As we are drawing near to the end of 2020, I can’t help but think: we survived. I say this now, taking a deep inhale, noticing my breath: I am still breathing. If you would like to pause with me, take a deep breath and notice: you are still breathing. In just January we started to hear about the coronavirus, learned Australia was on fire, and an impeachment trial was taking place. It did not slow down from there as many have suffered and have been affected in several different ways. Some coped and ran marathons. Some like me coped by watching Netflix and enjoying a snack. However, you made it through this time – I hope you feel proud of yourself for surviving. You made it.
A skill I have shared with clients and have found important for myself this year is a DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy) skill called Accumulating Positive Emotions. This skill involves developing positive events in a daily routine to help increase positive emotions and decrease negative ones (Linehan 2015). After experiencing a year that might have created a sense of deprivation, scarcity, uncertainty or has left you overwhelmed and tired, this skill might seem like a lot of work and energy. These are also some reasons why this skill might be helpful as a lack of positive events can have a negative impact on mood and contribute to a sense of being deprived. Implementing positive events can increase positive emotions which helps build emotional resilience and increases long-term happiness. As Marsha Linehan writes, “even in a very deprived life, a person can find or develop pleasant events that will lift the spirits, at least momentarily, and increase positive emotions, even if only slightly.”
Here are some tips to start accumulating positive emotions by doing one pleasant thing a day:
- Make it pleasurable
This one might seem obvious, but engage in an event that is pleasurable to you. If you are an extroverted, sociable person, your idea of pleasure might be different from a person who is more quiet or introverted. Take time and consider what brings you pleasure or what might have brought you pleasure in the past. Maybe it is calling a friend or maybe it is putting on some comfortable clothes and having a night in.
- It can be simple
Perhaps you have a busy schedule and it is hard to imagine how to make time to use this skill. Start with small events such as listening to a song you enjoy, taking a moment to pause and notice the sunrise or sunset, or repeating a self-affirmation.
- Be fully present
Every morning I have a cup of coffee and most evenings a cup of hot tea. Though it is something I do every day, there is a difference when I am mindlessly drinking it compared to being fully present with a few sips of it. I am more likely to experience positive emotions when I take a moment to fully engage in noticing the taste, the warmth of it, and even expressing gratitude as I am present with the pleasure of the experience. I encourage you with whichever event you choose, to be fully present – even if just for a moment, taking time to enjoy and appreciate the experience. It might be playing games with your family without distraction, eating lunch mindfully, or lighting a candle. If worries and distractions start to interrupt, become aware of this and guide yourself back to fully experiencing the positive event.
Linehan, M. M. (2015). DBT® skills training manual (2nd ed.). Guilford Press.
Ready to Reduce Stress, Worry, and Fear?
by Emily Crawford-Thompson, Ph.D.
READY TO REDUCE STRESS, WORRY, AND FEAR?
WANT TO OVERCOME REACTIVITY, DEPRESSION, AND ANXIETY?
LEARN THE WISDOM OF MINDFULNESS-A COPING SKILL TO RESTORE PEACE AND HOPE
This has been an unprecedented time in our world and in our nation, and we are enduring immense stress that challenges the mental health and well-being of even the most resilient among us. We are in difficult times, but you don’t have to walk through them alone.
When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves. -Viktor Frankl
Do you feel “broken” sometimes with all this stress? Are you worried about whether things will ever return to “normal?” Maybe you are worried that in some ways they will return to the status quo, and you hope you are not wishing in vain for a “woke” world better than before. Hope does not disappoint. This situation, too, will pass. I believe God has a way of turning very negative situations into a positive turn of events. Tragedies turn into triumphs, tests become testimonies, and messes become messages. In other words, please keep hope alive and remember that dark seasons do pass.
My suffering will add an essential contribution to my ability to understand others and to help other people. -Viktor Frankl
During this season when many of us may feel broken, and we are grieving the brokenness we see all around us, consider the idea that we may be broke open. We are broke open ready for love and understanding, and this, my friend, is often when we are most ready to hear and receive it.
The Lord has been reminding me to not “own” fear by referring to it as “my fear”; He did not give us a Spirit of fear but one of power, love, and a sound mind. Just that subtle wording change can make a big difference in our peace. It allows us to get some distance from fear; in other words, to begin to recognize that worry is often a frequent distraction in our lives that is counterproductive. While choosing to not give in to fear, this certainly does not mean that we throw caution to the wind! Some have taken this to the extremes, and take unnecessary risks which are also counterproductive at best. Fear is, after all, an emotion that also exists for good reason, to alert us to real danger. Fear becomes excessive for most of us, though, because we tend to become anxious about some things that are not actual or likely threats. Most of us have had the experience of realizing that we didn’t need to worry about something after all, because the thing we feared did not come to pass, and the situation worked out better than expected. At other times, we are indeed worrying about actual threats; however, we are dwelling on things that are really not in our control. When we ruminate about things that are not in our control, we are expending time and energy getting off center from our peace. Worry creates an illusion of control, but in reality, the worry itself often makes us feel out of control!
