All posts by emmaoconnor

On a personal note…

I’ve experienced it before… the nameless entity which would leave me breathless and nauseous after nursery drop off, fretting following conversations with friends and drained after social occasions. Before this, I had a brief and intense dance with postnatal depression, and before that years of feeling, well, not quite right. Always nameless, always there, and never explained… Anxiety.

It was only when my eldest son developed debilitating anxiety at 9 years old, that I finally named it, squared up to it and took it on.

His experience motivated me to DO something, ANYTHING to help him… And what began as a trip through the murky depths of ‘what went wrong’, and ‘what did I do?’ soon became a journey into his, and my happiness.

I came across ‘happiness’ as a tool for a better life when someone suggested I watch ‘The Happy Secret to Better Work’, a Ted Talk by Shawn Achor. (Definitely worth a watch.) In it Shawn talks about 5 scientifically proven ways we can consciously improve our performance at work through increased happiness. Gratitude, kindness, meditation, exercise, and writing a journal about your daily good, can raise your happiness ‘set point’ and lead to improvements across different aspects of life!

This caught my attention. Although not specifically about anxiety, the concept gave us a new direction… Rather than being bogged down in what went wrong, we started to focus on what was going right. Instead of only learning to manage the symptoms of anxiety, (important, but not the only work to do) we saw a bigger picture. We essentially turned our back on anxiety, and through diligence and working together, focused on happiness, and have barely looked back.

Almost 3 years on, it feels like ancient history.

Our journey to happiness went a bit like this…

The very first thing we noticed was a restored sense of empowerment, the feeling we could help him, and more importantly, that he could help himself. We began with gratitude, and looking at the positives each day. Initially this acted as a distraction, and helped to nip full on anxiety attacks in the bud. It also gave him a focus at bedtime, and helped him settle on difficult nights. Acting in kindness towards his brother, friends, neighbours, and his parents really helped him to not think about his worries as much, and gave him a sense of pride. We meditated in the mornings, went walking on the beach, and looked at homemade flash cards at bedtime each night. We tried anything we could to raise his happiness, and gradually we saw our little boy come back.

Personally, this journey found me crying, laughing, despairing, and jumping for joy. It has been my biggest challenge personally, and our biggest as a family. The fact we stood next to each other and did it together (this wasn’t always easy), means we have ended up closer as a family on the other side. Our silver lining!

I wrote Everyday Happy as my way of giving back, and helping those who may be travelling down the same road. It is a practical tool… a call to action… with the aim to empower people to lift themselves (and help their children) out of anxiety.

My mission? To change the world, one smile at a time.

 

I originally wrote this post for Edinburgh Gossip Girls online Magazine here!

“Children need art and stories and poems and music as much as they need love and food and fresh air and play. “

In a time when so many children and young people are suffering anxiety disorders, it’s more important than ever to feed their souls with ‘art and stories and poems and music’

 

“Children need art and stories and poems and music as much as they need love and food and fresh air and play. “

Wise words from Philip Pullman, who received the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award in 2005:

Children need art and stories and poems and music as much as they need love and food and fresh air and play. If you don’t give a child food, the damage quickly becomes visible. If you don’t let a child have fresh air and play, the damage is also visible, but not so quickly. If you don’t give a child love, the damage might not be seen for some years, but it’s permanent.

But if you don’t give a child art and stories and poems and music, the damage is not so easy to see. It’s there, though. Their bodies are healthy enough; they can run and jump and swim and eat hungrily and make lots of noise, as children have always done, but something is missing.

It’s true that some people grow up never encountering art of any kind, and are perfectly happy and live good and valuable lives, and in whose homes there are no books, and they don’t care much for pictures, and they can’t see the point of music. Well, that’s fine. I know people like that. They are good neighbours and useful citizens.

