Staying well, both mentally and physically can be a challenge, especially when most of us are facing conflicting priorities and mountainous workloads. It’s modern day life.
Unless your cognitive functions are running effectively, dealing with day to day life can be so much harder. Your brain is after all your operating system and if it’s not firing on all cylinders, nothing is. The issue is, many of us are left scratching our heads as to how to look after ourselves mentally, and for those of us who have responsibility for others too, it’s something we must get our heads around. Before you can even begin to properly figure out how to look after others though, you need to “put your own oxygen mask on” as they say.
There’s no quick fix. The truth is, keeping yourself at your best mentally requires conscious effort, discipline, and a bit of self-care. The good news is that once you’ve discovered a bit more about how your operating system is programmed and if you’re committed to getting mentally fit, it can have life changing effects. It will make you more effective and even more resilient. It’s a life long journey of learning about ourselves. They didn’t teach you this stuff at school. The periodic table seemed more important at the time!
So, what do you need to know to keep yourself mentally well and to help your brain work better?
1. You aren’t perfect so don’t try to be
Most of us feel the need to prove something, either to ourselves or to the people around us. To be something or someone, to maintain standards, to seem smart, to be right, to be strong, to maintain control. Why do we do it? For who’s benefit?
It just seeks to create unnecessary stress when you set arbitrary benchmarks for your own performance. It can lead to you feeling too pressurised, too stressed, too fearful, it can even lead to burnout.
When you allow yourself to accept that you’re not perfect, that you’ll mess things up, that you’re still learning, that things won’t always be easy, and that you won’t always feel strong, you remove a lot of the pressure. You also remove a lot of the fear that drives this thinking in the first place. The fear of what will happen if you fall below your own standards.
So, do yourself a favour and remember the next time you’re beating yourself up for not achieving what you expected to, remind yourself that you’re not superhuman and no one, including yourself, should expect you to be.
2. Stop focusing on everything but the problem
We have a wonderful ability as humans to deflect. To pay attention to everything that is going on around us but the thing we should be dealing with. No matter how much we try to suppress it, those worries, fears, concerns or the big burning issue that we’re not dealing with, can stay lurking in the undergrowth.
As long as we’re focused on the world around us, rather than the world within us, we can ‘stay safe’. The problem is, just because you aren’t consciously aware of something, doesn’t mean it isn’t being processed. Most of what goes on in your head happens in the subconscious which means that if you’re holding on to something, it’s still being processed in the background. That can often lead to your performance and your behaviour being affected, it can even lead to ill health.
Having trouble sleeping? That’s often your subconscious playing through the things that you’ve chosen not to deal with whilst your awake.
So, if you want to really look after your mental health, you need to deal with the issues that you may be trying to suppress. Talk to a loved one, a friend, a trained professional, or write it down. Just getting it down on paper can often help you to make sense of what is going on.
3. You can choose to change your behaviour
Most of what we do every day is automatic, whether we choose to believe it or not. Our brains create efficiency by repeating the same patterns of behaviour day after day. Added to that, we learn to ‘survive’ and try to minimise the discomfort that we feel, by keeping things the same or similar. To some extent it’s because, as humans, we have a need for safety, security and stability.
Very often when I speak to people and companies about making positive change, I hear things like “that’s just the way that I am” or “that’s just the way it is”. What people often fail to realise is that just because it’s been that way, doesn’t mean it has to be that way. Especially when it comes to taking control of our own experience of life and our own behaviour. Once you realise that most of what you do can be reprogrammed (read about neuroplasticity if you want to know more), it opens up a whole new world of possibilities.
What one behaviour could you start changing today that will get you better results? Now start practising.
4. Know what you want
Many of us are dissatisfied with certain aspects of our lives and spend a lot of time and energy trying to avoid what we don’t want. If we were to put the same level of energy in to focusing on what we do want, we’d make far more progress in life.
The thing is, many of us never stand still for long enough to figure out what it is we really do want. I call this establishing your ‘Unicorn Vision’. What would you like to bring in to your life or what destination to you want to reach that would make life a bit more magical? There’s been tons of research done to show that having a clear goal with a few shorter-term objectives will make achieving what you want much more likely. An example of this is planning to run a marathon (your goal) and then running a number of shorter races in the build-up (your objectives) to get yourself ready for the ultimate goal. Once your brain has an idea of where you’re heading, it will influence your day to day behaviour which is likely to move you closer towards your goal.
It also means being honest with yourself about what you really want and sometimes that can be hard, as it means moving away from what you currently have. The great thing is that it doesn’t have to happen overnight (unless you want it to) and so why not spend some time working out what your Unicorn Vision is and then start working towards it.
5. Turn off the noise around you
Whether it’s your phone, the TV, or a sneaky game of Candy Crush, we spend our lives filling our minds with noise and activity and miss so much of what is going on around us. Not only can we end up missing out on the magical moments or opportunities that are standing right in front of us, but filling our heads constantly with noise is no good for our mental health.
You would never spend 16 hours of every day at the gym, working your body non stop, thinking it was good for you. Yet we spend that amount of time every day filling our heads with information and processing it. It’s tiring, and it has all sorts of impacts. It impacts how efficient you are, how clearly you can think, how creative you can be, and longer term, how much your brain develops and grows. It can even lead to burnout.
The recent boom in mindfulness and meditation is no surprise. The human brain wasn’t designed to pay attention and to be alert for hours at a time. Over millions of years of evolution, human life moved at a much slower pace. In our 24/7, digitally connected, fast moving, complex world, the one thing that is being affected more than anything is our brains. There’s only so much they can take and even if you’re at the peak of physical fitness, your mental fitness needs just as much effort.
So, switch off the mobile, the TV, meditate (check out the Headspace app), visualise some images that you find relaxing, do some deep breathing (breath out for longer than you breath in a few times), sit in the park, do nothing, have an afternoon nap, join a mindfulness class. Just allow your brain some down time. It may be challenging to start with but after some practice, you’ll wonder how you ever coped without it.