This week I am continuing to share the toolkit I use to help me during the times that my mind wobbles, either to avoid the wobble entirely or to help pull myself out of a downward spiral when said wobble is unavoidable.
Now, just to reiterate, I am not a doctor, a psychologist, or a therapist/counsellor. I am just an ordinary bloke who struggles at times, and I have for a long time. Everything that I talk about in this post and the previous one are things that I have found work for ME. They may not work for you, so don’t expect a cure all, but they are generally free and without much in the way of risk. But if you are struggling, nothing beats seeking out professional help.
On with the tools…
‘This Too Shall Pass‘
So said Abraham Lincoln, long term sufferer of anxiety and depression. Many spiritual traditions and philosophical practices recognise the dualistic nature of life. You can’t have silence without noise, darkness without light, nor joy without suffering. We need the opposite for it’s counterpart to exist.
At first this might sound like a shit deal, but hear me out. It’s like a pendulum, it can only swing so far one way before it must swing back.
Now this means that the sense of ‘happiness’ we are seeking is only transient, and at some point our pendulum will swing to the opposite side. By accepting this knowledge, we can truly be present in the happy moment and not take it for granted. It also means that we are more prepared for when the wheels inevitably fall off.
But above all, it reminds us that in our darkest moments, this too shall pass.
All of the techniques I use help me to stay closer to the centre of the pendulum’s swing. Closer to a point of balanced stillness.
Some of the greatest works of literature have come from the act of journaling. Marcus Aurelius, Anne Frank, Samual Pepys, Adrian Mole. The list of great diarists is a long one.
I first became interested in keeping a journal after reading The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole – Aged 13 3/4.
Nigel says that Sharon Botts will show everything for 50p and a pound of grapes.Adrian Mole
My mind was blown. Not just about Sharon Botts, but about the power of journaling. Fast forward over 3 decades, and I have probably accrued at least 2 bookshelves worth of journals. Sadly all of them are empty save for a few enthusiastic, early entries.
In fact it wasn’t until last year that I finally cracked the art of daily journaling. The trick was to make it totally non-negotiable yet with totally low expectations. It has become a vital part of my morning routine/ritual, which you can read about here.
Basically I get up, meditate, move my body, make coffee, then write in my journal. Everyday (pretty much).
I have an A4 journal that I commit to writing at least one whole page of. What I write is not that important. At least not before I put pen to paper. Some days I feel I have nothing to say, so I just write. Anything. It doesn’t matter. Sometimes, on these days of having nothing to say, I write page upon page of some of the most insightful stuff I didn’t even know was in my noggin’.
I don’t write for anyone else, a real curse of the social media/reality tv age. I don’t give a shit about handwriting, spelling or even coherence. I just write.
It’s been huge for me. I never thought that something like this would play such a massive role in my mental well being.
It helps me start my day with a clean slate. It helps me formulate ideas and notions that I didn’t even realise were forming in my head. Writing things down helps me put things into perspective. And the simple act of writing by hand is an act of mindfulness in itself, one that keeps my mind focused on the task at hand.
I have yet to re-read any of my journal entries. Maybe I never will. Some people destroy theirs the moment they have finished them. One thing that has been mentioned that may be of benefit is, that when reviewing journals from previous years, many of those things that seemed life or death at the time are of little or no importance now. Another great way to gain perspective.
Noticing Thoughts and Killing Ants
One technique from mindfulness that I find useful is the act of noticing thoughts.
Thoughts are flying through our minds continually throughout the day, yet we rarely stop to observe them. This leads to us believing that we are our thoughts. We are not, they merely occur within us. When you actually stop to pay attention to your thoughts you realise that the self talk and endless mental ramblings are often total nonsense; some, fanciful wanderings and wishes, others, downright nasty projections of ourselves.
It’s these automatic negative thoughts, or ANTs that we need to be especially mindful of.
When we start to observe our thoughts we understand that our thoughts are not us. If they were us then who the hell is doing the observing? The more we practice this skill, the easier and quicker we get at it.
Once we become able to notice our thoughts we can label them to understand what kind of thoughts we are having. This could be as simple as labelling a thought as ‘unhelpful’ and letting it pass through to bring us back to a mindful present.
