The Final: 3 Top Things We Can Do For Our Mental Health
Closing out mental health month, this final blog in the series will capture the third, and most important thing we can do to improve our mental and emotional health. So far we have discussed the value of kindness and the skill of mindfulness as two things we can actively do to promote mental and emotional health. The third is the mental skill of deliberately choosing our thoughts.
I remember the day I first became aware of this idea. Again, in my mid 20’s I read a book that highlighted how much our thoughts had an impact on our lives. I realized how much I feared the future instead of seeing incredible opportunities. I realized how much fear influenced what I paid attention to, my motivation, and actions.
After I applied this change of thinking, I started training for and was asked to play for the semi-professional soccer team in my area. I approached relationships instead of avoiding them. I wanted to do public speaking and put myself out there instead of fearing judgment. This concept, along with mindfulness, changed the trajectory of my life.
The Power of Thoughts
Our thoughts are EVERYTHING. When we think about mental health, we are talking about the quality of our thoughts. They are the major reason why you feel what you feel, do what you do, and get the results you earn. This makes the topic of thoughts the topic of highest concern when mental health is addressed.
Unfortunately, we are given very little education on our thoughts and how to manage them. High school students spend hundreds of hours learning very specific skills and content that may or may not directly apply to them in their future (no disrespect to the mass of teachers that do an amazing job), but the students receive little to no training on the topics that most agree are the most important to them as they get older: health in all of its forms, success, happiness, character, and meaning in life. We need more of it in our schools and families!
I think the lack of this training, coupled with the natural challenges we face in our culture such as technology, negative news, constant stimulation, pandemics, difficult upbringings, high stress, traumas, misguided values, and so much more has caused the mental health crisis we are in. We are simply not prepared to manage it.
The fact is that there is an onslaught of situations that we simply don’t have control of in our lives. Our ability to choose what we pay attention to and how we respond is critical to our lives going in a positive direction. Everyday there are endless opportunities to choose how we want to think, but most of us take very little control and responsibility over our thoughts and mindset.
The thoughts you think are VERY powerful. The images, videos, internal voice, and senses that play out in your mind can either wreak havoc or bring peace and confidence. They control your emotions, physiology, behaviors, and results.
I do realize that it’s not so easy to choose a positive response to life. Those struggling with mental health disorders have even a harder time. Due to your past experiences, thinking traps, belief systems, self-esteem, powerful emotions, natural instinct towards safety, etc… you may not always have control of your initial or automatic response, but you most certainly have the ability to choose a different perspective from there. And then, the more you train that response, the more automatic it becomes. And sometimes it takes a lot of practice to see the benefit.
Just like a garden, whatever you give water and sunlight to will grow. Your mind is the same way, whatever you give attention to and think most often will grow in your mind. This concept is articulated in depth by James Allen, a British author and poet, who wrote “As A Man Thinketh,” Here is an excerpt from that book:
“A man's mind may be likened to a garden, which may be intelligently cultivated or allowed to run wild; but whether cultivated or neglected, it must, and will, bring forth. If no useful seeds are put into it, then an abundance of useless weed seeds will fall therein, and will continue to produce their kind.” James Allen
So How Do I Tend To The Garden Of My Mind?
Like any skill, our thoughts are trained by consistently putting time into them. We can do that by paying attention to them more and then consistently choosing thoughts that are goal/success oriented.
Skim Through This Long List - Pick Your favorite
Train Your Surroundings- Read this list!!
- Put positive messages, actions, verses, and pictures on the windows, mirrors, walls of your living space (ex. Drink your water! ) .
- Put positive messages, actions, and pictures on the wallpapers of your phone(ex. Picture of your family members”)
- See shows, movies, social media accounts or youtube videos that foster positive emotion and inspiration (ex. Videos of cute animals, and of course the Positively Elite blog : )
- Put time into the hobbies that create positive emotion, inspiration, and flow (ex. Learning music)
- Hang with people that are talking about what you want to talk about and doing what you want to do (ex. That guy or girl you have in your phone that you want to hang out with more but haven’t reached out yet)
- Go to the places that create positive emotion, inspiration, and flow (ex. Nature, the mall, gym, library)
- Read the magazines or books that create positive emotion, inspiration, and flow (ex. That book that you keep wanting to dive into, under that pile in your room)
Reframing- This is the foundational element of being able to choose your response. Reframing is the process of changing and challenging our current views on a situation, idea, or emotion. Here are some common questions to ask ourselves when we want to reframe a situation.
