Focus!

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Kaarin Anderson Ryan, PhD, BCBA, LBA 4.12.21

Has anyone else been feeling more and more distracted by the world? Having a hard time focusing on things? It seems that the distractions in the world are ever-growing, between nonstop news, social media, and the entire world at your fingertips everywhere you go when you carry your smartphone with you. This phenomenon has been growing for years, and does not seem to be getting any better.

Recent studies have looked at increasing trends for ADHD in children and adolescents. In 1997-98, 6.1% of children between the ages of 4-17 were diagnosed with ADHD. That number rose to 10.4% in 2015-2016. There may be many reasons for this disturbing trend, but most experts agree that access to devices most likely plays a role. Parents and teachers can and should work on structures, guidelines and limits for using electronics to help with this situation.

What about adults? Several studies have shown a marked increase in adult ADHD diagnosis, with reports of between 2 and 3 times as many cases of adult ADHD in recent years. Some of this seems to be due to greater understanding of symptoms and recognizing the need for assessment. However, is not out of the question that an increase in symptoms of ADHD for adults is also due to constant access to distraction from our devices.

Over the past year, many people have had to adjust to working from home and finding a balance that is healthy between productivity and leisure in the home environment. Some have surely been successful with this. Others may have great struggles staying focused when working at home. There are all kinds of distractions, including household tasks (“I’ll just go put in one load of laundry now”), food (“I’m a little hungry and bored and the kitchen is right here”), neighborhood activity (“it’s too loud to work when someone is mowing the lawn so I will just have to take a break”), and kids (“I can’t get anything done when the kids need my help”). How is one supposed to manage?

On top of that, whether you’re working from home or not, for people who have access to devices during the day it can be difficult to stay focused on work when your phone alerts you to something. You may also be distracted by the impulse to look up answers to every question that pops into your head throughout the day, pulling you away from your work. Or you may be feeling a little lazy and unmotivated so a quick game of Candy Crush seems like it might be ok. All these little distractions add up.

So, what can we do?

That is mainly up to us, as individuals. Whether a lack of focus is affecting your studies, your professional work, or your responsibilities at home, you can do things to improve your focus and motivation.

  1. For starters, set daily goals for yourself. Make a list of reasonable priorities for the day, and when you have gotten those things done, reward yourself with one of your distractions.
  2. Work on changing how you are thinking about your time and your tasks. For example, if you have the thought to check your phone for something unrelated to your current task or goal, talk yourself out of it. Remind yourself of your current goal and remember that whatever you wanted to do on your phone will still be there in a little while. Try to avoid impulsive distractions.
  3. If you are distracted by thinking about other things you have to do or want to look up, jot them down for later.
  4. If you are able, put your phone away or put it on airplane mode, or do not disturb mode, when you are trying to finish other things.
  5. Practice mindfulness. Focus on the moment, and if you find yourself having a hard time with focus, pause for a couple slow breaths to help you bring yourself back to your focus.
  6. Take intentional breaks when possible. Use your breaks to re-set. If this is a scheduled lunch break or a coffee break, enjoy the time and allow your mind a break from your work.
  7. Avoid multi-tasking. This applies to work, but it also applies to leisure time. Are you on your phone or your laptop while you watch your favorite series on Netflix? Try to allow yourself to enjoy one thing at a time. This will help improve your focus habits, both for leisure and for work.
  8. Self-care. Even though this comes up all the time, sometimes we forget. Having a healthy diet, good sleep habits, and taking some time for exercise every day are all positive tools for maintaining focus and a good balance in your day-to-day life.

When to let yourself be helped

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Everyone on earth has challenges to cope with every day. Big challenges, little challenges, and often multiple challenges. Despite difficulty, there is a tendency for a lot of people to avoid seeking or accepting help from others. Why is it hard for us to need help?

We are wired in many ways to do things on our own. This starts in childhood – children are often insistent that they can do things by themselves, even when they can’t quite. The “I can do it” attitude is nurtured in childhood for good reason – we want children to grow into independent and competent adults.

We may also have a hard time asking for help because we don’t want to be a burden to other people. We are all aware that people are busy, that other people have their own things to deal with and challenges to overcome. Asking for someone to help us with something may feel like too much to ask.

In many cases, we don’t ask for help because we don’t want to appear weak or fragile. We may want to be seen as self-sufficient and capable of taking care of ourselves with no help.

Interestingly, though, one thing that often makes people feel really good about themselves is — wait for it —

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Helping others.

So – in general – people feel good about helping other people, and at the same time – in general – people don’t like to ask other people for help. Isn’t there a better balance here for us to think about?

Thinking about this in terms of balance, as individuals we need to consider what we need in the way of big asks and little asks. On a daily basis, do we ask people to help us with little things? Asking a family member to take out the garbage, asking a friend for a small favor? Some daily small asks may feel easy, because we do them frequently and don’t need to put a lot of thought into them. Asking a family member to help with a chore is nearly a no-brainer because it is part of daily life and we are all in it together as a family. These types of helps are a little easier to balance.

But asking for bigger help, for bigger things, is a more challenging issue. During the pandemic, for example, people have needed to ask for help in unprecedented ways. Outside of the pandemic, there are always times that people need help but still don’t ask. It can be so difficult to do this. So how can we correct this imbalance?

