk of language that we can reach the greatest heights by plumbing the greatest depths. It is an actual fact of life that by accepting contradictions we can expand our minds and our understandings.

There are a few reasons for this phenomenon. First, since we have only a limited power of understanding, acknowledgment of our limits opens us up to understand things that at first do not make sense. Sometimes they make sense after we accept them. Second, there is often more details and depth in a reality that reveal secrets otherwise concealed. For example, in interpersonal communications we can gain only a certain amount of understanding through the words of a conversation. Once a certain limit is reached, we can attain a greater understanding by listening to the silence (and other non-verbal and non-visual) levels of communication. These can include sounds that are not normally audible and bodily reactions that we are non-consciously sending and receiving.

Of course, in art the act of savoring and becoming engaged in the art are supra-conscious acts. This is well known but not common enough. Especially in today’s over-saturated environment. In the modern Western world we are bombarded with sights, sounds, and mini-messages that attempt to keep us at a superficial level of understanding. How else can be be convinced to spend money on items and customs that are actually detrimental? (My favorite is the American belief that we need to shower every day (which I do.) By showering everyday we use more soap, deplete our natural skin oils, and need to buy more products to replace, at least minimally, those oils in order to retain healthy skin.) If we were to think deeply, and follow the dictates of our bodies we would slow down and need less.

This works also for intellectual pursuits. Learning quickly is only one aspect of intellectual success. True success requires slow thought. Contemplation. Greater understanding by pondering the depths. Ponder this (in darkness) and you will see the light.

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How to turn a child into an adult

I participated in a family support group this week that focused on “dependency” issues. The group consisted of parents of adults who suffer from various mental and emotional disorders. We discussed the difficulties of watching adult children engage in various self-distractive or self-sabotaging behaviors. Although the stories were much more extreme than one might hear from parents of healthy children, the attitude and perspective we need to take is really just the same regardless of the child.

One father talked about his son who is in a residential treatment facility. His son is in his late twenties. The facility is very good (and very expensive.) In order to begin to work on inappropriate behaviors that can be reenforced by the family, they have a 45 day no contact period at the beginning of treatment. Not surprisingly, many patients don’t like that. This man’s son decided to leave the facility and make it home but only made it half way. Penniless, tired and hungry, he called his father for help.

The father, with boundless love for his son, was heartbroken when he heard his son’s plight. “How could I let him sleep on the street without food?” he lamented.

How indeed? This man was spending approximately 10K a month for his son’s treatment and when his son needs $50 for a room and a bus ticket he can’t help?

But the perspective is wrong. While we all want the best for our children, we are not very good at getting them to make good choices. Many choose life styles that are not what we could imagine. Others make mistakes that if they would only listen to is they wouldn’t need to falter. Life would be so much easier if our children would learn from our mistakes. Alas….

We need to step back and get a long term perspective. Not a small step back, but a really big step. Remember how that child was when she came into this world. What the relationship like during his first weeks and months? At that age the human being is completely helpless and dependent. This actually defines the goal of parenting. We want out children to be independent adults. Even more important: this is the primary prerequisite for their happiness. Nobody can be a flourishing, thriving individual if they feel dependent on others for their well being.

How is this perspective translated into everyday behavior? How can this be understood in simple terms? How do we keep that goal of independence foremost in our minds and constantly in view?

Let us start with a simple example. Your kid is learning to ride a bicycle. You are there with her and holding on as she starts out. But eventually you will let go and she will ride without your help, independently. You know that she is likely to fall while learning and come crying about a hurt knee or elbow. That doesn’t stop you – or her. Independence is too important.

If a twenty something tries to start a business, you wish him best and give advise (if he’ll listen.) If he won’t listen then you keep your mouth shut and tell yourself that he is still young and he can learn from his failures. Hopefully he does and has a better round the next time. Why is that the best path to take? Because that is the road to greater independence.

