This week I will continue discussing five more simple and practical mental self-care techniques to keep your brain healthy and reduce anxiety. This is part 2; last week we did part 1 (if you missed last week, you can read the blog and listen to the podcast to catch up).
6. Use the window technique:
One of the mental tools I developed in my private practice is the “window technique”, which is a mental exercise/thought experiment that will help you regulate your thinking. Essentially, you envisage a huge building with lots of windows. You then walk up to one of the windows that are sealed off—don't climb in. Just look inside. There you will see your issue. You are safe, because the safe space is outside the window—you have separated yourself from all the emotions and feelings associated with the issue. You mustn’t climb in the window. You are just aware of looking at the situation as though it was sealed behind a window—you are observing your experience and your thinking, feeling and choosing associated with the issue. Doing this makes your problem seem smaller and more manageable without ignoring the issue, and removes yourself from the emotions associated with the issue you are facing, which often make it hard to think clearly—they no longer consume you.
Say, for example, you are having a panic attack and you have a major presentation due. In your mind’s eye, take your fears and concerns and place them in that building, and imagine yourself looking at them through one of the windows. You are safe and separated from the issue. Talk and look at the issue in the third person—almost as if you are talking to someone else about the issue and advising them. You objectify the issue, which helps calm down the toxic stress reaction you are experiencing, and simply analyze it as an observer. You essentially distance yourself from the issue, which helps you define its parameters and come up with a way to move forward.
It is important to remember that part of improving your mental health is learning to harness your ability to stand outside of yourself and observe your own thinking in a safe and productive way (which I also talked about briefly in last week’s blog). Essentially, this means that you think in a very deliberate and specific way about what you are thinking, feeling, choosing, saying and doing at any one moment. You are reasoning the situation out as if it was happening to someone else, or objectifying the issue you are facing. So, you literally are standing outside of yourself and observing your own thinking, feeling and choosing. When you do this the front part of your brain becomes very active—your brain is responding to your ability to control your thinking. You are rewiring your brain in a positive direction, building your mental resilience and boosting your brain health!
You become better at doing this the more you practice using it—like anything in life! The more you become aware of it, the better you will become at using it. This will help you become better at controlling chaotic and toxic thought lives, and to help you control things like depression, anxiety and so on.
7. Learn to see multiple possibilities:
In my book Think, Learn, Succeed, I talk about how important it is to learn from our failures, and see that when one door closes, another one can open—we all need to have a “possibility mindset”. Only seeing option A or B is myopic, and can cause us to miss out on other great opportunities. This mental inflexibility, in turn, can cause mental distress and anxiety, especially when things don’t go our way, so it is very important that we practiceseeing multiple possibilities in any given situation.
Indeed, we need to recognize that changing or adjusting a goal can be a learning experience that opens the road to success, not a failure. If we are intentional about learning every time we fail, we can begin to appreciate the journey (with all its bumps!) and the destination. When faced with what you think is only 2 options, we should get into a habit of asking ourselves “how can I make a third or fourth or fifth option possible?”. Don’t just “think outside of the box”—recognize that there was never a box to begin with! Never be afraid to experiment and explore.
Thomas Edison, for instance, tried about a thousand times before he succeeded in inventing the light bulb. When asked about his “failures,” Edison declared that, “I have gotten lots of results! I know several thousand things that won’t work!” He reconceptualized(reimagined) his failures as successes, because they helped him recognize multiple possibilities in his situation and gain worthwhile knowledge on what didn’t work.
When we see things as a “failure”, we can block ourselves from moving forward, which can upset our mental wellbeing because our brain gets stuck. However, when we learn to think that there is more than just plan A or plan B, we tap into the optimism bias of the brain, helping us get up when we fail because we learn to see all the potential opportunities in any given situation, and we don't get thrown when our plan doesn't go, well, as planned. We begin to recognize that all “failures” are knowledge gained—all goals are essentially hypotheses that we make. Being prepared to change them in this way, especially when our circumstances change, helps develop mental flexibility, resilience, creativity and imagination, which gives us hope because we just keep on trying till we achieve our goals!
8. Spend at least an hour reading or learning every day:
When it comes to mental health, few people focus on the importance of learning for developing mental resilience and improving cognitive health. In my book Think, Learn, Succeed, I talk about how to build your brain correctly so as to improve memory and mental health by stimulating neurogenesis, which is the building of new neurons in the brain—we should be infinite learners. The more you learn, the better your brain gets; the whole nature of the brain is based on adding new neural networks through deep thinking (this is called neuroplasticity). Every day, new neurons are born in the brain (this is called neurogenesis) and are ready to be designed into new neural networks.
The more we think, the more we learn, the more neural networks e build, the healthier our brains get. In fact, when we build our brains in the correct way, we increase our intellectual capacity, cognitive clarity and mental flexibility, which improves our physical and mental health, wisdom and our memory. When we do not build memory correctly, on the other hand, we build toxic structures into our brains, which can lead to feelings of anxiety, intrusive thoughts and even psychotic breaks. We need to be “infinite learners”!