It seems like we need to stop thinking of ourselves as potential burdens and start thinking of ourselves as part of a fellowship of human beings, who can best enjoy the time we have together on earth by helping and doing for others, and allowing others to help and do things for us. The phrases we hear, such as “It takes a village” or “Do unto others“, are meaningless if we don’t ask for or accept help. Opening your mind and your heart to the notion of letting someone else help you is the first step towards having better balance.

Asking someone for help in a time of need can, in some ways, be seen as a gift to the other person. Keep in mind that people feel good about helping other people, for the most part. So if you trust someone enough to ask for help in a time of need, you are gifting them with this trust, and gifting them with the opportunity to help someone they care about.

Offering help is an equal gift. When you know someone is struggling, offer to help. If she declines help but you believe she needs some support, find a different way to provide the support. An example if this might be if you have a friend who is ill, and you ask if she needs anything and she says no. Instead of just accepting the “no”, you could drop off some food at her home or send a thinking-of-you note to her to brighten her day while she recovers.

Finding this balance within relationships is an important piece of the equation. We have to be able to trust friends enough to ask them for support, but we also have to trust people to let us know when they can’t provide the support we need because of their own busy schedules, stress, or other burdens they have at the time. If you have one or two trusted friends that you know you can count on in times of need, you should be able to have honest conversations about what is possible in the way of help and support at any given time.

One final thought about seeking and accepting help when needed has to do with professional support. If you are sick, you likely will go to a doctor. If you need a haircut, you will likely go to a hairdresser. But if you need professional help in the way of counseling, or special support for your children (such as special education or behavioral therapy), it is often more difficult to take the steps to seek this help. Sometimes people may see this as a weakness or a stigma. It is so important that we strive to help reduce this perception. If you or someone you care about needs emotional or behavioral support, there are thousands of talented, compassionate and highly trained professionals to help people get through challenging times.

To find a better balance we can all benefit from looking for more ways to be supportive to others, while opening up our own minds to allow others to be supportive to us. With this balance, there is a potential for benefit to everyone.

5 Must-Do Habits for 2021

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Kaarin Anderson Ryan, PhD, BCBA, LBA 1.19.21

Happy 2021!

As I predicted in my previous blog, we did not wake up on January 1 to a new world. Many of the things that stressed people out for most of the year last year are still creating stress. Pandemic, isolation, politics. But, despite the ongoing challenges we still hold hope for a better year in 2021, and there are some promising signs as we see people successfully being vaccinated across the country and as our incredible health care workers and medical scientists develop more and more effective interventions for COVID-19.

For many people, the things that are causing such stress over the past year are things that we just can’t control. It is so frustrating in life when situations are completely out of our control. Think about even simple daily things, like being a passenger in a car when someone else drives differently than you do – too fast, too slow, taking a different route (the wrong one, to be sure!). When we are not in control, it can increase our feelings of stress. In 2020, so many things felt out of control. In one post last year, I wrote about focusing on things you can control during times of stress. As things drag on with the pandemic, this would be a good time to re-group and consider what things each day are within your control and what things are not. Once you determine this, you can work on a plan to let go a bit of some of the worry about what you can’t control while focusing your energy on what you can actually do to make things better for yourself and others right now.

One thing we can all do, pandemic and politics aside, is examine our daily habits and routines. What is working well for you? What are some things you would like to change on a daily or weekly basis? I can easily think of five things I would like to do differently when it comes to daily habits, the question is how to make these changes in a meaningful and lasting way.

Habits are hard to change. I am not just talking about commonly known vices like overeating, smoking, or alcohol use. I am talking about all our daily habits and routines. There has been some research looking into habits, and the most common lore tells us that we can make or break a habit in 21 days. In reality, based on a study done in London, it can take anywhere between 21 and 254 days to achieve automaticity with your habits. A lot of this will depend on how much you like your current habits, and how badly you want to add some new, healthier habits.

To help focus on making some positive habit changes this year, here are some ideas for small, simple changes with big potential benefit:

  1. Take 5 minutes every day to reflect on one positive thing. This can be ANYTHING. Did the sun shine today? Did you have something good to eat? Did you do something fun? Accomplish anything? Did someone say something nice to you? Take those 5 minutes and really focus on one thing that was uplifting for you. Even on the darkest days you will be able to find one point of light if you let yourself look.
  2. Start a step towards one of your goals. If you have a big goal to be more organized, each day you can tackle one small thing towards this goal. Clean out a drawer, go through one pile of things that has been waiting for your attention. Every goal can be broken down into steps that are manageable. If you do one step a day, you will make progress and will have the benefit of a sense of accomplishment each day.
  3. Go outside. But wait, it’s January you say! It’s cold outside, and there may be snow. Ice. Wind. I hear you! Winter is NOT my thing either. But if you push yourself for even a few minutes of fresh air every day, you will get that benefit of being outside, breathing new air, seeing something outside your own walls, and in some cases challenging yourself to be a little bit uncomfortable in the process. (Extreme weather in the summer can be equally challenging to cope with for many people). You may even find that by stepping out for a few minutes for a tiny walk can lead to longer walks than you planned, and more enjoyment of fresh air.
  4. Do one nice thing for someone else. When we think of doing good deeds, often we think about things that include a bigger commitment than what we may be able to do every day. For example, helping at a soup kitchen, or taking food to a food pantry in your community. But kind acts can be the simplest things, and can make someone’s day. While doing things like helping at a soup kitchen totally count and are always encouraged, if you can’t do this type of service every day consider some smaller kind acts. Some examples include posting a positive comment on Facebook for a friend, giving a compliment to someone, sending a note to someone you haven’t seen for awhile (email or snail mail), doing something around the house to help out, or – one of my favorites – paying for the person in line behind you when you go to a coffee drive-thru.
  5. Treat yourself. Like with the positive thoughts, this can be ANYTHING. A favorite TV show. Ice cream. A conversation with a friend. Yoga and/or meditation. Every day should include one thing that is just for you. It will be important here to first of all, LET yourself do something just for you. Some people have a hard time allowing themselves to do things that are for their own well-being or satisfaction. It will be equally important to acknowledge things you may already do every day to treat yourself, even if you don’t think of it that way. For example, maybe you already do yoga or meditation every day, and then carry on with your busy life and routine. Remember as you cope with your day that you did take some time to do something that was just for you – in this example, yoga – to help you stay focused on the things that you do to make yourself happy every day.

These 5 small, manageable daily habits can make a big difference in your day and may even help with stress and overall happiness.

Brave New Year

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Kaarin Anderson Ryan, PhD, BCBA, LBA

It has felt like climbing up a mountain, hasn’t it? 2020 has been a year of unprecedented everything, and there will be lots of videos, blogs, and news to reflect upon this past year and look to the horizon for a better 2021. New Year’s Day has long been a symbol of fresh starts and resolutions, which is a great way to approach the new year.

But let’s face it. Nothing will be all that different on a worldwide level on January 1. We are still in the midst of a global pandemic, still looking for answers and witnessing or participating in all kinds of disagreement about the “best” way to handle the situation. This includes personal choices as well as government mandates. Nothing seems to be the perfect answer. So instead of re-hashing everything that has been tough about 2020, or making all kinds of glowing predictions about everything getting better when the calendar changes, I would like to reflect on the things that have been positive this year and how we can bravely move forward to bring all the best things that have come from the pandemic into the next year.

For many people, priorities have shifted. All around me I have seen such a re-focus on family and quality time with loved ones, because for much of the year we have been forced to isolate ourselves into smaller bubbles of contact. So in these bubbles many people have been able to really appreciate and enjoy that time and those people, reconnecting with an emphasis on quality of time spent together rather than trying to fit all kinds of activities into our time. For the new year, think about the times you have been able to find more enjoyment and relaxation with close loved ones, and when things start to feel more normal in the rest of the world remember the value of these times. Make it a priority to seek out those connections with family and close friends.

In our communities, we can all find countless examples of increased giving and support. In the spring, my local community had a surge of donations to food pantries, people volunteering to take food to others, and providing other types of support to families who had experienced job losses or health-related difficulties. Many towns and cities experienced a surge of support for local businesses, including people intentionally shopping at local stores and making efforts to support local restaurants by dining in or taking out food to help those businesses remain open. This spirit of giving back and providing support does not have to go away when the pandemic eases – our communities can always use support.

Large companies have also reached out to help people in need during the pandemic. Of special note is the focus on helping students to make the best of the situation. For school-age students with no internet in the home, companies across the country made internet available to families for free. In many areas, companies created free Wifi hotspots for students to use during school closures. In addition, there have been some nice efforts from everything from insurance companies reducing rates or waiving certain fees to all of these companies that have thoughtfully and often generously established ways to give back specifically to help in the wake of COVID-19. The surge of support from companies that can actually make a difference should help us see the positive side of humanity during difficult times.

In so many ways, we have seen a surge of creativity and industrious efforts to keep people connected. Between updates to Zoom, entertainment giants such as Netflix creating easy ways for people to have movie parties from different locations, and online games increasing access and ease for allowing people to spend virtual time together. We have all had to be more creative and flexible to stay connected to our loved ones, and the technology available to us has given us great opportunities to spend time together.

During this time, we have seen heroic efforts in medicine. Our health care workers across the board have been amazing, providing care under stressful conditions. Throughout this pandemic, there have been ever-changing guidelines on how to treat people who become very ill and have to stay in the hospital for lengthy periods of time. But our health care teams across the country and around the world have stepped up day after day to rise to the challenge of providing the best possible care. They are true heroes. In addition to the health care workers in the field, there have been incredible scientific efforts to learn more about this virus and to develop treatments and preventions, including the vaccines, to help bring an end to the pandemic. Scientific teams have worked around the clock to ensure medical progress that will help save lives.

In education, teachers and staff have gone to incredible lengths to provide the best possible education during this time. Parents have stepped up as partners, providing support while students are learning from home. As exhausting as this has been for both teachers and parents, the efforts have been tireless. Also, educators have tapped into creative and innovative ways to keep students engaged. Look at these North Carolina teachers who have come up with fun and engaging ways to teach online, or this one, who does different character videos for her interactive online class. Is it ideal? No, of course not. But it is also not stagnant – educators and parents are rising to the challenges and continuing to do what they can to give students the best educational experience possible under the circumstances.

