5 Mental Health Game Changers
While in recent years connotations surrounding mental health have significantly improved, the topic remains largely stigmatized. This blog is my small contribution to raising awareness about mental health and the importance of caring for yourself. I firmly believe that when we make the choice to get our minds right and focus on self-care, the rest of our lives improve as well.
Of course I should note that this post is based solely on my own opinions and experiences. In case it wasn't already clear, I am not a medical professional nor psychiatric expert, so all of this should be taken with a grain of salt. That being said, I have spent about a decade trying different methods to manage my anxiety. I've put in the work to understand myself, and in doing so have come to see the value of a few key steps towards better mental health:
1. Find the Source
You know that saying about how those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it? Well the same is true for your mental health. If you don't know (as in, don't take the time to understand) what has made you the person you are, you'll never be able to progress beyond that person. In order to break a behavioral cycle and create true change in your life, you first must have a genuine understanding of what got you to this point.
Think of a behavior you want to change. Chances are you've spent hours wishing you would stop, maybe even actively trying to stop. But how much time did you spend considering the root cause of this behavior? What exactly happened in your past to create this habit? What exactly is subconsciously reinforcing it? During childhood (and throughout our lives) we are constantly making connections, many of which lodge their way into our subconscious mind. Nearly everything you struggle with or dislike about yourself can be traced back to these connections. You at one point saw or experienced a cause and effect, and your subconscious has stored this memory ever since. As you grow up, many of these connections are strengthened through related events or thought patterns and develop into a belief (whether conscious or not).
Understanding the why of these behaviors is the first step to changing them. I've found journaling to be especially helpful with this. It allows me to create a visual of the limitations I've put upon myself, which then makes purging these beliefs feel more tangible. If you're also a more visual learner/person, I highly recommend giving it a try. Other methods I've personally tried (and loved) include breathwork and guided meditation. There are many, many, many options for these, so those interested are sure to find something that works for their needs.
2. Learn to Forgive
Now that you've dredged up old hurts and have begun to understand the why of your behaviors, it's time to let go. In order to move beyond these old beliefs, thoughts, or actions, you have to free yourself. And the way we do that is through forgiveness. Forgiveness of yourself and your circumstances, as well as forgiveness of others. Before we get into this step, it's important I mention that forgiving someone does not necessarily mean they deserve it. I've said it in previous posts, but forgiveness is not something you offer to benefit others. It is something you give because you want to feel better. It's the key to no longer feeling that heaviness in your heart. It's how you let that pain go and make the choice to no longer be burdened by someone else's actions.
As I said, there are three parts to this step. The first is forgiving your circumstances; recognizing (and truly accepting) that you can't help when you were born, where you were born, or what situation you were born into. Recognizing that it is not your fault if you experience pain because of these things. Next, you've got to forgive others. Here I'd like to note that you don't have to see or even speak to someone in order to offer your forgiveness. Reflect on the way(s) they have hurt you or put you into an unfair situation. Allow the emotions to come back to you. Truly feel them, then let them out in whatever way feels right. Once you've gotten that out of your system, return to the person you want to forgive. Picture them clearly in your mind and say out loud to them: "I forgive you."
Lastly (and most importantly), you've got to forgive yourself. Holding onto self-hatred, past mistakes, guilt or shame has a significant impact on the way you operate. Refusing to acknowledge these feelings is like (forgive the gross metaphor) going through life while dragging a corpse around with you. It's dead, smelly, and probably quite a pain to lug around. Wouldn't it be so much easier to let it go and move on with your life? Forgiving yourself is as simple as choosing, each and every day, to let go of the dead weight.
Understand that you can't help what has happened, but you can choose how you respond. Acknowledge how these thoughts, situations, or people have hurt you. Acknowledge what it felt like in the moment, and then recognize that you are no longer in that situation. Remember that you are beyond it, and you have the power to decide where you go from here.
3. Question Everything
Most of us go about our days on autopilot. I'm not just talking about our routines or habits or muscle memories. I'm mostly talking about our thoughts, and the beliefs we absently perpetuate everyday. If you're unhappy with your life and/or you struggle with mental health, you have to learn to step outside of yourself and cultivate a greater sense of awareness.
Understand that at an animal level, our brains are constantly trying to keep us alive. Anxious and negative thoughts all stem from a place of protection- it is our animal brain trying to keep us safe from something it registers as a threat. Whenever you have a harmful thought, pay attention to it. Ask yourself: is this thought objectively true? If it's not, ask yourself: how is this thought trying to protect me? Most of the time when we struggle with mental health, it comes from a place of fear. Just like in step one, you've got to be honest with yourself and seek to truly understand why this has become your default setting.
It's so important that you question these thoughts/actions not from a place of judgement, but of curiosity. Judging yourself only negates the work you're doing to change your behavior. So again, if you want real change, you've got to check all that crap at the door.
4. Change the Lens
This step was inspired by an episode of the Wind Down with Niall Breslin, a podcast I absolutely love. To change the lens is to shift the way our brains tend to think about our lives. It's a practice in stepping outside of yourself when that reflexive negativity kicks in. Instead of beating ourselves up for our mistakes or shortcomings, changing the lens allows us to look at these things from a fresh perspective.
Consider the last time you messed up. Notice your thoughts and feelings surrounding that mess up. Chances are your instinct was to cringe or talk down on yourself, which is precisely the issue. The goal is to change this gut reaction into one of greater compassion. Next time you make a mistake, embarrass yourself, or lose your temper, try to take a step back. Consider how you would react if a loved one was telling you this had happened to them. Chances are you'd be a lot more forgiving. You'd probably try to tell them it's not that big a deal, really, and they shouldn't be so hard on themselves.
Now, imagine extending this same benefit of the doubt onto yourself. Imagine being you, just without the judgement or self-loathing. Imagine how much lighter you'd feel. Imagine how much more brain power you'd have to put towards something of value. Imagine how much better life could be if you just cut yourself some slack every once in a while.
Self-care is a process like any habit you're looking to establish or skill you're hoping to build. It is something that must be practiced regularly (as in, daily) in order to get real results. Think of it like when you were a kid grumbling about brushing your teeth or taking a bath; it only seems like a pain until you understand how necessary it is.
At the end of the day, these steps are only going to work if you make them. You've got to stick to your guns and make an active choice, every single day, to prioritize yourself. If you want to improve your life and the way you feel, then mental health is not something you can keep putting on the back burner.
The sooner you learn to make this a conscious, consistent practice, the sooner your life will get better than you can probably imagine right now.