“Mental hygiene” is an old-fashioned term that I like because it refers to the things that are in our control to keep ourselves healthy and well. It’s our daily mental maintenance. And, one of the areas in which we need to do ongoing mental maintenance involves keeping a positive mood.
“Like a fly on an elephant’s back” is a phrase I like to use to help reframe situations when there’s a stressful issue or problem. The stressor is like the fly and we’re like the elephant. The stressor is small. We’re so much larger and more powerful. A fly and elephant frame puts the issue into a better perspective for us.
This mental exercise is something you can use in an ongoing way. For example, you might say it when you get held up in traffic, or have a family issue, or when something gets broken. It helps you to remember that the issue or setback isn’t the most important thing. It helps you to quickly put things into perspective that makes it easier to move on.
When we practice this for a while, it becomes second nature. We can go around feeling a little bigger and a little more powerful. In psychological terms, this is an example of “framing” — how we think about an issue and what mental context we put on it. Mental frames happen spontaneously. Reframing is a way to adjust the way we see an issue in a way that is more helpful to us and puts the situation in a different light.
Reframing is good mental hygiene that we can use on a general basis. Imagine if you had an inch-long stain on a piece of fabric that was six inches long. The stain would be quite noticeable. It would be a big blot on the fabric. But if the fabric was 12 inches long, the stain would appear smaller. It would still be noticeable, but less so. If the fabric was a yard long, the stain would start to recede. You might not even notice it at first. If the fabric was a 100 yards long, you would have to work hard to even find the stain. If the fabric was a mile long, a one inch stain would be irrelevant. When we think about issues in our lives, most of the time they’re like a one inch stain on a mile-long piece of fabric. In the big picture, they’re just not a big deal.
For example, imagine this day last year. What you were worrying about on that day. What was important or stressful to you? You might have difficulty even remembering what you were doing on this day last year! What might have loomed large that day is quite likely to be irrelevant to you now.
Obviously, there are certain days you do remember, when major accidents or losses occurred. Certain days are burned into our memory. Most people are quickly able to recall where they were on the day of the 9/11 bombings, for example. But, most of the time, a lot of the daily hassles that we concern ourselves with are going to be forgotten. They really are like a fly, or even a flea, on an elephant’s back.
These types of thought experiments illustrate the power of our minds, and how the way we think and the way we frame things affects our mood.
One of the books I use with clients is Hardwiring Happiness by Rick Hanson, PhD. Hanson talks about mental hygiene from the perspective of the brain and neuropsychology. He talks about our minds being like “teflon” for good things and “velcro” for bad things. We are more likely to register threats. Positive events tend to slide off of us or be taken for granted. When you ask people what is going well, they consciously have to work on thinking about the good things to share, yet they can quickly tell you about the bad things. In some ways, this is how humans have evolved. The ability to quickly register threats is a survival mechanism, and that’s kept us alive for millennia. But, we do have to counteract this tendency by consciously “taking in the good,” as Hanson says, and enriching and absorbing these experiences. Otherwise, we they don’t get stored in our memories.
(You might also use a computer metaphor here: The good things you “save” in your memory stay with you and are there for you the next time you power up your system. The good you did not save is lost.)
A positive mantra Hanson uses is “Let be. Let go. Let in.” Be aware and take a mindful perspective in life. That’s “letting be,” as in, let the situation be as it is. “Letting go” is about detaching from things we don’t want to carry with us, because they aren’t that important and we shouldn’t let them get in our way. That’s like the fly on the elephant’s back. “Letting in” is consciously taking in the good.
One way that I work with letting in with clients is by encouraging them to have a gratitude practice, which is a really good way of letting the good in. It simply means making a list of what you’re thankful for at any given moment. It’s a useful thing to do in the morning when you wake up or at night when you go to bed. Thinking of all the myriad things you could be thankful for—that you’re alive, there’s a new day, and you have good health or a family or a job. Or, it’s sunny weather and you can hear the birds sing. Even in the midst of any crisis, there are many things you still can be thankful for.