Dr Daniel Amen, MD, takes the notion of Automatic Negative Thoughts a step further allowing us to categorise them into 9 distinct labels.
- Black and white thinking – ‘Always’, ‘never’, ‘every’ type of thinking. A lack of nuance.
- Focusing on the negative.
- Fortune-telling – Playing out future scenarios that you ‘know’ will happen. YOU DON’T. You are not psychic. Unless of course, you are Mystic Meg.
- Mind reading – Again, you are not psychic. Don’t try to assume you know what someone is thinking or why they did something unless you have all the data. You don’t know what struggles that person is going through themselves.
- Thinking with your emotions – Letting I ‘feel’ stupid transform into I ‘am’ stupid.
- Being ruled by ‘shoulds’ – Beating yourself up because you ‘should’ have done something.
- Labelling yourself – giving yourself labels like stupid, lazy, fat, etc.
- Taking things personally – People are not thinking about you as much as you think they are. It’s probably nothing to do with ‘you’.
- Blame – Stop blaming others. Take responsibility for yourself.
Now for me the top ANTs in my life are fortune-telling and focusing on the negative.
My mind will create these amazingly intricate, worst-case scenarios in my mind that will elicit an emotional response as if the scenario had actually happened. Whilst this is a great technique to meditate upon potential scenarios (the Stoics called this ‘premeditatio malorum’, pre-meditation of evils), it doesn’t serve the same purpose when they occur unbidden or uncontrolled. Thankfully, through mindful noticing, I am able to nip them in the bud pretty quick now, by simply saying to myself “Stop that old boy! This hasn’t actually happened.”
With regards to focusing on negatives, the following tool has been great.
This is another great technique of the Stoics (and many other traditions). This simple method involves changing your perspective on a situation.
Simple on paper, not so easy in practice.
So we start with small negatives, not the life changing events that threaten a perceived total oblivion.
Let’s start with being stuck in traffic when you have somewhere important to be. Annoying for sure, but not usually life changing.
The reframing I like to use is switching from “why is this happening to me?” to “why is this happening FOR me?”.
What possible positives might there be for me to be stuck in traffic? Well, it’s a great lesson in non-attachment. If I can’t get to where I want to be by a certain time, there is no point bemoaning it. Moaning doesn’t make traffic go faster.
This extra time sat still in traffic is extra time to focus on my breath, to be more mindful.
Maybe I can put the phone on hands free and give my mum a call.
Maybe I can just enjoy having the space to notice the landscape that I am so often just whizzing past.
Finding the positives or the lessons in every situation has really helped me to stop seeing problems everywhere, and viewing them more as simply situations, even opportunities.
I have extended this practice to include voluntary hardship (another Stoic practice) that I talk about here.
Will this help when the shit hits the fan? Well it has so far for some pretty dark stuff. Time will tell.
When anxiety or depression are in full flow we can often feel like this is the totality of life, that this is how we are going to feel forever. By remembering that ‘this too shall pass’ and being able to recognise the pattern of automatic negative thoughts, we can see that this is not going to be the case. But because we are hard wired to spot negatives, an evolutionary trick that helped keep us alive, it can still feel like an all too pervading state.
By tracking my mood I get an actual evidence-based depiction of what is actually going on with regards to my daily mental state, devoid of the emotional interpretation of my current state.
Tracking your mood is simple. Pick a number of general categories to best describe typical states and record them. This can be done on paper, perhaps in your journal, or via a purpose built app.
I use the app Daylio mood tracker. I’ve have recorded my daily mood, along with a number of activities that I have pre-selected, and any notes relevant to the day for over two years now, without fail. This is simple as you set a time for the app to prompt you and it then takes seconds to record.
What this does is show me that generally my mood is good, there are a some ‘meh’ days, but relatively few really bad days. It also allows me to correlate my mood to my activities to see if any patterns emerge. The note section has also allowed me to see patterns in other ways, such as the link between my gut health and my mental health.
So these are just some of the tools I utilise to help keep me mentally healthy, there are of course many more. If any of them work for you, then that is fantastic. But if they don’t then please remember these are just a small selection of techniques and practices available to you.
Above all, don’t suffer in silence. Reach out and talk to someone. There is always someone ready to listen.
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