How to retrain your brain to focus on positivity

2020 has been quite the year for pretty much everyone. Our lives have been dramatically changed and we are bombarded with negative ideas and images on social media and in the news almost constantly. And this year, perhaps more than others, it’s been with good reason. There is plenty of negative to go around. But when we’re focused on negative, we tend to see more negative. We will recognize it all around us and it will color everything that we do.

Before we move on, I think it’s important to note that we are facing an ongoing worldwide pandemic as well as other major unresolved societal problems. This post is not meant to diminish or downplay the impact that these are continuing to have on our lives. The purpose of the post is to help break negative thought patterns and mindsets and replace them with positive ones. Our creative minds work best from a position of positive or neutral rather than negative. So if we’re going to come up with solutions for problems we face, whether local or global, shifting our mindset is important.

Seeing new patterns

Have you ever noticed when you buy a new car that all of a sudden you start to see that make and model seemingly everywhere? I’ve got news for you though, that many people didn’t just start driving the 2005 Toyota Camry when you did. Those cars were always there. But when you researched for and purchased one, you became very familiar with its shape and design. And now that it’s yours, you’ve trained your brain to recognize it so that, among other things, you can find it in the parking lot after you’re done shopping!

In the same way we teach our brain to recognize a new car, we can train it to recognize positive things. And this can be done very simply and with very low effort, but it needs to be done every day in order to work.

It’s all about gratitude

What happens when you stop to think about something you’re grateful for? You’re recalling a positive memory right? Something that happened that made you feel good. So not only did it make you feel good when it happened, it made you feel the same way again when you remembered it.

Retraining our brains to focus on positivity is as simple as this. Take 30-90 seconds per day and name 3 things that you’re grateful for from that day. That’s it.

This can take many forms, so it’s up to you what you find most suited to your needs and what you find sustainable. One of the best ways I’ve found to sustain it is by finding others who want to do it too. Here are a few ideas that range from independent to large group:

  • Pick a time to quietly reflect alone
  • Keep a gratitude journal
  • Text it to a friend
  • Share around the dinner table with your family
  • Set up a group chat or post to a group
  • Post it to social media

At first it may seem tough to come up with even just three. But if you make a habit of this by doing it daily, soon your brain will be trained to find positives everywhere, and you will have a hard time choosing just three. Give it a try and see the difference it can make in your life, especially in troubled times like these.

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I first found the idea for this post from Shawn Achor’s wonderful book, The Happiness Advantage, which I will review in a future post. If you’re interested in the book already, you can buy it here. I don’t make any money from that and I’m not affiliated with it in any way. It’s just a great book full of ideas like this one!

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The Opportunity to Create a “New Normal”

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A couple of days ago I live-tweeted an Additude webinar called “ADHD Life: Reassessing Goals and Priorities after a Pandemic.” Since then I’ve continued to ponder what I learned from it and how the principles shared can help us as we continue to work through this life-altering shutdown. It’s well worth your time to listen to the whole thing.

Since a statewide shutdown due to Covid-19 was enacted in mid-March, my daily routine has completely changed. This includes the way I live, work, socialize, eat, play…you get the idea. Working as a school principal, I was used to commuting an hour each way. Because of the drive, I was getting up much earlier than I naturally do (5:30am- blech!). Having two hours of total drive time per day also allowed me ample time to listen to audiobooks. I probably went through 20 audiobooks during the first two-thirds of the school year. In the evenings I would return home, sometimes making it to family dinner, and sometimes not.

I now work out of our upstairs guest bedroom. I get to sleep in longer than I used to, and my truck has been sitting idle for nearly two months. I haven’t listened to an audiobook in that time, and I haven’t been face-to-face with any of my teachers or students, though I am still working with them every day. Work now consists of a series of daily Zoom meetings. And where I used to leave my office and walk through classrooms or run to help with a situation…all is now accomplished from my chair. So there are many days where I spend 7 or more hours simply sitting in the same chair in that upstairs bedroom staring at a screen while I do my work online.

Home and family are different too of course. My children no longer attend school. They are completing learning activities, some online, some not. But mostly they’re doing a splendid re-creation of Thing 1 and Thing 2 from The Cat in the Hat. Though we are surrounded by wonderful parks and beaches, nearly all are completely closed to the public. Restaurants and theaters are also closed, along with most stores. Life has basically become one long episode of Groundhog Day as we live and repeat the same, sad, quarantine routine every single day.

It’s time to reframe

I’ll admit that I’m grieving for the way life used to be, and I’ve spent many of these shutdown days sitting around wishing I could go do things I’m used to doing. This week my state governor extended our “stay home, stay safe” plan for yet another month and that hit me pretty hard. But then I was able to think back on this webinar that I’d watched just one day earlier, and I’ve got a much better outlook on things now. It all starts with reframing our situation.

Yes, this situation has dramatically altered our lives. And it’s not likely to get anywhere close to “normal” soon. So it’s time to accept that this is the “new normal” and figure out what’s next.

With work, we are no longer constrained by school buildings, traditional schedules, or even student groupings. It has opened up many new possibilities for tailoring instruction to students and giving teachers and students new opportunities to interact through technology that many had only heard about before. We are being encouraged to try new things, experiment with new ways of teaching and learning and connecting, and students and teachers alike have become more excited and engaged as they’ve begun to let go of how we used to do things.

At home the change has been slower. But I’ve come to the realization that being cut off from most of my regular routine means that I can literally create a new one. How many projects have I put off for years, and how many old hobbies did I give up simply because I didn’t have the time? Well time is something I happen to have a lot of right now!

So how do you start?

