These days most people know that healthy eating, regular physical exercise, and getting a good night’s sleep are important in helping them stay both physically and mentally fit. But, did you know that you can even do better than that? With the following six tips you can improve your mental health and resilience.
Worry and rumination are two types of so-called repetitive negative thinking. Worry is related to anxiety about the future. A person may feel very anxious that something terrible ‘could’ happen in the future, even though there is no real threat or danger present at the moment. Rumination, on the other hand, is a form of repetitive negative thinking that is focused on the past, whereby we endlessly ‘chew over’ things from our past, in an attempt to find some kind of resolution that usually never comes.
So, when you notice that your thinking is going in the direction of either worry or rumination, say ‘stop’ straight away. Then, bring your attention back to the present moment by using your senses to focus on what you see, hear, taste, or smell, here and now. You can use this simple ‘mindfulness’ technique in whatever situation you may find yourself. And, if you do so, you will soon discover that you are less inclined to engage in worry or rumination.
We humans have brains that are hard-wired to focus on danger and threat, as well as on all the things that aren’t going well for us in our daily lives. Of course, this habit has helped us to survive as a species. So, in that sense, emotions such as anxiety and stress do serve a useful purpose, at least up to a point.
However, for good mental health, we need to counterbalance this tendency to be ‘on the alert’, and one way of doing that is by cultivating our positive emotions. You can do so by taking time, every day, to reflect on the those things in your life that you value and that are going (reasonably) well. That way, you develop an important, helpful habit, namely of ‘automatically’ seeing, not only the negative, but also the positive things in our lives. That habit has a positive effect on our mental health and resilience
Life can throw unwanted, painful experiences at us, such as: the breakup of a romantic relationship, sudden or chronic illness, or financial worries, to name just a few. Experiences such as these, which common to us all, can cause painful thoughts and feelings. We may try to cope with our difficult thoughts by ruminating about what has already happened to us, or by worrying about what might happen to us in the future (see above). And, we may try to cope with our painful feelings by trying to ignore them, or by trying to push them out of our awareness. However, coping strategies like these bring, at best, only short-term relief. In the long-term, they don’t solve anything, but keep you stuck in your emotional pain.
Acceptance is a more helpful approach to coping with our emotional pain. This involves the willingness to accept whatever difficult thoughts and unwanted feelings we are experiencing right now. How? Well, by letting them ‘be’ there, allowing them to come and go without struggling with them. This approach enables us to focus on the things that really matter to us, in the presence of our emotional pain.
Suppose you wanted to stop smoking. You sign up for a ‘quit smoking’ programme, determined to kick this harmful habit. But, after a while, you start to run out of steam. You find that stopping is more difficult than you thought. You start blaming the cigarette manufacturers for putting addictive substances in the cigarettes. Or, suppose you’re having difficulty finding a new job, and, after several unsuccessful job-interviews, you blame this on the fact that employers just fail to recognize how well-qualified you are. The tendency to attribute our successes to ourselves, and our failures to others, or to external circumstances, is human, but not helpful.
Building up our mental health and resilience always involves changing certain unhelpful behaviours. And, one of the most important conditions for behaviour change is that we discard the role of the victim and take responsibility for our own change process..
Neuroscientists tell us that the capacity of our brain to process negative information has its limits. This means that, If we continuously read a lot of bad news, such as about the pandemic, about military conflicts, terrorist attacks, organized crime, or sexual offenses, this can have the effect of making us feel anxious, insecure and sad. It can also make us lose hope of a better future, and can corrode our mental resilience.
Are you someone who feels it’s vital that you keep an eye on what is happening in the world, by frequently scrolling through news sites and social media? If so, make a decision to kick this so-called ‘doom scrolling’ habit. Instead, try setting aside a limited number of moments during the course of the day for informing yourself about what’s going on in the world. And, in addition, look out for positive, encouraging news as well, because good and heart- warming things happen too! That’s not only good for you, but also for people around you, with whom you can share the good news!
You can of course get yourself worked up about all sorts of situations and circumstances that you find frustrating, such as: Covid-19 restrictions, the lack of affordable housing, a job that you’re not happy in, and so on. But, does your frustration really change anything? Can you influence, or change, these situations or circumstances? No, unfortunately not. But, meanwhile, you feel more and more powerless, or angry. It may be something of a cliché, but nonetheless true: when we pay a lot of attention to something (in this case, something negative), it’s grows!
So, choose consciously and wisely what things are worth investing your emotional energy in. Ask yourself: ‘can I influence, or change, this situation’? if so, consider what steps you can take to do so. Is the answer ‘no’? Then, focus your attention on doing something that you value doing, something that helps you move in the direction of the kind of life you want for yourself. And remember: that doesn’t have to be something grandiose, or awe-inspiring. On the contrary: it’s very often the small steps, the small but decisive shifts in direction, that move us forward. Practicing this new habit is a great way of building up your mental resilience!