Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Fundamentals of Mental Health?

Okay, I know I've been severely bad to you, being so irregular and sparse. I write tons more on my Facebook page, and I think the reason why I tend to hover around there is because I feel more visible before my audience, especially when people hit "like" or comment. As such, oftentimes when I have an idea for a full-length article over here, I end up writing it over there. I won't give up on this blog, however, I just need to keep thinking about my writing habits. Still, if you'd like to see my other, more frequent writing over at Facebook, friend me here. (However, please send me a message stating you found the link here if we don't have mutual friends.)

Now, while my writing may be deplorable here it hasn't been deplorable in other aspects in my life. In fact, I think I may have finally identified the essential habits for me to maintain in order to cultivate and sustain mental health, as per my primary new year's resolution.

The most important thing I've learned is not only do certain practices offer singular values that can't be replicated with any other practice, I've also learned that some practices are most effective when they're practiced in sets, exercised on a regular and concurrent basis. Done in isolation they still offer benefits, but I've noticed that in times when I'll adopt one practice at the sacrifice of another I'll lose the benefits of the practice I dropped, and if I go the other way around I'll then regain the benefit I once gave up and then lose the benefit of the other practice. The answer for mental health, then, is to identify the bare minimum of practices you need to maintain at all times, and then practice them religiously.

For me, that means about three, maybe four practices: Reading, speaking (rubberducking), writing, and sometimes whistling. Practiced altogether I've noticed not only considerable improvement in my character, but also sustained benefits that don't vanish and continual progress.

1.) Reading: I'm a very mind-oriented guy. Contrary to my intellectually idle past, I managed to develop myself to the point that I find myself most satisfied when I'm intellectually stimulated. That means thinking, learning, practicing, or anything else that leads to mental stimulation.

Another one of my new year's resolutions is to make reading my primary source of entertainment, which I think I've easily accomplished. I've always liked reading, I've just had a hard time making it a habit. Now that I'm much more habituated in it, to the point that I'm losing interest in watching videos or the like, I've observed how much more content and relaxed I am as a person. Engaging in a nearly pure physical labor job, I used to be under very intense pressure because I would be very distraught at how mindless it was, as I was harshly craving to work my mind at something. Such pressure really took a bite out of the quality of my life, and left me an overall anxious and unhappy person. The introduction of regular reading has been very soothing, and I found that if I do it before work I'm very satisfied in my shift, like eating a satiating snack before dinner. The reading works to satisfy the "input" realm of my mental desires, in which I desire external stimulation, so if I do enough reading before work I'll then go into "output" mode during my job and be perfectly satisfied at thinking on my own terms, which makes activities such as mopping a room much more pleasant.

The lack of reading in the past has certainly impoverished my spirit. By including it more I'm not only developing my intellect I'm satisfying a very deep need within me, so I try to make it a regular habit to reading 45 minutes before work and all evening afterwards before bed.

2.) Speaking: I refer mainly to the practice of rubberducking, which is when you take an inanimate object and speak to it as if it were actually listening to you. It has a multitude of benefits that deserves an article all on its own to detail them, from polishing your vocabulary from enabling you to express yourself more efficiently.

Because I spent most of my time in Texas living with other people I ceased the rubberducking practices I had established in Michigan, and only by reestablishing them have I realized how much I've suffered without it. It offers a very unique form of comfort that nothing else seems to be able to match. By telling it the problems on my mind it helps clear it of troubles and aids in preventing me from frequently revisiting the thinking pattern. It also helps me increase my speed in introspecting effectively, which has, I think, enabled me to think faster and more efficiently pick out the right words to express myself.

I don't want to spend too much time on its multiple benefits since I'd prefer writing a separate piece for it, so I'll just leave it at the fact that it offers a unique soothing effect that nothing else seems to replicate. Writing, for instance, can be very soothing as well, but it doesn't offer it in the same form as rubberducking does, so even if I've written on the problem I'll often still push myself to rubberduck about it, or even if I've rubberducked about it I'll still write about it in my journal.

The two difficulties I have with it, however, are doing it consistently and maintaining flowing speech. In my private life it's hard to just up and spontaneously decide to rubberduck, as I find it more natural to remain silent, no matter how practiced I am in rubberducking. Secondly, when I do rubberduck I never lose sight of the fact that I am speaking to an inanimate object, so I'm very prone to cutting off my speech, even in mid-sentence, to resume introspecting in my head without noticing that I've stopped talking.