I could go on and on with all the creativity and goodwill that has come out of our experience with COVID-19. But let’s take some time now to think about how we start off the new year with courage and strong hearts. One approach is to focus on our great need for things to get better, to get back to normal, to stop needing to think about masks and distancing and limiting interaction and activities. These things will be realized, probably within the next year but not within the next month. So to move forward with positivity, to be brave in the new year, take some inspiration from any of the categories listed above. In the new year, what will your resolutions be? It is always good to spend some time reflecting on personal habits and making changes for yourself, but look at all the positive changes so many people have made over the past year out of necessity. These positive changes have required courage, commitment and positivity. Let’s look back at 2020 with acknowledgement of how different and how difficult it has been, while we look to 2021 with optimism, and a renewed sense of positivity for what can be done by all of us, even under the most challenging of circumstances.

Here’s how to make your Christmas shopping more meaningful this year.

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Kaarin Anderson Ryan, PhD, BCBA, LBA. 12.9.20

2020 has been a year to remember for everyone on the planet. Without getting into the details or repeating the same laments that we have all been sharing for months, I’ll just acknowledge that for many people, the holidays are feeling just a little but different this year. Who would have imagined that deciding whether or not to visit family would be a difficult and complicated decision? This is coupled with changes in our communities including restaurants and small businesses struggling every day to stay open and maintain hope.

So this year, it’s not too late to think about some ways to make your shopping more meaningful. Black Friday and Cyber Monday are over, so why not turn now to looking local to support your neighbors and community businesses? Here are some ideas to give back to your community while giving gifts to your friends and families.

  1. For anyone who follows me, you know that one thing near and dear to my heart is supporting people with diverse abilities. Has anyone noticed an increase in businesses that specifically and intentionally support people with diverse abilities? I have! Here are some examples:
    • Bitty and Beau’s Coffee. I had the incredible pleasure a couple years ago of walking into the absolutely beautiful Bitty and Beau’s shop in Charleston, SC without knowing anything about it. While waiting in line for my coffee, I learned about the company by looking around and reading some of the signs. Bitty and Beau’s was started by a family who has 2 children with Down Syndrome. They employ people with all kinds of unique needs and their mission is to promote full community inclusion. The have 4 locations: Charleston, SC – Wilmington, NC – Savannah, GA – Annapolis, MD. If you live near any of these consider stopping by and getting your loved ones gift cards. Or, you can go to their online shop and order coffee beans or check out their merch. They have everything from care packages to clothing with their logo to awareness items such as the #notbroken and the Radically Inclusive shirts and hats. A great way to support a business with a mission and find great gifts this holiday season.
    • John’s Crazy Socks. You will love this shop. This is a father-son business, with John, who has Down Syndrome, and his Dad, Mark. Look at their story for some real inspiration! They started selling fun and crazy socks online in 2016 and have gained a huge following. They have the best socks – fun, funny, colorful, crazy socks. They also sell a variety of awareness socks along with monthly subscriptions and are currently carrying a variety of face masks. Half of their employees have differing abilities. So, if you are looking for some fun gifts this is a good option for supporting community inclusion while checking off some boxes on your gift list.
    • We Are Lions. What a great idea this website is! They showcase items made by people with differing needs from all over the world. The site has categories for everyone, including clothing, home and bath, and accessories. All items will give you an artist profile so you can see exactly whose day you will be making a little bit better by buying their product.
    • Online specialty stores that showcase and sell items made and produced by people with differing needs. The websites are beautiful and they have fabulous products. Some of them include Purely Patrick, specializing in gourmet food from Vermont; Special Sparkle, offering lovely handmade bracelets, Two Blind Brothers, a site that gives you options of how much to spend and then sends you a box (you are blind to what you will get until it arrives, but they promise you that you will love it), and all profits go to the Foundation Fighting Blindness. There are many similar sites you can find by searching for special needs businesses online, and all your purchases from these places will support community inclusion and opportunity for these ambitious and creative individuals.
    • Local shops who focus on supporting special needs. This may include employment opportunities or showcasing products. Some examples include No Label at the Table in Indianapolis, One for All Gifts on Long Island, South Fork Bakery on Long Island, Just Goods Gifts in West Michigan, Cameron’s Coffee and Chocolate in Fairfax, VA. There are way too many to list but if you look in your community you will likely find some businesses that are either run by people with diverse abilities, or who mindfully employ those with diverse abilities.

2. Shop small, shop local. This Small Business Saturday movement started in 2010 with the support of American Express. The idea is to support small, local businesses by dedicating a day to shopping at small businesses on the Saturday after Thanksgiving – right after the Black Friday madness. This year, it is even more important to consider local purchases. What about Covid, though, and being out in the community? Well, many small shops have set up online experiences to allow you to shop online and pick up your items curbside or right inside the store to limit crowds. The website gives information about local small businesses in your area by using the interactive map. Clicking the dot for any business on the map will give you easy access to the address of the business and the website.