But other people, at some stage in their childhood or their youth, or maybe even their old age, come across something of a kind they’ve never dreamed of before. It is as alien to them as the dark side of the moon. But one day they hear a voice on the radio reading a poem, or they pass by a house with an open window where someone is playing the piano, or they see a poster of a particular painting on someone’s wall, and it strikes them a blow so hard and yet so gentle that they feel dizzy. Nothing prepared them for this. They suddenly realise that they’re filled with a hunger, though they had no idea of that just a minute ago; a hunger for something so sweet and so delicious that it almost breaks their heart. They almost cry, they feel sad and happy and alone and welcomed by this utterly new and strange experience, and they’re desperate to listen closer to the radio, they linger outside the window, they can’t take their eyes off the poster. They wanted this, they needed this as a starving person needs food, and they never knew. They had no idea.

That is what it’s like for a child who does need music or pictures or poetry to come across it by chance. If it weren’t for that chance, they might never have met it, and might have passed their whole lives in a state of cultural starvation without knowing it.

The effects of cultural starvation are not dramatic and swift. They’re not so easily visible.

And, as I say, some people, good people, kind friends and helpful citizens, just never experience it; they’re perfectly fulfilled without it. If all the books and all the music and all the paintings in the world were to disappear overnight, they wouldn’t feel any the worse; they wouldn’t even notice.

But that hunger exists in many children, and often it is never satisfied because it has never been awakened. Many children in every part of the world are starved for something that feeds and nourishes their soul in a way that nothing else ever could or ever would.

We say, correctly, that every child has a right to food and shelter, to education, to medical treatment, and so on. We must understand that every child has a right to the experience of culture. We must fully understand that without stories and poems and pictures and music, children will starve.

Written by Philip Pullman for the tenth anniversary of the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award in 2012.

Find the original post here.

Staying happy on social media

 

Social media can be a very happy place to visit. Chatting with your friends, checking out each other’s photos and playing games are fun things to do. Unfortunately, it can become a negative space too, so with the aim of focusing on happiness, here are some tips on how to stay happy on social media:

1. Positive posting. Share posts that are fun, funny, happy and light. This will help you, and your friends will enjoy it too.
2. If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything. Avoid gossip, complaining and criticising, and try not to get involved in negative conversations.
3. Keep your fights offline. If you are arguing with someone, it’s best to do it in person, as it’s very easy to mistake someone’s tone in a typed message.
4. Have family members and close friends (people that really care for you) as your social media friends.
5. Take a break. Don’t spend all your time online; enjoy the moment you’re in with the people you’re with, in person!
6. Don’t take it personally. Other people’s lives can look extremely interesting on social media, but that’s because they only post the most interesting bits. Everyone’s lives look more interesting online.

Hint

Dont forget: You control it (not the other way around), so if things go really wrong just don’t log in! You can even cancel your account.

Exerpt from “Everyday Happy, A Journal for Happiness”

 

Don’t Wait! do it Now…

Even just a little bit… Today… Now… Do SOMETHING to lead you towards your goal, your happiness, your version of your best life.
Get Up
Move
Turn your music up
Dance
Sing
Read
Talk
Create
SOMETHING
Go On…I dare you…
Here’s the thing. Waiting is a bad habit. Waiting for the ‘right time’, waiting for the ‘right person’ waiting for the ‘right thing’ to happen.

Waiting until you feel better before you take action towards happiness? Waiting to feel less tired before starting to excercise? It doesn’t make any sense! Because taking action will help you feel better. Because exercise will make you less tired.
Because Life is happening Now.
Let’s get on with it.
image

image

 
‘FEEL THE FEAR AND DO IT ANYWAY’

Susan Jeffers

Why Choose Happiness?

Realising we had to decide on happiness was a light bulb moment for me. Prior to that I had been completely bogged down in ‘what went wrong?’ and ‘who had caused this?’… And my greatest fear… Was it ‘ALL my fault?’  Exhausting.

Choosing Happiness gave us a light, something to work towards (instead of running from), and certainly helped me feel more ‘in control’ of our situation.

Choosing Happiness is not about running rings around your child and giving them everything they want just to try and ‘keep’ them happy… This is a very short term solution (we tried it!) Choosing Happiness IS about learning  (and teaching) some very simple skills, and practicing them. Choosing happiness is taking responsibility for your thoughts and feelings and deciding how you are going to think, feel and act when things don’t go to plan. It is enjoying each moment the best you can, and also keeping your eye firmly fixed on your goal.  Sounds difficult for most adults! (This is where “Everyday Happy: a journal for happiness” will come in very handy.)

