4 Steps to Tackling Mental Health Distress
Shifting your thoughts can be a game changer.
Posted May 26, 2020
“We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think. When the mind is pure, joy follows like a shadow that never leaves.” —Buddha
Let me start with the obvious: The current state of the world is pretty awful.
Even as we “reopen” our communities, uncertainty about what lies ahead looms large. The future of everything feels like a guessing game at best.
In this midst of fear, upheaval, and isolation, we are at the precipice of a mental health crisis – one that far exceeds the current bandwidth of underfunded, fractured, and in many cases around the world, non-existent mental health systems.
So, what can we do at home to tackle our growing psychological distress?
Check our thoughts.
We feel what we feel because of what we think.
We each have two or three thousand thoughts per hour. That’s a lot. And since the start of this pandemic, we have experienced a bombardment of negative, if not catastrophic, thoughts.
In and of themselves, negative thoughts do not pose a threat. They are common, and we all have them now and again. However, when they are intense and unrelenting, they can lead to serious and debilitating mood states such as anxiety, fear, panic, depression, anger, and even hopelessness. This, in turn, will further reinforce and exacerbate negative thinking and trigger a vicious, self-perpetuating cycle.
The goal, then, is to check our thoughts and monitor them before they become a big problem.
How to stop the vicious cycle of negative thinking and feeling:
Identify Your Thoughts
Start with an everyday negative event. What happened? What thoughts did you have during and after the event? Jot down all that comes to mind.
To illustrate, let’s consider the following example: You’re angry because someone left a big mess in the kitchen. What is your inner narrator saying?
“Who did this?” “You guys are so inconsiderate!” “Is it too much to ask to pick up after yourself?” “Do I have to do everything around here?!”
Challenge Your Thoughts
We are often unaware of our own thoughts. We analyze and even interrogate other people’s thoughts, but rarely our own. And yet if we take the time to get curious about the stories we are telling and why it can do wonders for our well-being.
So, challenge your initial thoughts. Do they make sense? Are they logical or even accurate? Do they help you reach your goal?
“You guys are so inconsiderate!”
Were they trying to be inconsiderate? Are they usually inconsiderate? If not, why did they leave such a mess? Might there be another explanation?
“Is it too much to ask to pick up after yourself?”
No not at all, especially if this is a family/house rule. So why didn’t they clean up after themselves? Was it to protest this rule? If not, then what? If it’s your teenage son who left the mess, maybe it’s because his 14-year-old brain once again got sidetracked by the endless alerts from his phone. Annoying? Yes. Inherently inconsiderate? No. If it’s your partner/housemate, maybe they’re having a particularly busy work week, and even though they intended to clean up, their worry about a deadline outweighed other priorities.
“Do I have to do everything around here?!”
Certainly not. But your derision and cynicism aren’t exactly inspiring anyone to hurriedly pitch in either. So, what’s your goal here? For everyone to do their share and carry their weight? If so, what can you say to motivate this goal and help everyone, most especially you?
Modify Unhelpful Thoughts
Helpful thoughts are pragmatic, based on logic and evidence, and positively impact your end goal. So, if the goal is to get your family or housemate to regularly clean up after themselves, consider the following adjustment:
“I just noticed that the kitchen is a mess. Not sure who used it and why they didn’t clean it up. Maybe they got distracted or busy with something urgent? In any case, we need to start preparing for dinner. So, whoever used it last, I'd appreciate you cleaning it up in the next few minutes. Thank you.”
If you were to simply think these words to yourself, never mind say them out loud, you would feel differently. Try it.
If you did say all this out loud, you would more likely face a receptive instead of a defensive family member or housemate. And the chain of exchanges that follow would go on to benefit your mood, relationship, and your goal for a clean kitchen.
Practice Helpful Thinking
Just like anything that happens repeatedly, negative thinking can also become a habit. With some practice, however, you can prevent or stop this cycle. To increase success, focus on one thing. Maybe it’s the ongoing tension between you and your teenager or the matter of kitchen cleanliness. Maybe it’s your worries about work or school. Whatever it is, identify how you are thinking about it, challenge the story you are telling, modify any unhelpful thoughts, and practice those that help you feel better and more effective in reaching your goals.
The COVID-19 pandemic has ushered in challenges of epic proportions, some of which we don’t even yet know. In order to face and effectively address these obstacles big and small, one thing is clear. We need to be level headed: to be sensible, proactive, effective, judicious, and hopeful. To this end, we can each do our part and cultivate our best mindsets to help ourselves and the world.