You’ve had virtually everything in your life cleared from the deck, and now you get to decide what goes back in, and what stays out. Start by dividing up your life into categories like these:

  • Health
  • Family
  • Finances
  • Social relationships
  • Fun
  • Career
  • _____

Once you’ve got what feels like a pretty comprehensive list, rate how you feel about your current status with each area. You could do this with numbers (1-5 as an example) or even with coloring a chart or graph where fuller and bigger mean better.

After rating each area, you can decide what to do about it. Feeling great about family? Perfect. Leave it as-is and focus on the other areas. Concerned about health? Perhaps you used to go to the gym but now it’s been closed for two months and you haven’t walked farther than from the couch to the refrigerator in that time? Why not start by talking short walks around the block? Do you miss connecting with friends and socializing as you used to? You could set up a video chat or a virtual game night.

Whatever you decide to do, remember that it’s not about setting and achieving goals. It’s about feeling better and finding peace and greater happiness in a pandemic. So whether you call it a goal or not, add in to your life things that will make you happy and let go of things that won’t. Find new ways to connect with friends and family members who you no longer get to visit. Work on a project that is fun and meaningful to you. Make plans to do things that you love that maybe you haven’t had time for in a while.

If you take stock of your situation you will find hidden opportunities that you’ve been missing. If all else fails, just try something new. And don’t worry about doing it perfectly. There’s power in simply doing. Jessica (@HowToADHD) put it best in song:

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Who to Tell About Your ADHD

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Whenever I’m struggling to come up with a topic to write about I invariably am led to a problem I’m currently dealing with. So first off, thanks for being my sounding board, and in return you’re welcome to any knowledge I find as I continue on this ADHD journey of mine. Today’s topic is about your circle of trust when it comes to your ADHD.

I’m coming up on four months since the day my therapist suggested that I had ADHD and I can confidently say that fewer than 10 people who know me know I have ADHD. About half are family, others are my therapist, doctor, and perhaps one or two folks online.

I’ve actually got a list of 15 more people that I intend to tell, including more family members, current and former employers, and others who are or were close friends. But I haven’t shared this with anyone new since I made a series of calls to a few family members a month or two ago. I seem to be stuck. I don’t know that it’s necessarily a bad thing. My circle is small and I trust it. If it were to expand, I may quickly hit that critical mass of people who have “the knowledge,” at which point I might as well be “out,” though I am not ready for that stage yet.

I ran a Twitter poll a couple of months ago asking who others had told, and the results varied pretty greatly:

What this says to me is that who you tell is entirely up to you and the circumstances you are in. There is no right answer here except what is right for you. So let’s look together at things to consider regarding sharing or not sharing.

Why shouldn’t you increase your circle of trust?

My quick answer to that is it’s not necessarily necessary. No one has a “right” to know you have ADHD. As of this moment I’ve mostly reserved sharing it on a “need to know” basis, and it turns out there are very few people who legitimately need to know. The people I have included so far are the ones I trust implicitly to 1) be supportive, and 2) not share with others.

Work is my other big reason for not sharing. Everyone’s situation is different. And you might think that working in education a lot of folks would understand ADHD and be more accepting of it. But there is plenty of ignorance to go around, even in public education, and I have worked for some employers who might screen you out of the application process because your name came up associated with ADHD on a Google search. It’s not ethical, but I know it happens.

The last reason I can think of is just a lack of preparedness on my own part. This whole thing is so new to me still and I’m working on figuring out so much still. When I do start sharing more broadly, I want to be able to do so with knowledge and confidence.

Why should you increase your circle of trust?

The first and easiest reason to share is if there’s a real need. When I first started taking meds, I was worried about what side effects might start showing up, and more specifically, that I might not notice some changes in myself. So I found one person at work who I trust and shared with them that I have ADHD and was beginning medication for it. They have been a valuable resource to me as I began meds and have had meds adjustments. Also in this group of “others who need to know” I would typically include adults who live with you and medical professionals who treat you.

You may find that you have a real need to disclose that you have ADHD to your employer or to your school or university. This would be if you require workplace or educational accommodations because ADHD significantly impacts your work or academic performance. Though I have clearly seen an impact of ADHD in my work, I am trying to gauge what accommodations might be needed after I have made improvements through therapy and medication. Trying to decide if workplace accommodations are right for you? This article from CHADD is a great place to start.

The last reason to share that you have ADHD with someone is simply so that you can be truly known and hopefully understood by those around you. I don’t like feeling that I have to “hide” part of myself and I honestly look forward to the day when I can call up old friends and even old employers and share what I’ve discovered. I want to shout, “See? I found out there’s a really good reason for everything! I have ADHD!!” When I think about that day, I get goosebumps.

So why don’t I share now?

As I said, my own diagnosis is relatively new and I’m not quite ready. But beyond that, creating ADHDsurprise has given me a powerful gift. I can speak freely, honestly, and candidly about my problems. I can tell you about how my ADHD has hurt me and others in my life. How it has impacted work and home. I can share embarrassing stories and real, unfiltered examples of struggles from my life because they are not tied to me right now.

Ironically, if I put my real name on this blog, it would mean the content would become less real, or at least more guarded. I’d have to be constantly looking over my shoulder and wondering what employer, friend, or family member is reading along and takes offense or has some other problem with what I’ve posted.

So for now, I feel that I’m providing something to the ADHD community that is real and also keeps me safe. I hope one day I can simply “be” and not have to worry about it. But for now, I’m happy to share what I’m learning as I’m learning it, and I hope it helps you too.

What about you? Who have you told? Who would you like to tell? If everyone knows you have ADHD already, how does that feel? I’d love to hear from you in the comments or on Twitter.

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