3. Give the gift of local services. We all know how much the restaurant and entertainment businesses have been affected by the pandemic. There are so many choices for local gifts in every area of the country. When it comes to gift certificates and gift cards, nothing would make your favorite local spots happier than to have people buy gifts to use and enjoy. You could consider any range of gifts, including restaurants, bakeries, car washes, spa and salon services, coffee shops, pet grooming, design services, art classes, fitness or yoga classes, or memberships to local museums. Not only does this support the local service industry, but it is a gift that keeps on giving after the holiday season, giving your friends and family something to look forward to in the coming weeks and months.

This time of year can be wonderful and difficult for all of us, on any given year. This year, let’s use it to give ourselves, our loved ones, and our communities an infusion of support and hope to push us into 2021 with a renewed sense of optimism.

5 ways to help your child stay socially-distanced-and-social.

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Kaarin Anderson Ryan, PhD, BCBA, LBA

After several months of lighter restrictions, along with outdoor activity options that gave all of us more opportunities for safe socializing, now we are seeing tighter restrictions in many states and communities as the pandemic hits a second wave. In much of the country, it is getting colder outside, making it more difficult to find safe places to socialize outside the family home.

This is really challenging for all of us. We miss the easy get-togethers, being able to see friends and family without a second thought. Many of us have made changes to holiday plans and traditions to protect ourselves and our loved ones. As much as we are struggling with the new social normal, it is especially challenging for kids and teens, and even more challenging for kids and teens with autism and other different needs.

One of my biggest interests is and always has been to help kids, teens and adults who have different needs to find friendship and social inclusion at school and in the community. We have come a long way in the past 20 years with schools, colleges and communities establishing many resources and opportunities for people with different needs to be involved, and to find friends. Now, with the pandemic, many of these opportunities are not available. This leaves us searching for options to help kids and teens find ways to stay connected and social in a healthy and fulfilling way. These ideas and resources will be helpful for anyone who is looking for ways to help their children with positive and fun social interaction, safely.

The following ideas are just a few suggestions for possibilities to help with socialization – please make sure as a parent that you screen and monitor anything you allow your child participate in virtually. These ideas could be beneficial for kids and teens with and without different needs.

  1. Tik Tok. Just kidding! This will not help.

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  1. Many of you already know about Kahoot, but if not, check it out. Not only does ot have educational activities, but it can also be used to set up interactive games online with friends or family.
  2. Interactive game apps. One good one that is free to use is Psych, which users download then play together using a code. The app can be found on Apple or Google Play. There are some paid in-app options as well for extra game decks.
  3. Watching movies together remotely. One way to do this is through Teleparty (previously called Netflix party). Users are able to watch a movie at the same time, with an option to chat while watching.
  4. Try some online extra-curricular activities with Outschool. This website has thousands of classes for students that focus primarily on health and wellness. If you type in the search bar for you will find quite a few classes with a focus on socialization. You can also search by age, day, format, length of class, etc. These classes will have a fee, and the prices vary depending on the class.
  5. Local resources. Our communities are scrambling to move things to virtual and online formats to accommodate a variety of needs. This ranges from curbside pickup for local boutiques who have updated websites to provide more shopping options, to expanded takeout food options, to virtual or parking lot church services, to a tremendous increase in the use of virtual meeting platforms for businesses. Within your own community, look to places like libraries, churches, parks and recreation departments, and community centers to see what social activities are available virtually.

Now What?

 

mockup of white clipboard with blank paper
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Kaarin Anderson Ryan, PhD, BCBA, LBA.   7.31.20

As we watch events unfold, the questions seem to outnumber the answers every day.  Between the pandemic which seems to be a moving target, the ongoing protests, (and in some areas, violence and destruction), the partisan divide in our country, and the upcoming election, we as Americans are faced with daily news streams that bring little optimism.  With this over-arching cloud, it can be difficult to focus on here and now in our own lives.  In my recent post, Stress Management 101, I went through some ideas to help cope with stress.  Today, let’s continue with some ideas about how events can shape our stress, and what we can do about it.

Being outside more during the warm weather months, we can all use this time to reflect on nature.  In nature, there are certain patterns that we, and all living things on earth, come to expect.  Seasons, weather, life cycles.  When everything is going according to plan, and things remain predictable, nature just keeps moving. The birds keep flying in flocks and the fish swimming in schools.  Plants grow.  People go on about their routines in relative peace.  But when you throw stress and unpredictability into the mix, behaviors and outcomes change.  An early freeze is bad for our food supply – the fruit that was ready to pick and eat yesterday is now a frozen mess on the trees..  A oceanic predator breaks up a school of fish, causing them to frantically break formation and swim in all different directions.  A bird flying to look for food may be met by a drone, causing the bird to change course and reconsider where to find food.  And for people, when unpredictable stress is thrown into the mix, it can create challenges in how we cope and how we behave. Of course, in human behavior the stresses and the responses are much more complex.

On a daily basis we all have ups and downs and things that are not as predictable. Running out of your child’s favorite cereal can lead to a rough start to the day, but usually there are enough other consistent and predictable events throughout the day to balance things out.  Right now, the cloud of stress from national and world events really presents us with this ever-simmering sense of unpredictability.  So, even if your daily routines have settled in now with the COVID-19 restrictions, you still can’t really look down the road and imagine what things might be like this fall, or in the winter.  When can you take your next trip?  When can you go out without a mask?  What is going to happen with schools and colleges?  What is going to happen to the economy?   What about living in areas where there are upticks in violence – when will you feel safe again?  And the election coming up?  I don’t know anyone on either side of the political aisle who is not stressed about this election.  There is little long-term predicability in the big picture right now.

