It’s not just grey and squishy: Why the mind matters.

We all have bad days. Maybe something exceptionally terrible happened, or maybe you’re facing a mountain of minuscule frustrations. Maybe it’s something completely different. What you’re facing, however, is irrelevant. I don’t mean this in the sense that your experiences aren’t difficult. What I’m saying is that your perception of the experience is far more important than the experience itself.

We chide people for letting themselves get bogged down by negativity, depression is still often written off, and many of us are told that we just need to “toughen up” or “grow a thicker skin”. And yes, resilience plays a huge part in mental well being but where does it come from? No one teaches us these things – at least I wasn’t taught. For those blessed with role models who embody the ideals of self care and resilience, you were fortunate enough to have the opportunity to engage in a little vicarious learning (learning by observation), but even still. It isn’t enough. Having great role models plays a part in healthy habits, but it isn’t a guarantee that you’ll develop them. In addition,  the strategies that work for the people you look up to won’t necessarily work for you, and you can’t read their thoughts to know just exactly how they make it through crazy work situations (or whatever stressor it may be) and still come out smiling. We develop coping skills during our formative years without ever really knowing why we have them, what they are, and how they will affect us long term. Years of these coping skills turn into habitual practices and that, my friends, is a very hard thing to break.

Growing up, many of us went to school and were taught to brush our teeth so we didn’t get cavities, eat healthy to maintain to reduce the risk of diseases (this was accompanied by lists of recommended guidelines), drink milk for strong bones – the to do list is a long one. But how many of you were told to take care of your brain? How many of you who were, were given instructions on what that might entail? It has baffled my mind that for so long, we’ve held so little interest in the very organ that gives us the ability to make these choices. It seemed as though everything you did was chalked up to “good character” and the type of person you were. Let me tell you, navigating the experience of learning how to maintain decent mental health alone is not a fun one. There’s a lot of trial and error, and for some, it’s hard. Really hard. As for it being “good character”? We all come to the table with different backgrounds, experiences and thresholds. While personality plays into it, let me be the first to tell you that mental health has nothing to do with “good character”. I am ever so thankful that school systems and ministry of education are more and more seeing the importance of the mind beyond it’s ability to remember multiplication tables (which in many of the schools I’ve seen is a thing of the past).

Circling back to our perception being more important than the reality, I want to talk about the nature of our thoughts. We mold children to have good morals, and we speak a fair bit about shaping children. It’s been a part of history for a very long time. What I find curious, is why in all of this, did so many not teach their kids how to handle tough situations. “Strength of character”. “”Survival of the fittest.” “Everyone has a tough life, what makes you special?” “Men don’t cry.” “Protect the image.” Whew. I don’t know if anyone else sees it, but to me some of those ideals seem like a recipe for disaster. We think of the kids with poor mental health as the ones who have tragic or jaded backstories or the ones who just don’t make the cut. Truth be told, I’ve seen many a child who had more going on in their life than a Jerry Springer episode who was a fair bit more well adjusted than his peers, and children with seemingly ideal circumstances cry when the wind changed. Why? The way they perceived the world.

I do a fair bit of work with the Psychology Foundation’s “Kids Have Stress Too” and all of the variations for the different age groups that exist. What I love most about the program and my opportunity to deliver it, is that it doesn’t force feed it’s target audience on how to think, but rather, challenges them to see the effects their thoughts can have on their world. It’s pretty powerful stuff (in my humble opinion). There is no set guidelines on how to be “well adjusted”. The truth of the matter is, it will probably always be a trial and error process for everyone but we shouldn’t have to do it completely alone. Knowing the effects your thoughts can have, learning how to challenge your own thinking, understanding that things like stress and negative self talk are just as harmful to your health as eating a big bag of candy in one sitting. This is the stuff I get excited about, because it’s the stuff I wish I would have known growing up.

I suppose that the blessing and the curse of being the generation that precedes the next. We impart our own wishes on the next generation hoping to make their world better. What I have learned from all of this, is to look down the road. It’s a huge focus that I’m glad has come about. The lack of this, is in part, one of the reasons anything “psychology” related has such a bad rap. What impact will my actions have beyond the immediate, and how will I know? But that’s an entirely different conversation on the importance of using evidenced based models. Psychology hasn’t always been perfect, but the brain is a vital part of pretty much everything as it relates to humanity. It’s important that we keep studying it and learning how to keep it healthy so we can live our best life.

And yes, it has been a “bad day” for me. But I’m going to keep finding the light in the dark, because that is my own trial and error take on resilience. Also, writing helps – it’s a lot easy to reshape thoughts on paper. This is an author’s blog after all.

I hope your Tuesday is going well, and if it isn’t? Mind your mind. Changing your thoughts isn’t easy, but it will make all the difference..

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