That is the same message I shared with my group this week. Sure the child will fall and suffer. Since the behavior that triggered the problem was greater than learning to ride a bicycle the suffering will be greater, but it is the exact same process. In order to become independent the child (even if she is now a 35 year old child) needs to fall and get up and learn to do it on her own. Anything less than that is losing sight of the real goal of independence.

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Seven Steps for a Great Morning

I pride myself in being both a scientifically-based psychologist and a very religious person. This combination has provided me with some huge, practical insights into improving my life. I have found it wonderfully rewarding when I realized how the science of psychology and the traditions I have received from my religion work together to make meaning and purpose. I truly believe that there are lessons here that every human being on the face of the globe can apply benefit from.

 

Many people will readily agree that that first hour of two of the morning will set the tone for much of the rest of the day. If you implement these guidelines I can assure you that within two or three weeks you will feel a significant improvement. There are seven steps that can make a significant improvement in your life.

 

A great morning starts just before you go to sleep. It is really difficult to have a great morning if you haven’t started the night before. There are two exercises which are really important before retiring at night. While I learned of these from religious writings dating back hundreds of years, they’ve been given specific names and forms to the modern science of positive psychology.

 

The first one is called the “Gratitude Journal.” Every night, at the beginning of my bedtime routine, I write in a journal three things that happened during the course of the day that I am thankful for. Next to each item I write some reason that the event occurred. It makes no difference whether it is a big and important event in your life or is a minor one. Also, it makes no difference whether or not the reason that it happened is a logical reason or one that other people would understand. What is important is that it makes sense to me.

 

Many people who start with a gratitude journal find it difficult at first. If this happens to you, be persistent. It just means that you are training your mind to focus on positive and happy events. Everybody that I have worked with has gotten the hang of it within a week or two.

 

The second step could be called “the forgiveness journal.” According to my religious tradition, I express my forgiveness to people who have wronged me immediately prior to going to sleep. The idea is to end the day with a clean heart. In positive psychology terms, is another portion of a journal in which you can note three people who you can forgive for something that occurred to you either today or prior to today. I have found this to be occasionally pretty tricky. Too many people think that they must start forgiving others for major wrongs or major hurts. It is important to start by forgiving people for things that you’re absolutely ready to forgive them for. Forgive your child for throwing a tantrum in the supermarket. Forgive your mother for reminding you too many times to do something or another. Way down the road you will be able to forgive your big brother for bullying you when you were 12 years old.

 

The third step in preparation for wonderful morning is to go to sleep with enough time to wake up rested. (That is a skill that needs to be discussed in a separate blog post.)

 

Step number four for a great morning actually occurs in the morning. Wake up early enough to get everything done even when things go wrong. I always wake up with enough time to avoid any stress. I know plenty of people who get out of the house in 10 or 15 min. I give myself a minimum of one hour. You might not need that much time. But it is important to budget enough time for emergencies.

 

Step number five is to dedicate a minimum of 15 minutes to some spiritual activity. I will spend a minimum of 30 minutes in prayer. On a good day, I can spend 20 minutes in meditation and 45 minutes in prayer. This sets the foundation and perspective for all of the activities for the rest of the day. If I am able to do this properly, I will be able to use just a few minutes of reflection later on to refocus and to gain proper perspective. In positive psychology terms, this is called giving meaning to your life. This foundation can be found in humanistic psychology and in 12 step programs, as well as almost all religious traditions.

 

Step number six is to put on a positive intellectual armor on before going out into the world. Read something positive. It seems that thousands of people read quotes from famous people. I typically learn a portion of the Bible, say a few chapters of Psalms, and learned some Chasidic philosophy. While the most proper suggestion is to do this prior to leaving your home, I must admit that most of the days of the week I will implement this stage on the train to work. With consistent effort you can learn to use some concentration while doing this reading and it will work wonders.

 

Step number seven is relatively easy. Prior to immersing yourself into the trials and tribulations of your daily grind, pull out your gratitude journal and read your prior entries. That is really good way to put yourself in a frame of mind to meet the challenges that inevitably appear.

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