Is there a more helpful or better way to see this situation?
What is the evidence that this is true?
What would happen if this went well?
Do my feelings accurately reflect the situation?
Could I feel differently about this if I waited a bit of time?
Mindfulness - Yes, we come back to this often. By observing thoughts, letting them go, refocusing the mind, we are learning to control and manage it, without getting attached to the “clouds passing by our sky.”
Affirmations- Affirmations have been criticized for effectiveness. However, one thing is clear about them, the more often you think something on purpose, the more often you think it when you are not trying to. If you want to achieve something you have to keep seeing what success looks like. Affirmations help train the mind to be geared towards the goals you have and the success you desire.
Surround yourself with positive people- You become what you see, think, and hear most often. The ideas, beliefs, emotions, and mindsets of the people that are most consistently around you are contagious. Choose your people wisely.
Visualization- If affirmations are training for your inner-voice, visualization is training your mental images and senses. The more you see, hear, and feel the outcomes that you desire, the more that it appears for you, and the more confidence and self-esteem is boosted as well.
Pray- I think there is a great value in the ability to direct our attention and thoughts to a power higher than ourselves, whether that is a God of a certain religion or simply the Universe that works in our favor. Doing this creates positive belief, confidence, hope, positive emotions, and so much more.
Keep a gratitude journal- Researchers in the field of Positive Psychology cite that writing down 3 things you are grateful for and why is one of the most reliable interventions to boost happiness and meaning, among other things. Why does this work? Again, you are training your mind to be grateful. What you put time into grows.
Look out for thinking traps -Thinking traps are patterns of thoughts, usually negative, that prevent us from seeing situations as they truly are. Notice when you are caught up in a thinking trap, take a step back, and rationalize your way out of it!
Here are some common thinking traps:
Catastrophizing- Envisioning a future catastrophe even though there is no evidence of it happening
Filtering- Ignoring the 10 positives, only focusing on the 1 negative
Overgeneralizing- Assuming one mistake will cause a chain reaction of many
Fortune Telling- predicting bad things will happen in the future
Personalizing- Seeing yourself as the cause of a failure
Emotional Reasoning- Thinking a certain way due to the present (and temporary) emotion we are feeling at the time
Train your optimism by reflecting on the 3 P’s- Martin Seligman, the father of Positive Psychology, has studied the science of well-being, happiness, optimism, and resilience for the last 25 years. He has written several books on these topics and I recommend all of them. His team created a great way to reflect on setbacks using the 3 P’s:
Personalizing: Not everything that happens to us, happens because of us. We shouldn’t personalize our setbacks.
Pervasiveness: Just because one setback happens, doesnt mean that we are a total failure. The thought, “I Failed today” is very different then “I am a failure.” You are not a failure, you are human and make mistakes. Keep learning from them.
Permanence: This is the sense that the setback is permanent, or it will never get better. Remember that all things change with time. One bad day means one bad day. Keep moving forward
See a licensed mental health professional!- Although the last on today's list, I think this suggestion is one of the top ways to help us with our thinking. There is no substitute for someone that can listen intently, with unconditional positive regard, empathy, and non-judgment. A mental health clinician can help us sort through our thoughts, identify faulty thinking , and work with us to create patterns of thought that resonate with the goals we have in life. A specific type of therapy- cognitive behavioral therapy (or CBT) is widely used by therapists for this exact purpose. Take advantage!
So there they are, around 20 different ways to manage, train, and choose our thoughts! Try any of them.
I think that kindness, mindfulness, and deliberately choosing our thoughts are the core 3 things we should be aware of in creating mental and emotional health for ourselves. In this 4 part blog series, I discussed the power of each of these concepts while also including over 40 different actionable items you could do.
My hope is that these concepts and practices find their way into family routines, the education system and into the daily lives of the children that walk our planet. We would be doing our world a great service in doing so.
Much love and best wishes to you all. Thanks for reading!
Powell Cucchiella, LMHC