So, how can you exercise your mental muscles? Spend at least an hour every day on something that challenges your mind, whether it is reading a book, learning a language, or studying something that interests you. The more you build your brain, the more confident, and less anxious, you will be when faced with a challenge! This will also help you become more creative, imaginative and open-minded to new possibilities, all of which can further boost your mental wellbeing. I spend at least 3 hours a day really thinking deeply about what I am reading and learning, making notes and linking information (just scanning stuff over doesn’t count!).
It is important to plan ahead and choose something that will help you expand your knowledge base and develop mental resilience on a daily basis, so set aside a few hours every morning, evening or afternoon to read something, listen to a new podcast series, or learn a new sport or skill—whatever interests you.
9. Don’t live into labels:
We live in a society that is constantly trying to confine people to a box, a neat category that can be described and put in place. Attempting to funnel the highly complex individuality and changeability of human experience into static categories and labels is reductionism at its worst, and can be incredibly dehumanizing.
So, stop calling yourself something. You are not an “anxious person”, “depressed” or “oversensitive”—these merely reflect how you are feeling at one moment or something that is going on in your life. It is much more helpful to be descriptive about how you feel at that particular point of time. For example, say something along the lines of “I am feeling depressed because so and so…”. Think about the context of your feelings; describe how you feel.
Labels are never just labels. By accepting a label, you merge with it as you think about it, which distorts the truth of who you are. Labels can lock you in, and if don’t know who you are at your core, you don’t have that inner stability to keep you calm and grounded when life gets tough. It is also hard to take responsibility for our lives when we label our issues. Indeed, you can lose hope and your sense of purpose; you can even lose the will to live. I saw this in many of my patients—one of the first things I did when someone walked into my private practice was help them understand their identity in order to give them purpose in a world that was making them feel like they did not measure up. Their loss of hope had developed into toxic mindsets and mental distress, which often resulted in failure because they believed they were failures. When they learnt how to believe in themselves again, they were able to achieve success in every area of their lives.
It is far better to embrace the valleys and peaks of life, and remember that states like depression and anxiety are signals, not identities. Think about your feelings and ask yourself why. Rather than letting a state of mind make something permanent, reframe (reconceptualize) these labels as transitory and manageable, as I spoke about in last week’s podcast. And remember, there is nothing to be ashamed of! We all make mistakes at times, and we all struggle. This is part of being human!
In my book the Perfect You, I have included the cutting-edge, evidence-based neuroscientific, neuropsychological, quantum physics and other research, which I used in my clinical practice over the years to teach people how to fight labels and find their core identity. I outline, in a practical way, the importance of understanding your identity and how to develop a lifestyle of finding and developing your Perfect You. I meld together spiritual, psychological, and physiological research to help you choose to live a life of love and purpose. The Perfect You will help you understand the science behind your character, that is your capacity to think, feel and choose in a way that aligns with the unique design of your brain. Once you begin to understand who you are, you can improve the way you process and reconceptualize the issues of life, your decision-making, your relationships, how you cope at work, school and at home, your sense of joy and purpose, and ultimately your mental health, which will enable you to function in and contribute to society. There is after all something that you can do that no-one else can. You have something great to give to the world!
10. Practice mental autopsy:
A mental autopsy requires that you look back (like a regular autopsy) at your experiences, analyze them, and examine why something went the way it did and how you can improve, whether this is some kind of trauma, a fight, something at work, etc. Mental autopsy happens after a mistake or experience, in order to see what went wrong or right. This is different to self-regulation, which is an ongoing process that helps you control your thinking.
The key to a good “mental autopsy” is understanding. When you start to understand your experiences, you can reconceptualize them (or redesign them, as we spoke about in last week’s blog) and learn from them, which helps you stop overthinking (for more on this see my blog on overthinking) and making the same mistakes over and over again (as I spoke about in a recent blog and podcast). A mental autopsy essentially helps you move forward and learn from the past.
So, how do you do this? When the experience has finished (say an argument or mistake), start asking, answering and discussing with yourself why it happened, how do it happen, what were the triggers and so on, which will help you gain insight into the issue and see how it can be avoided in the future, or how you can improve the way you react the next time something similar happens.
My new app Switch, which is available for pre-order, is a great tool for helping you through this process. It is based on my 5-step program, which is designed to help you identify and eliminate the root of your toxic stress, and help you build a healthy new thinking habit. You can also find out more on toxic thinking and how to change negative habits like overthinking in my book Switch On Your Brain.
You can also listen to this week’s podcast for more information on these techniques for better mental health.
If you are interested in going into more depth on these topics and learning more about how you can improve your mental health join me at my Mental Health Solutions Summit this December in Dallas, TX! This conference is for everyone: teachers, CEOs, students, parents, doctors, life coaches...everyone! For more information and to register click here.