Six reasons to choose Happiness:

1 Happiness can lead to greater resilience for you and your child

2 Happiness can increase creativity

3 Happiness can improve health

4 Happiness can lead to better friendships

5 Happiness can improve career and financial prospects

6 Happiness creates greater intelligence and productivity

We choose happiness (or not) everyday through our daily thoughts, feelings and actions.

What are you going to decide today?

 

Managing School Anxiety

Managing School Anxiety

Advice for Parents and Carers…

At least that’s what the peice of paper calls itself… And I can’t see too much wrong with some of the information presented… NOW… After we’ve come out the other side of the dark tunnel…

But here’s the thing…

It’s makes it all seem so… straightforward… so black and white… and straightforward anxiety is not.

The more I read it, the more furious and frustrated I become. Now, after 18 months of work, trials, tears and recently wins, (and a lot of learning) we do a lot of what this ‘advice’ says. But if I had received it in the beginning, I can imagine I would have felt (more) overwhelmed, and wondered why it wasn’t so easy for us…! Why can’t I put a simple morning routine in place, and the anxiety will be gone? And he’ll just, you know, go to school? My son spent half of that 18 months (almost a full academic year) off school… A decision which this paper inherently disagrees with.

So here’s  what I inherently disagree with.

Take suggestion no. 1 ‘Maintain good communication and work with the school to put in place strategies that will help your child manage full attendance and address any concerns’.

But what if the school is the problem? What if (as in our case) the teacher is a bully? What if the children are bullies?  What if the school won’t hear your concerns? What if your child really is anxious BECAUSE of school?  There is a presumption here that the child’s anxiety is unfounded, and that the attendance (the holy grail) is the most important thing? And the strategies?.. What Strategies….? Give me some to use!!

Suggestion  4 Clear messages about school attendance- Everyone has had a different experience of school themselves, some good, some bad. It is important that all those supporting think about the way they speak about school. The key message is that school is not optional and attending is in every Childs best interests’.

Talk about strong, confident (threatening) language! Phew. ‘Best interests’ is an interesting term here.  Again, what if school actually isn’t in their best interests?  Attendance cannot be the measure of success here. If your child attends under duress and finds themselves crying or vomiting throughout the day, how are they going to learn? And what are they going to learn?  To me, all they will learn is they can’t trust anyone, not the school, not their parents… That they have to do what they’re told, regardless of how they feel! Is this teaching them to be confident, well adjusted adults? I don’t think so. It is a recipe for disaster.

Admittedly there are points that are positive and helpful… Not just for anxiety mind. Helping them break down tasks into smaller more manageable peices, rewards for facing fears,  and encouraging independence, problem solving and persistence are all great parenting and life strategies. The term, ‘you can lead a horse to water’ does come to mind though.

So after the 12 ‘suggestions’ to get your child to attend school, we move on to a very brief look at anxiety itself… It’s a normal, sometimes helpful aspect of life and (here’s the bit that made me laugh) ‘we all need to develop ways of coping with these feeling…’ What ways? Here lies the core of what this paper is missing. How to handle the feelings of anxiety… How to teach your child how to handle them…

What do you do when your child is frozen and can’t walk another step forward…? Or when they are begging you in tears not to attend school (or any other activity for that matter)? All the ‘suggestions’ anybody gave you, go right out the window.

When it comes to addressing the things that could actually be going wrong at school they call it ‘Identifying any issues that might be barriers to attending school’….  Hmmmm not the issues that may be causing the anxiety.

And then it finishes with the type of messages we give must give our anxious children through our language. The use of clear, strong, consistent language that expects compliance. Showing a united front…. Against who!!?

And lastly the obligatory ‘get yourself some support’ section. This is probably the most important thing they say.  ‘A supportive adult to share your concerns with’ I would take further to include someone who has been through it… Someone who knows how you feel, and can totally empathise without judgement. (And once you’ve been through it and come out the other side, you can help someone too!)