A gratitude practice isn’t just a well-meaning idea. It really works. Cultivating gratitude activates different parts of our brain. If we are worried about some future threat and stop and think about what we’re thankful for, it engages our creative prefrontal cortex and disengages us from being so being focused so heavily in the fear and threat centers of our brain. It’s a physical activity that’s like physical exercise.
A gratitude practice can be used to counteract a tendency to depression. As Hanson would say, we “use our mind to change our brain,” in the sense that we use our thought patterns and mental messages to actually change our neurons in our brain. As we’re thinking, our neurons are firing. There’s a concept that neurons that fire together wire together. When we think certain ways, we activate our neurons and strengthen these connections. We can use our minds to change our brains. It even goes into a level of ourselves and our physical bodies, because when we change our minds and change our brains, we affect how our bodies work and how our genes express. We really have a lot of plasticity in ourselves in terms of cultivating health and wellness.
Of course, people do fire and wire their neurons a lot, but they often do a negative version. They focus on their worries or shortcomings or potential threats, and so they’re firing those neurons and wiring them together. These thought patterns become a habit, and it’s no wonder people start to become unsatisfied with their lives.
In my experience, we can notice some relief immediately from doing a gratitude list of ten or 20 things we’re thankful for. Doing this over time will help to cultivate a more enduring gratitude mindset. We can feel it in our bodies—we feel more resilient and more able to focus on the upside of things.
I tell my clients this needs to be an ongoing practice; it’s not something we can just pull out when we’re feeling down in the dumps. It can be helpful at those times, but the idea is to be proactive and continually cultivate this tendency. We don’t brush our teeth just occasionally, when we think of it. We do this every day. So too for mental hygiene practices. These need to happen every day. The world is throwing a lot of stuff at us all the time, every day. We experience a lot of stress and so we need to be throwing it right back by really engaging in how we think about things.
Another book that I find helpful in this regard is The Upward Spiral by Alex Korb, PhD, which also brings together thinking about the brain and examples of mental hygiene practices. A technique inspired by Korb’s writing is to identify a future situation that you’re worried about and imagine that situation might go well. Not that it will go well or it won’t go well. That’s too absolute. But just that it might be good. Thinking that something might be good, such as having a good night tonight or a good day tomorrow, activates a part of our brain that tends to be dormant when we are depressed. It improves our mood. And in most situations, there’s no reason to rule out this possibility because things really might go well.
One way to take ourselves through this thought process is to imagine we have a compass to guide ourselves. A compass needle pointing all the way to our left would indicate things are going to be terrible. A compass needle pointing all the way to the right that would be imagining things are going to be great. Well, it’s unrealistic to think in any situation that everything is going to be bad. In fact, if we think that way it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, because we’ll look for the bad things and won’t perform well. But it’s also unrealistic to think that everything is going to go really well, particularly when we’re doing something challenging or new. That could be a naïve set up. We could imagine that things are going to be neutral—the needle pointing straight ahead—but neutral expectations don’t really give us much benefit. It’s best to set our compass to the right of center and think that things might go well. Taking this course, gives us the benefit of being open to positive developments. It can create a helpful self-fulfilling prophecy. If we’re going to set our compass on a general course for most of the days of our lives, then that things might go well would be the course to set, because that allows us to be open to good things.
I do understand that these are tough times for people. There are a lot of things going on in the world that are upsetting, and the ideas I’ve shared aren’t meant to be magical thinking or mysticism. These are ways to practice good mental hygiene and bring our best selves to the day — SO THAT WE CAN BE A POSITIVE FORCE IN THE WORLD. These are ways to keep our windshield clean as we are driving down the road of life. It won’t change the outside world, and there will still be threats out there. But if our windshield is clean, then we’re thinking and seeing more clearly. We can have a sharper view of the threats and pay attention to the good things.
What kinds of mental hygiene and wellbeing practices do you use? Could you benefit from learning more about techniques for maintaining a positive mood? Please let me know how I can help.
— Dr. Thomas Doherty, Psy.D.
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