Is It Time for a Mental Health Makeover?

Gaining mastery over your own mind is key to a healthy and happy life
BY Tatiana Denning TIMEJune 8, 2022 PRINT

“As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.”—Henry David Thoreau

Let’s face it, life isn’t easy.

Although we would like to think we can “do it all” and “have it all”—especially us women—the fact is, it begins to take a toll on us, both mentally and physically.

The pressures of balancing work and family life, along with all that’s going on in the world today, can be a real challenge. Some may find themselves in the situation of having to take care of children while also having to care for their elderly parents. It can be enough to make a person feel overwhelmed and exhausted.

But perhaps the key to holding it all together is more achievable than we think, and perhaps that key lies more within us than outside of us.

If we can focus on what lies within our control, that is, what’s within us, we may find that our mental state improves, our stress level decreases, and as a result, even our health may improve.

Let’s take a look at a few simple things we can do to enhance our mental well-being, so that we’re better equipped to handle what life throws our way.

Reframe Your Situation

Have you ever wondered why you and a friend can both experience the exact same event at the same time and come away with two different memories of what happened?

One reason this phenomenon exists is that we each have our own set of beliefs, ideas, notions, and past experiences that color how we view the world around us. In a sense, we notice what we expect or want to see. The frame we look through can mean the difference between seeing the glass half empty or half full.

Reframing is the process of shifting our view of a situation, of looking at things in a way that breaks away from our preformed notions and beliefs—particularly the negative ones.

This technique allows us to look for the opportunities in the challenges, for possibilities in the problems. It’s not a denial of our difficulties, but rather a realization that contained within anything are elements of both the positive and the negative. It’s what we choose to focus on that counts.

If we can reframe the way we look at the difficult things that happen and look for the positives in them, we can start to retrain our brain. By teaching ourselves to be “intentionally optimistic,” we can shift from a “glass-half-empty” mindset to a “glass-half-full” mindset. And the more we practice it, the easier it becomes.

A positive mindset, according to a 2019 study in the scientific journal PNAS, comes with some significant benefits. For one, people with an optimistic outlook live an average of 11 to 15 percent longer than their negative counterparts. Optimistic people also enjoy a better quality of life, have more energy, recover faster from injury and illness, have lower rates of depression and anxiety, and have better coping skills for dealing with life’s inevitable challenges.

I’m reminded of the movie “Groundhog Day,” in which Phil, the main character, is a “glass half empty” kind of guy. But through trial—and lots of error—Phil has both the worst day of his life, and, ultimately, the best day of his life, all under the exact same set of circumstances. Nothing external changes; the only thing that changes is Phil and how he chooses to respond to his situation.

When we understand that the only thing we have control over is ourselves, we can learn to build a foundation of peace and unshakeable calm. The external world loses its power over us.

So how can we start the practice of reframing in our daily lives? For starters, we can ask ourselves some simple questions:

  • How can I look at the situation in a different way?
  • What do I believe about the situation and what am I assuming?
  • How can I empathize with the other parties involved and view things from their perspective?
  • What can I learn from the situation, and how can I improve myself so I can do better next time?

Asking how leads to more actionable steps, while asking why helps with introspection and understanding.

Let’s say you’re passed over for a promotion, and instead it goes to your coworker. You may feel angry for being treated unfairly, resentful, and if you’re honest with yourself, maybe even a bit jealous. But instead of focusing on what you lost, why not reframe it? Maybe the promotion would have taken more time away from your family, or maybe it would have created more stress and pressure at work. Maybe it’s to teach us patience or how to think of others before ourselves or to reveal one of our shortcomings we may have ignored or overlooked

In this way, we can let go of our hurt feelings and even feel happy for our coworkers.

Another tip is to reframe hardship as a challenge rather than a problem. “Problem” has a heavy, negative feel to it, while “challenge” feels like a call to action, something that energizes and motivates us to give it our all and overcome it.

And remember that nothing—whether we view it as good or bad—lasts forever. Change is one of the few certainties we have in life, as nothing stays the same. If we can bear this in mind, when the inevitable storm appears in life, it will be easier to view it as a temporary setback rather than something more significant.

We should also remember that hardship is what makes us dig deep and learn what we’re made of. Hardship helps us take stock of who we are. It’s how we discover some of life’s greatest lessons and how we experience some of our most significant personal growth.

While reframing takes effort, awareness, and practice, the payoff is tremendous. By turning lemons into lemonade, we can see the value in our hardships and be left with a sense of hope and gratitude.

Mind Your Thoughts

I used to think my thoughts sprang forth from my very core and were a part of the essence of who I was as a person. But as I began to examine my thoughts more closely, I was surprised to discover that wasn’t always the case.