So how did we do it? Well after the initial freaking out, we got as much help as possible, (attended every class, read every book, watched YouTube and talked to people) and then took the information and made decisions that felt right for us and our child. We put him, his wellbeing and his happiness first. We removed him from the stressor (school) and gave him time to learn techniques, to build his resilience and to understand himself.  We stood united as a family with him and against the anxiety, which built a deep level of trust. I kept thinking, what if he’d broken his leg? He would have had emergency care, recovery, rehabilitation, and only then been asked to run. Asking my child to go to a school he was frightened of, was like asking him to run on a broken leg.  It just didn’t make sense. I also thought what if you take school out, and a child becomes anxious due to abuse or an accident. They are not going to be sent back into the situation that caused it, to help them recover…  It’s counterintuitive! So why do we do it with school?

So if you are on this harrowing journey, be confident that you can do it! Empower yourself with as much information as possible, accept all the help that comes your way, and then follow your instincts… Make decisions based on your family’s needs, listen to yourself and listen to your child!

 

 

 

 

Dear Friend…

Dear Friend,
I thought it might be helpful if I wrote about some of the things we do at home to help our Son in his recovery from anxiety.
I understand what you’re going through, and just how helpless you can feel, but you can turn it around, and find happiness together.
I’m a big believer that if you focus on happiness, everything else will work itself out. When I really started to put D’s wellbeing and happiness first, everything started to get better. (Don’t worry it’s not about giving them everything they want and letting them run rings around you… Tried that and it didn’t work… It’s about teaching them how to make the decision, and take action to be happy themselves.)

You may never know what caused the anxiety… And it isn’t really important, as the process of trying to find out can be awful, and will potentially have no impact on their recovery. Trying to find the cause was a huge source of guilt for me, and resulted in us spending night after night in serious conversation, giving all our focused attention to the anxiety. In hindsight this was not a good idea, anxiety had all the power, and D got 100% focused attention for being anxious… So of course being anxious was paying off… And his brother noticed too. We absolutely had to stop talking about it that way. When we stopped trying to figure it out, things started to move forward. We set a goal together (to be happy going to school) and tried to stay focused on that.

We started to talk about the anxiety as separate from Him. When he is anxious, and trying to stop on the way to school I say “I’m not stopping for anxiety’. I also say things like ‘don’t let anxiety win this round’, ‘I’m angry with the anxiety’ and ‘anxiety isn’t welcome here’. It takes away any feeling of personal attack he might feel when I do get angry or upset. It also helps me to not take his anxious behaviour too personally.
‘It’s just the anxiety tricking you into feeling this way’ helps when he’s feeling stressed and starts saying he’s feeling sick, or has a sore tummy.

Learning that anxiety is a normal physiological ‘fight or flight’ response, which is just happening at inappropriate times, has helped us understand what is going on, on a physical level. In that moment they have huge amounts of adrenalin running through their bodies making their hearts beat faster, making them dizzy and giving them a sore tummy. (Their bodies are getting ready to run from, or fight a perceived danger.) These feelings are very real… irrational, but real. Sitting or standing with them and breathing together (5 seconds in 5 seconds out) until that adrenalin has calmed down, can help them move through that moment of ‘fight or flight’.

Triggers are different from the cause. Learning the triggers and taking action to help your little one move through them with minimal fuss can be very helpful. Distraction works really well for us. Changing the subject… Quite literally talking nonsense about anything we can think of, as positively as we can works wonders. Doing something like reading a funny comic, telling jokes, squeezing a stress ball, spraying essential oils and splashing cold water on the face also work for us as forms of distraction and can help prevent a full on anxiety attack. Getting outdoors can prevent an anxiety attack by having a calming effect on the mind, as well as helping burn the excess adrenalin during or after one.

When he’s not in a freeze or panic I use other types of tools to help him. Flash cards at bedtime with our positive outcomes (things we want to happen)  have worked for us. Just before sleep the brain is apparently very susceptible to suggestion, so I harness this by suggesting “I am happy”, ‘”I am safe”, “I am confident”, “School is great”. We also have fun dancing, telling jokes and watching  comedy together.