So, now what?

Predictability and consistency are nice things because they give us a sense of control.  It is a comfort to know what’s going to happen, and when it’s going to happen.  Even thrill-seekers who love to jump out of airplanes or free-climb probably get some comfort from knowing what to expect each day.  So the question to ask ourselves right now is what tools do we have to get that sense of predictability and control under the current circumstances?

First of all, really examine what you actually can control. I have talked about this in earlier posts – we can really stress ourselves out over things we can’t control in any way.  I like to describe it as having two types of worry:  Functional and Dysfunctional.  With functional worry, we can use this to change something.  For example, a functional worry might be something like driving in a heavy rainstorm.  You can use that worry to slow down, to stay further away from the car in front of you, or to pull over until the rain lightens up.  You can actually do something about it.  If you did not have that worry, you would be putting yourself in danger. So functional worry is actually a good thing.  On the other side, dysfunctional worry, you worry about things completely out of your control.  For example, if you are worried that you won’t get the job you just interviewed for, this is now out of your control and the worry becomes dysfunctional.

Put this idea into the perspective of today’s stresses.  What can you do about the things that are less predictable now?  Are there positive actions you can take to make changes that will improve your outcomes?  Are there some circumstances right now that are beyond your scope of control?  If you can take positive action, go ahead and do so.  If circumstances are beyond your control, work on letting your worry go by distracting yourself with more uplifting or productive ideas, activities, and interactions.

One big stress that a lot of families are facing right now is whether to send kids back to school.  In most areas of the country, there seems to be a general trend towards remote schooling, a hybrid model, or giving families a choice to let their kids attend school or do remote schooling.  So for families, this is an area where you do have a good deal of control.  It s stressful to make the choice for some people, but if you look at all the facts you can make a good and informed decision.  If you live in an area with low numbers of COVID-19 cases, it might be easier to decide to send your kids to school.  If you or someone in your household is at higher risk for complications, you may make the decision to let your child work from home.  For many families, keeping kids home is not a good option and in these cases taking all the possible precautions, (wearing masks to school, encouraging social distancing and sending your kids to school with hand sanitizer every day), will be the best way for you to assume some control over the situation.  Above all, think things through, talk to people you trust, and don’t be afraid to ask questions.  We will get through this.

 

Stress Management 101

 

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Kaarin Anderson Ryan, PhD, BCBA, LBA.    6.24.20

It just keeps building up, the stress of 2020.  It’s hard to look at social media or the news without sensing an instant rise in your stress level, with fresh new things to worry about every day.  You can, in some cases, take action to deal with things going on in the world, whether it is contributing to a cause, getting involved in politics, or staying up-to-date with needed precautions against Covid-19,  But even when you are able to take action, there is still a feeling of powerlessness, of hopelessness, when everything seems to be bad news.

For those who have been home with children for the past few months, trying to balance their own work with becoming surrogate teachers, this stress can be even worse because there is already a level of exhaustion that has set in every day.  People who work in health care and other impacted industries may also be experiencing stress levels that are higher and different from others.  During these seemingly unprecedented difficult times, it is important to remember 2 things: Perspective and Self-Care.

Perspective.  Yes, it feels like the world is on fire.  It feels like things will never be the same regarding illness, germs and feeling safe in public settings.  It feels like there are more difficult questions than there are good and useful answers.  But despite the fact that many of us have not experienced this level of turmoil in the world all at once, this is certainly not the first time that there has been extreme social unrest or pandemic disease.  Remember that we often learn best from history.  We have the advantage of being able to look back at past events and view them through the lens of what went well and what didn’t go so well.  For example, a lot of health experts have been reflecting on the 1918 flu pandemic, with a sharp eye on which communities fared the best and which ones had worse outcomes.  By looking at choices those communities made, we can have more informed decisions about how to manage transmission rates now, 100 years later.  Health experts are also using history to drive clinical decision making.  With a brand new virus, hard facts have been sparse.  But by looking at other similar germs, outbreaks, treatments, and vaccines, health professionals and scientists are best able to make informed decisions as they work hard to get this under control.

When it comes to social unrest and politics, we also have history to lean on for guidance. As human beings living in societies around the world, many people are better off than their ancestors.  This is largely due to social and political changes over time.  Some of these needed changes happened peacefully while others came with the cost of human suffering and many lives lost.  Looking at history, let the past be our guide about how to promote necessary social changes in our world in the most peaceful manner possible. And to keep things in perspective, use history to realize that our best chance to move forward is to recognize each others’ humanity, and to do this without prejudice to promote positive change.  Do what you are able and willing to do – for some this may mean organizing events or putting up signs, for others it may mean writing to your government representatives and leaders, and for others it may just mean having conversations with your own children.