The former problem seems like it's already solved. I recently got a new job (in fine dining, yay!) which will now give me an appreciable commute. I find the best place where I'm most inclined to rubberduck is in the car while driving, so the commute is easily going to drastically boost the amount of time I spend speaking. The other problem, however, may need a self-improvement goal on its own: I'll just need to dedicate myself to maintain awareness of when I suddenly stop talking, and push myself to go on.

3.) Writing: Handwriting, in fact. Typing doesn't seem to render the same psychological benefit. I don't know why it seems to be so, but from my experience it seems that the best and most effective way to change one's emotional nature and very character is to handwrite one's thoughts. In a journal, just about every day, I'll either write a thought record in line with the methodology laid out in Mind Over Mood, or write at length about issues in my life, the thinking behind them, and what I'll do about them, or just plain ramble if I have nothing pressing to say. My primary rule is to try and write at least a full page per day, so that I'll keep a consistent amount in consistent practice, and force myself to ramble if I have nothing to say so that I don't fall out of habit.

It's impressive the speed at which psychological change can occur with this practice. Certain emotional problems, such as rage or deep depression, have been severely dented in a scant few weeks by writing them out. I don't know why handwriting in particular does it so well. It's as if the act of hand-forming one's thoughts on paper is the way to access the deepest parts of your being, allowing you to make deep, effective, and efficient changes.

It's important to have a methodology, however. Before I read Mind Over Mood I did managed an introspection journal, but I didn't really go anywhere in terms of emotional progress since I didn't know where or how to focus my thinking. It was just rambling all the time. After reading that book I learned how to treat which pieces of information as important or not important, and developed a way to write that allows me to just hit the important point, thus speeding up the process and actually making the writing effective. If something important happened emotionally, then I'll do a thought record like the book teaches. If not, then I write freely on whatever's on my mind. If nothing else, then I'll allow myself to ramble just to sustain the habit, and perhaps even fish something out.

4.) Whistling: This is kind of off and on. I don't practice it everyday, but it has been a gigantic help beyond my highest expectations, and is probably one of the most useful methods I've ever stumbled upon. I only taught myself how to whistle so that I could join in on the whistling that my coworkers tend to do, and only by accident discovered what an amazing help it can be.

One of my worst mental issues is compulsively doing obsessive thinking. Often there's been a particular issue or two that I'll invest a lot of thinking into, but I'll invest so much thinking into that it'll develop into a very bad habit, i.e., an obsession. Once I begin thinking about that topic I would be almost helpless in trying to stop, and would go round and round with the same thoughts for hours on end, and I do mean hours. Sometimes I've spent almost entire days dwelling on one particular thought, simply because I simply couldn't get away from it. It's certainly thinking I haven't enjoyed, and which has caused me to waste portions of my life. It's like, out of one's own irrationality, getting badly stuck in traffic on the expressway, where the exits are always blocked off by a car on your side.

Having a job that heavily emphasizes physical labor makes it worse, as in those periods I can't engage myself in a mentally stimulating activity to shift my mind elsewhere, which often leaves me suffering for an entire shift. Miserable.

The key to undoing an obsessive line of thinking, I've realized, is indeed to learn how to mentally shift to another activity when you're engaged in it or about to be engaged in it. Since that type of thinking tends to be at its worst at work, I thought to try out whistling, and it has worked better than I could ever imagine.

Whistling demands attention, but not so much attention that I can't do the task at hand. What's special about this type of attention is that when I whistle it is literally impossible for me to think about anything else, not even if I tried. All I can have on my mind while I whistle is the music I'm trying to whistle, which shoves any negative thought out. And, unlike with my rubberducking, I'm able to sustain a bout of whistle without suddenly stopping and not being aware that I've stopped, so it's easy to keep going and going with it.

It's really kicked my obsessions in the pants, to the point that I would say I'm cured of them. When you're about to engage in an obsessive mode of thinking that's probably when you're most ideally sensitive to positive change, so by making myself whistle whenever the obsessive pattern came up I probably very effectively rewired my brain and mental habits by engaging in it at those times. Above all else, it's enjoyable!

It may not be a fundamental since it isn't a practice I keep up everyday, but it's been ultra-improvement in bringing forth the changes I've wanted.

* * * * *

Your needs may vary and be different, but for me, these seem to be by far the most important practices that I've picked up that have not only created the most positive change, but have also led to sustained change, as opposed to a benefit that comes and goes. Sure, I have done other things that have reaped benefits as well, such as doing deep breathing during times of anger, but these are the most important.

I know I still need to write up that big mental health post on all the important methods and things I've learned in pursuing my health, but for now I'll say that these are the musts for me.  

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