Because school was a huge trigger for our son we reward school attendance. I have 2 jars of activities my boys can pick from at the end of each week of full attendance. One jar has free or cheap activities for every week and one has more expensive outings for once a month. We usually reward with experiences, activities and time together rather than toys… Although the odd toy works very well too!

We have also started talking about gratitude, and try to remember something good about his day together. I do this with both the boys everyday… ‘Tell me some good news about today’… can be the beginning of a fantastic positive conversation, and helps them both focus more on what they have, rather thank what they lack. (And occasionally it’s also a non starter… You just have to roll with it)

I haven’t tried this with my son yet, but have spent years doing it for myself,  and it just may work for your child. If you have a camera or phone with a camera, suggest taking some photos of beautiful things. This literally focuses the brain on what is good and right and beautiful, and helps them to start seeing themselves and their lives in a more positive light.

Finally I would say, to just ‘be there’, listen to them, and make sure that your child knows, despite your own frustration, anger and dare I say it anxiety, that their behaviour is ok and you accept and love them completely…

And, hold your nerve…

I hope this finds you well on on the path to Happiness.
Love Emxx

Good Schools and Schools that are Good

It’s something I never thought I’d have to consider, but when the school we’d always attended, loved, and been completely immersed in suddenly became no longer good for us, we found ourselves looking for a new school.

Up until things went wrong, we were all happy, the kids were keen to go everyday and I sat on the PTA helping the school in anyway I could. From the outside our school was good… in fact for the most part, from the inside it was also good… As long as everything was was… Well… perfectly normal.

It wasn’t until things went spectacularly wrong did the cracks start to show. The school leadership did not have the tools, knowledge, flexibility nor, did it seem, the caring to really help us. My son went to school for a total of 6 weeks between October and August, under sever stress, and although staff were caring, the school could not help.

After attempting homeschooling and finding it wasn’t going to work for us (some people do an amazing job), we started our search for a new school.

There were of course conditions… It had to be close enough to home to attend easily, and it had to be ‘good’… or my expectation of good at the time. It was here that my education began.

Our first meeting was at a ‘good’ school. High on the league tables, good reputation, modern facilities, successful sports teams, plans for further improvement, and it was relatively close… All good! Unfortunately No. During the second meeting at this school, with everyone well versed in our situation, our anxious son sat in a room with six adults, who at one point were questioning him about his hand writing…. HAND WRITING…!!  This stood out to me, making me question the schools priorities. I left with a bad taste in my mouth, and the realisation that this school were far more interested in statistics than my son’s welfare. They didn’t really want us.

There was another school not too far away. The area isn’t as ‘nice’,  reputation not as strong, and it’s not so high on the leagues tables, but as it turns out, it is a far better school for us, and here’s why…

They have a diverse range of children at the school they are therefore very tolerant of differences.

They have shown an incredible ability to ‘think outside the box’ to help us resolve difficult situations.

They have been flexible, allowing our son to succeed in ways that work for him.

They have worked with us, and listened to us. Since day one we have felt on the same team.

They have tools and services on hand. From flash cards to a counselling service, they are geared up to help.

Choosing a school is incredibly important, and very personal. If you are in the market for a new school, or even your first school, think beyond the league tables and challenge your expectations. In terms of happiness, and meeting your child’s needs in a wholistic way not all ‘good’ schools are good for all children.

Easy Ways to Foster Everyday Happiness in Your Child

It is very easy to take happiness for granted… especially in our children. (Isn’t it an innate quality…?)

The song lyrics ‘you don’t know what you’ve got till its gone’ ring very true when your child becomes anxious and you experience their happiness disappearing… and once  it’s gone, you find yourself wondering how anything else was ever important. (I did)

We modern parents seem to spend much time running from club to party, music lesson to sports event, trying to give our kids the very best life we can (keep them happy)… and in between times buy the latest tech, clothes or kit so they can keep up with their friends (further keeping them happy). Although there is absoutely nothing wrong with any of this, long term happiness is not to be found in the latest purchase or party. Happiness is a choice, or at least a combination of the actions, thoughts and feelings we (and our kids) choose to have and do everyday. Happiness is a habit we can learn to do, and something we can teach our children.