Self-Care.  How can you even begin to manage your stress these days?  We’re home with restless kids.  The rules about going out keep changing.  We still don’t know enough about this illness to feel safe but we are so sick of being restricted.  Summer plans have had to change.  The world outside our doors is falling apart.  Political discourse is at an extreme low.  Nothing feels right.  Although it is hard to imagine, this is actually a recipe for us to prioritize self-care.  Without managing your stress, you risk getting yourself into a mind space where you just can’t see past the negatives. So what are some things you can do?

  1.  Stop looking at the news and your social media so much.  Allow yourself a small amount of time each day to catch up on developments with Covid-19, with politics, with world events, with local news.  After that set amount of time, turn it off and live your own life for the rest of that day.  A good balance might be 15-20 minutes in the morning and 15-20 minutes at night.  Or, even better, just once a day.
  2. Pick one thing you enjoy and carve out time to do it each day, even if only for a short time.  Work on a puzzle, read a book, watch a show, do some yoga.  Any of these things can be done for a short or a longer period of time, so you can tailor it to your own needs and your own schedule.
  3. Move your body.  There is overwhelming evidence for the positive effect of exercise on stress.  Even moderate activity makes a difference.  Take a walk, a bike ride, or do an exercise class online. Just like the activity you enjoy above, these can all be done according to your own time frame and schedule.
  4. Breathe.  When you start to notice your stress level rising for any reason at all, stop and breathe.  Slow, deep breaths can do wonders for your immediate stress level.  And it only takes a minute.
  5. Talk.  By engaging in conversation, you can reduce your stress in a few ways.  If you are able to talk to people about your stress, you may find compassion and shared concerns, which can be helpful.  If you talk to people about other things, this can be a nice distraction from your stress.  Finally, if you talk to people for feedback, you might get some good ideas for problem-solving and coping.
  6. Rest.  Try to develop good sleep routines.  If you have been having a hard time sleeping, take a good look at your routine.  Are you doing or thinking about something stressful right before bed?  Are you using a laptop, tablet or phone right before bed, which can affect sleep? Are you going to bed around the same time every night?  All of these things can affect your sleep, and your sleep can affect your stress.
  7. Use structure at home to build a sense of stability.  Summer days can be chaotic with kids, and maybe even more so in places where activities are still limited. Try to develop some routines and structures in your home to help you and your family cope with this unique and unusual summer we’re having.
  8. Remember what they tell you on the airplane. Put on your own oxygen mask before helping others with theirs.  When you neglect your own basic needs and self-care, you are less able to make a difference to others.

 

Things are opening up. What is ok for you and your family?

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Kaarin Anderson Ryan, PhD, BCBA, LBA.        6.2.20

The information keeps flooding us, day after day more news and conflicting information about coronavirus.  In my last post I talked about doing what you can each day.  This time I will be turning the focus a bit back to children, and coping with the next phase of the pandemic when you have kids at home.

It seems to me that the new challenge for many of us will be deciding what to do.  As restrictions start to loosen up in many states, the decisions about how to proceed with venturing back into the social world will be up to each of us, individually.  Some may look to their  family for guidance, or follow the lead of trusted friends.  Others will do what they want or what they think is best based on what os happening in their area, or within their own family.

For people who have been home with their children for over two months, it will be tempting to jump back into life as usual as much and as soon as possible.  There may also be some pressure for allowing playdates and other friend interactions,  This pressure may come from your own children or it may come from their friends, or both.  How will you navigate this next phase of the global pandemic?

As with many difficult decisions and tasks, it might be helpful to break these questions down a bit before you decide anything.  Each thing you and your family do going forward will be based on your own personal calculation of the risks involved.  What are some things to consider?

Most importantly, consider your family health risk.  Are you or anyone in your family at greater risk for complications based on current health conditions?  Do you care for someone who is at greater risk?  If the answer to any of these is yes, it might be in your best interest to continue to stay home as much as possible and limit contact with others who are re-integrating into the world.

If you are at low or average risk for complications due to COVID, think about some basic common-sense measures you can take to protect yourself, your family, and others.