Despair is suffering without meaning -Viktor Frankl
I know all too well that many of us have also experienced real danger and real threats, and this certainly makes it difficult at times to trust that we need not worry. Did you know that some scholars say there are 365 Bible verses that encourage us to not worry or fear? One for every day of the year! This is because we truly need a daily reminder to be alert to the possibility that some unnecessary fear is encroaching on our thoughts, distracting us, bringing our mood down, and stealing our peace. When we are alert to this, we are more likely to stop it in its tracks before going down a rabbit hole envisioning the worst-case scenarios. Oh, how we worry and we fear of things which in a year will disappear! It is not always easy to shut off worrisome thoughts, and it often requires quite a bit of persistence. This does not mean there is “something wrong with you” or that you should beat yourself up for not being able to quell the thoughts sooner. Those self-blaming thoughts are just another distraction coming upon you, and also something you don’t need to own. There is a reason why the journey of faith is often referred to as “the good fight”; it can certainly feel like a fight somedays to keep our heads above water and not succumb to fear, especially when indeed we live in a world where there are so many valid fears.
So how do we shut it off? How do we reduce stress, worry, and fear?
A MINDFULNESS EXERCISE FOR YOU:
Do you find that waiting is the hardest part? We all know the feeling of being rushed and under time pressure, and lamenting that is always when it seems ALL the lines at the store are long and are not even close to moving as efficiently as the Chick-fil-A drive-through (those guys are truly amazing). So, we find ourselves impatiently tapping our foot in the grocery store line and maybe even honking our horn at the stoplight. We wish people would move faster, and we feel so stressed! This is a great example of one of those situations that is really not in our control. We cannot make the light turn green faster, and we cannot control others’ behaviors. So, what can we do?
Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances. -Viktor Frankl
Next time you find yourself waiting for a zoom video session to start or for your file to download, use the opportunity to do a brief mindfulness exercise:
Close your eyes if you can do so safely.
Notice where you feel tension. The forehead, neck, shoulders, and stomach are some common places stress likes to reside.
Relax. Unclench those tense muscles. Take some deep breaths from your stomach. You should notice your stomach rising and falling if you are breathing deeply.
If you are still waiting, notice what is on your mind. What are you thinking about? If there is a worry or concern, pray that you would receive help, guidance, and peace on the situation.
Take some more deep breaths.
Now that you have created some space in your mind, think on one thing that is right, excellent, admirable, lovely, or true.
Hopefully more than one good thing came to mind for which you can be grateful today.
Repeat any of the above as often as needed, and don’t feel that you have to wait to practice mindfulness until you are waiting.
Seven Myths on Adults with Autism
by Emily Crawford-Thompson, Ph.D.
“I don’t work within the normal social pauses.”
It began in graduate school, when a young college student came into our clinic frantic, desperate for help. Next to his desperation, the first thing that struck me was his earnestness. There was a genuineness, a raw honesty I found both endearing and heart wrenching. He rapidly explained how he had fallen in love with a girl who did not reciprocate his feelings. He was articulate, but something was different. He seemed to want help, but it was hard to interject his rapid rambling speech. As his story unfolded, it was clear that he had misread his beloved’s cues for many months, and she was actually quite clearly another’s beloved. How had he missed it? I marveled. Something about this young, hurting man was strikingly unusual. It was the way he looked, or rather, didn’t look quite at me, the unique way he spoke and phrased things, and his apparent cluelessness about social interactions.
It just so happened that at that time, I was working under the mentorship of a psychologist with expertise in identifying and treating Autism. She taught me to dispel one of the first of many myths I would encounter in my career helping adults on the autism spectrum:
MYTH 1: People who are highly intelligent often lack social skills.
FACT: It is a common misconception that intelligent people are less socially skilled; highly intelligent neurotypical people have social skills that match their intellect.
Our intelligent and broken-hearted friend had been previously mis-diagnosed with just about everything in the book, from Bipolar Disorder to Borderline Personality Disorder. Unfortunately, there is still a lack of understanding, even among mental health professionals, about the various ways Autism Spectrum Disorder can present in adults. In fact, it wasn’t until 1994 that high-functioning forms of autism were acknowledged at all. His social struggles, it turns out, had been mis-attributed to his high IQ.