So whether you have an anxious or depressed child, or have just decided to prioritise happiness in your family, here’s some easy ways to foster happiness in your home.

  1. Celebrate the small stuff. When they’re little we celebrate EVERYTHING with them, eating, sleeping, walking, even going to the toilet… then ‘when they get old enough’ we stop. I’m not saying to have a party everytime someone goes to the toilet… but noticing and acknowledging when things have gone right is a really good start. If your child is anxious this becomes more important as they have a tendency to notice the negatives. Acknowledging the positives helps them  log a ‘bank’ of evidence, which they can use think their way logically out of anxious moments. (Remember when you did this…? You know you can do this… You’ve done it before)
  2. Talk about good news. This also helps them start to view the world through a positive lens. I ask “tell me some good news about today” (which is occasionally met with ‘nothing good happened’…) but is usually a good starting point for appreciating good and improving the mood in the house.
  3. Laugh together. Tell silly jokes, watch comedy on TV, read funny books and comics together, or make up your own silly stories. The folks over at Helpguide.org say, aside from making you all happier, laughing together can bring you closer as a family by increasing feelings of intimacy. Laughter also has the ability to ‘strengthen your immune system, boost your energy, diminish pain and protect you from stress’. (Helpguide.org)
  4. Go outside and play, preferably in a natural environment. Exercise releases endorphins,  which naturally improves the mood, can divert our attention from negative thoughts, and give us a feeling of overall accomplishment. (Pursuit-of-happiness.org) Combine this with the rejuvenating and relaxing effect simply being in nature can have,  and a trip outdoors for a game is well worth it.
  5. Teach/ learn  practical skills.  Activities like cooking, gardening, building, fixing their bike and even washing their own clothes will help your child build self esteem, give them a sense of purpose and help them explore their strengths. The sky is the limit here, you could even learn a new skill together.
  6. Make exciting plans together. Participate in dreaming. What do you want to be,  do or have when you grow up? Who do you want to be? Who do you want to meet? Where do you want to go on holidays? You could even make a scrapbook together.
  7. Make your measure of success their effort. Christine Carter author of Raising Happiness says praising children in a ‘growth mind set’ way  or  ‘attributing their success to things such as effort, commitment, resourcefulness,  hard work and practice’ helps children ‘grow succeed , and be happy’.
  8. Practice gratitude together. Talking about what you are grateful for helps you both view the world in a positive way, and appreciate what you have instead of worrying about what you lack. Be specific and creative, appreciating the big and small things, the experiences you’ve had and the people you know. (Shawn Achor)
  9. Play music and dance. New research suggests that listening to music we love actually causes the release of dopamine, a feel good chemical, causing us to… Um… Feel good. (Discover.news.com) This combined with the beneficial effects of exercise (see number 4) and the feelings of intimacy formed from doing something fun together are a great recipe for a happy day.
  10. Encourage, participate in, and demonstrate strong friendships. In her article ‘Friendship: The key to happiness’ Patty O’Grady says our true friendships, those based on ‘trust, honesty and empathy’, are mutually beneficial, and allow us to share ourselves without fear or judgement. (Psychologytoday.com) Friendships help us feel more optimistic, connected and worthwhile, and the bonus is , happiness is contagious, so sharing in a friend’s happiness can increase our own happiness, and vice versa!
  11. Use  Happiness Flash Cards. Research suggests ‘once we anticipate a specific outcome will occur, our subsequent thoughts and behaviors will actually help to bring that outcome to fruition’ (psychologicalscience.org) In other words, the deliberate use of positive suggestion, can influence expectations and behaviour, and bring about a positive change. We use them at bedtime .

So there it is! Even if you pick one thing from this list… Or use it to inspire your own list of happiness habits, then my work for today is done.
Have a happy day!