  • Social Bubbles.  This is a concept based on the idea that it is safe to spend time with other people who have been practicing the same level of safe behavior as yourself.  Do you have friends and family who have been working from home, rigorously distancing themselves from others, wearing masks out in public, and avoiding gatherings?  If you have set a certain standard for yourself these past few months, and you know others with the same standards, they are likely safe to be with now.  Here are a couple of recent articles on forming your own Social Bubble:
  • Maintaining your own social distancing rules.  Do you have friends or family who have been less careful than you?  Do you know others who have had to go into a public work environment?  As states ease restrictions and you want to see these friends, consider social-distancing gatherings.  Sit on a deck or a patio, stay 6 feet away, bring your own food and drink.
  • Be careful in public.  Yes, I know we still have mixed information on masks and how long the virus lives in the air and on surfaces.  We – the public – do not know a lot more now than we did when this all started.  But some studies are definitely showing a benefit to universal masks to reduce transmission if worn correctly.  This means you •put it on • stop touching it • don’t touch your face • still maintain a safe distance from others • continue to wash or sanitize your hands after touching things in public • leave the mask on to talk, sneeze, cough (I actually heard about a woman in New York who was seen pulling her own mask down to cough into the air then putting it back on.  True story.).  The masks do not universally protect you.  But used correctly, along with maintaining all the other recommended safety measures will certainly not hurt and will likely help.
  • Now for the tricky part.  Think about your own kids.  How will they do with maintaining boundaries?  Are they able to keep a safe distance?  Will they be able to keep their hands clean?  Some older kids can actually do well with this.  Other kids who are younger or who have behavioral or social difficulties may be more challenged with these safety measures.  If you have one or more children who will struggle with maintaining safe standards, it will be up to you to decide what other people they can spend time with now.  Will you let them play with other kids who have maintained the same level of caution as you have?  The Social Bubble idea might be particularly relevant to families with young kids or kids with special needs.
  • For children, teens, and even young adults on the autism spectrum, this might be especially challenging.  For one thing, if you have a child with autism and you have been at home with limited support, you may be tempted to take support and opportunities for your child to have time with others as quickly as possible, with less concern about the possible risks involved because basically, you have had enough.  For another thing, people with autism may be less aware of how to maintain boundaries, and in some cases may have less social awareness and control to help them navigate interactions using distancing and other healthy precautions such as not touching their faces.   The thing to remember is that you have choices.  Using the Social Bubbles may help you with this, and it also applies to caregivers and support personnel, such as ABA providers or other therapists. If you allow your child to spend time with peers, do the best you can to make sure the peers and their families are following the same guidelines that you are.  It may also help you to find caregiver support through ABA and other therapists, as well as local babysitters or respite providers who you trust to use precautions around you and your family.
  • Keep an eye on trends in your own area.  As things open back up, how do the numbers look near you?  Are things continuing to look better, or are the numbers going back up?  You can decide how to handle your own safety measures based on what is happening where you live.  Stay informed by the data to help guide your decisions, one day at a time.
  • If you really aren’t sure what is ok and what isn’t for you and your family, reach out to health experts in your area for guidance.  This may include family doctors or local health officials who have been carefully following the trends with this outbreak.  While it is good to be cautious, it is also important to balance caution with common sense measures you can take to help move back to some normal daily experiences.

 

Coping with the information, one day at a time.

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Kaarin Anderson Ryan, PhD, BCBA, LBA.     5.15.20

We’ve been isolating ourselves as much as possible for a bit over 2 full months now.  At the beginning, there was so much information coming in from sources around the world that it was hard to keep up with everything. Now, it may be a little less of on onslaught, but there is still a lot to process.  One of the big questions now is re-entry.  How do we gradually move back to life as we knew at? Can we do this in the near future?

For many people, there is an overarching sense of anxiety now.  What is going to happen in the world?  What is going to happen with the economy?  What about the food chain? What if we go back out and people start getting the virus in large numbers?  What if my parents or kids get sick?  What if I get sick?  The questions still overwhelm the answers  in many respects.  And if you are a parent with kids at home, it can be challenging to answer questions about what’s next.  If you have kids at home on the autism spectrum, your challenge is further increased because there is little sense of long-term predictability, which can be a problem.

Reflecting back on these past few weeks and the ever-changing information along with fears and worries that come with the unknown, something that has been helpful is to focus on what I do know, and what I can control.  What is that right now?

  • My daily routine.
  • My weekly list of tasks.
  • My level of (remote) social engagement.
  • My sanity activities (getting outside, doing yoga or meditation, reading, watching a good movie).
  • Who I spend time with in-person and how to do that safely.
  • How much I go out and how I prepare for that.
  • How much I look at the media.

What can I not control?

  • Medical progress with the virus.
  • Changing information about the virus.
  • The behavior of other people when it comes to safety and distancing.
  • The decisions of leaders in government at every level.
  • The decisions of businesses starting to re-open with different rules everywhere.
  • The media (but remember, you can control what you read).

It takes some thought to put together your list of what you can and can’t control right now.  If you have kids at home (with or without special needs) who are feeling tired of being home or showing signs of anxiety about the situation,  this is a good time to teach them about what we have the power to control.  This is much easier if you start with the smallest picture, which is today.  What can we do today to make it the best day possible?  How much structure do we want today?  For some kids, it will be helpful to have a good plan every day, while others will manage well with looser structures and routines.  One of the most important things will be to focus on what can and should be done today and this week, instead of spending too much time thinking about what may or may not happen in 2 weeks, 2 months, or even a year.  This is especially true right now, because we just don’t know how things will look in our town, our state, our country or even our world.   Is it possible that schools in your area won’t start again in September?  Yes, it is possible.  But mostly we don’t know.  Letting yourself or your kids spend a lot of time and energy worrying about this will only prevent happiness and productivity right now.

Take another look at the list I made of what I can control right now.  Do any of those concepts apply to you?  Do any of those translate to action for your kids at home? How can you wrap your arms around the things that are in your control to help yourself and your family move forward in the midst of endless information but not a lot of concrete answers?  Focus on here.  Focus on now.  Don’t worry to much about re-inventing yourself or your family, just do the best you can with what you know and what you have in front of you, today.

So ask yourself, and ask your kids, what can we control right now?  What can we do with the things that are in our control to make the absolute best of each day?  What can we do to try not to put a lot of our energy into predicting or worrying about the future?  Make lists, make visuals, and celebrate the things that go well every day.