The average person has about 70,000 thoughts per day, according to some researchers. That’s a lot of thoughts to examine. But as I began to focus on them, I discovered that many of my thoughts didn’t align with how I view myself, nor with who I want to be. I was shocked and even a bit dismayed at just how many of my thoughts weren’t what I wanted them to be.

Instead, many of my thoughts had negative roots, such as fear, anger, jealousy, resentment, laziness, competitiveness, and looking down on other people for their shortcomings, to name just a few. When I looked closer, I saw that many of these thoughts came from emotion, rather than rational and kind thinking.

According to psychologists, if we’re not mindful, we may also catastrophize (make things seem worse than they are, common in those with anxiety), polarize (view something as either good or bad, with no in-between), and filter (focus only on the negative part of a situation and ignore the positive).

As Thoreau said, “We must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.”

This requires us to become keenly aware of what we’re thinking, eliminate the thoughts we don’t want, and then replace them with what aligns with who we want to be.

Sometimes these thoughts can seem hard to control, and the mental pressure to agree with negative thoughts may be strong. But like anything, the more we practice, the more natural it becomes and the more successful we’ll be.

So the next time you get upset when someone cuts you off in traffic or you’re worrying about that big assignment at work, ask yourself if these thoughts align with who you want to be. Are they serving you well, or are they interfering with the good parts of your being?

The things that we focus on are the things that we give energy to, and these things become our reality.

With persistent attention and awareness, we can elevate our thoughts and improve our state of mental health.

Connect With Yourself

Just as it’s important to pay attention to what we’re thinking, it’s equally important to know ourselves and what our core values are.

If we don’t know who we are and what we stand for or the kind of person we want to be, we’re like a leaf blowing in the wind—with no direction and no sense of purpose. When we have no moral roots to ground us, we can easily drift along with whatever comes our way. And without knowing what our values are, we lack a reference for evaluating our thoughts. This ultimately creates a sense of anxiety and uncertainty in our lives.

Looking for meaning and purpose is also important to our mental health. Humans need to feel as though there’s a reason for their existence and that they’re making a meaningful contribution to the world around them. Asking why we’re here, how we can improve what’s around us, and how we can help others is important.

While these questions take some deeper reflection, taking a few minutes for quick self check-in also has value. Creating a morning ritual with time for a little quiet and solitude can nourish our soul and help us start off the day on the right foot. With the world filled with so much noise and so many distractions, it can be a challenge to hear what’s going on inside ourselves. A short morning check-in creates a little space for this important self-connection.

Doing something simple, such as checking in with ourselves to ask how we’re feeling and why, setting an intention for the day, or repeating positive affirmations, can help boost our mental well-being.

And as we go through the day, we can regularly check in with ourselves to ask what we’re feeling, both mentally and physically, and if there’s anything we need to improve upon.

Slow Down

Life moves fast. Taking a little time to pause every day can clear our minds and help us feel reinvigorated.

It doesn’t have to be anything monumental—simple things can make a big difference. For instance, getting some fresh air and sunshine by taking a walk in nature, or even around the block, can be a great mood elevator. Spending some time in meditation or prayer or sitting down to journal our thoughts can also bring a sense of calm and peace.

A calming bedtime routine, along with getting a good night’s sleep, will help our minds feel clear and refreshed, while drinking plenty of water and eating fresh fruits and vegetables nourishes and energizes our bodies and minds.

Decluttering what’s around us also helps. If you’re working in a messy office, that physical disorganization can lead to a sense of mental disorganization and bring an unsettled mental feeling. Take a little time to get rid of what’s unnecessary and organize what is.

Finding a creative outlet is another great way to clear your mind and can act as a type of active meditation. Hobbies such as photography, sculpture, gardening, playing an instrument, or knitting are great for creating a serene state of mind.

And don’t forget to take a deep breath and smile. When we’re lighthearted and happy, we naturally smile. But the reverse is also true—when we smile, it helps lighten our minds and elevates our mood.

Finally, make time for human connection, and practice kindness and thinking of others first. Studies have shown that those who have strong personal relationships, as well as those who are kind and giving, aren’t only mentally and physically healthier, but they even live longer.

By doing some small, simple things every day, we can come to know ourselves better, see the opportunities in our difficulties, and create new habits for ourselves that bring us a sense of mental calmness and fortitude.

Remember, as the Taoist sage Lao Tzu once said, “If you correct your mind, the rest of your life will fall into place.”

Tatiana Denning
Tatiana Denning, D.O. is a preventive family medicine physician and owner of Simpura Weight Loss and Wellness. She believes in empowering her patients with the knowledge and skills necessary to maintain and improve their own health through weight management, healthy habits, and disease prevention.
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