“I am always told, ‘Don’t say it that way,’ and then they use the same words I just said.”
As my career progressed, I became more and more invested in helping adults on the autism spectrum. I saw that while this population is often tragically misunderstood, they are also more common than we think. Chances are, you know someone on the spectrum.
MYTH 2: Autism is rare.
FACT: Current estimates are that 1/59 children have a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum Disorder. This diagnosis remains one of the most common and least understood in the mental health field.
I have found many individuals on the spectrum to be articulate, delightful, intelligent, and talented people who need help appreciating and building on their strengths. As Temple Grandin said, “Parents get so worried about the deficits that they don’t build up the strengths, but those skills could turn into a job.” Unfortunately, even when the possibility of Autism is recognized, even professionals sometimes hesitate to diagnose, thinking:
MYTH 3: Adults will not benefit from a diagnosis.
FACT: Symptoms of Autism sometimes become more problematic later in life, with the increased responsibilities and need for social interaction that come with employment, and the pressures of social-emotional reciprocity in intimate relationships. A diagnosis can unlock doors to important vocational and relational help, and many adults express relief to finally have an explanation for their difficulties.
Adults who are newly diagnosed with Autism are truly survivors—they have lived with multiple problems in an overwhelming world, often with little or no explanation as to why these things that come so easily for others are so difficult for them. They have often developed adaptive coping skills and are quite resilient. The quotes throughout this article, by adults with Autism, illustrate just a sample of the bewilderment they often feel. In fact, many individuals have described feeling like “aliens” on the “wrong planet.”
MYTH 4: People with Autism lack empathy.
FACT: Yes, individuals with Autism often struggle to identify and express emotions, they can easily overlook nonverbal cues, and they may often speak without tact. However, the ability to feel deeply and have profound empathy is not absent, and in many cases, may actually be pronounced. Some individuals actually experience so much empathy that they become easily overstimulated and overwhelmed, which can disrupt their ability to effectively process and appropriately respond in the moment.
“People think I’m weird.”
I have heard many well-meaning individuals refer to individuals on the spectrum as “antisocial.” While antisocial has a whole other connotation for those of us in the mental health field, and I think what people are often trying to say is “asocial,” this is still not quite accurate. In fact, many individuals on the spectrum are desperately lonely and strongly desire friendships and romantic relationships.
MYTH 5: People with Autism don’t want friends.
FACT: Individuals with Autism vary just like everyone else with regard to how introverted or extraverted they are. Autism is a condition, not a personality. Many individuals with Autism are painfully aware of their social struggles, and have a deep longing to connect with others.
In recent years, I have begun to see a lot more women who wonder, “Could I be on the spectrum?” One woman came to me almost uncontrollably tearful, having felt misunderstood and hopeless for many years. As she disclosed her pain, she fell to the floor of my office crying, wondering why she has been persistently teased, rejected, and ignored. Traditional treatments for anxiety and depression were unsuccessful for her, and she felt that her providers failed to understand just how difficult relationships are for her. Now in her 30’s, she shared how she has only recently learned that basic hygiene improves her social interactions. She tearfully expressed her disappointment that “I’m not a better friend.” She also said that she can “socially freak people out” because they often do not get her jokes and misinterpret her intentions. She was, like many adults I have encountered, deeply relieved to have a diagnosis and hope for more effective interventions.
MYTH 6: Autism is a male condition.
FACT: Autism is more commonly diagnosed in males; however, females are often underdiagnosed. Women tend to be better at “masking” their symptoms, and the diagnosis is often missed in high-functioning females who tend to be more emotionally expressive than males on the spectrum.
There is an incredible variety of men and women who may have this diagnosis; many of them are high-functioning professors and engineers and artists. Sometimes they are referred to as “quirky,” “eccentric,” “different,” or “unique.” Often, their humor is subtle, unexpected, and brilliant. Their loyalty and passion for social justice are just some of their many admirable traits; the range of characteristics on the spectrum of autism is no different than the variety of personalities seen among neurotypicals.
MYTH 7: Autism is a homogeneous condition.
FACT: There is actually a remarkable degree of variability among individuals on the autism spectrum. As my mentor taught me, “If you’ve met one person with Autism, you’ve met one person with Autism.”
Emily Crawford-Thompson, Ph.D. is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist in Columbia, Missouri who has worked with adults on the autism spectrum for over 12 years professionally, and throughout her life personally. She has co-presented on Autism Spectrum Disorder with David Finch, a humorist and author of the acclaimed New York Times best-selling memoir, The Journal of Best Practices. Read more about Dr. Emily’s work with adults with Autism here.