When we’re dealing with the symptoms of anxiety, depression and stress, we tend to know what’s going to help us to feel better. There is plenty of information that’s widely available with the conversation surrounding mental health all but exploding in recent years.
In fact, scientists, doctors, experts, researchers, and psychologists have decades worth of knowledge at what works to improve individual mental health, but more and more people are suffering. It’s getting worse. Why?
Science has proven that there are many things we can do to improve our mental fitness: therapy, diet, sleep, exercise, relationships, changing your thought patterns.
The problem is, we don’t take action. We don’t actually do the things that make us feel better. That’s it. It’s nothing revolutionary. If we actually took steps to put this helpful and science-backed knowledge into action, the chances are we’d feel a lot better.
Despite this seemingly simple undertaking, it’s the getting started and sticking with the process that appears to be the main problem. Anyone who’s started a New Year’s resolution with all the best intentions only for the new habit to wane by February will know this feeling well.
There’s actually a scientific basis to ensuring habits stick and that new positive, healthier behaviours last beyond a couple of weeks. This combination of neuroscience and behavioural science makes it possible to rewire your brain so that once you start taking positive action to improve your mental health, your thought patterns will follow suit.
Everything in our brain, our thought processes, our actions, our reactions, all run via a system of neural pathways. These pathways are created and strengthened through repetition and experience. The more you use a particular neural pathway the more automatic that process will inevitably become until it becomes second nature.
For instance, for the majority of us, it’s been repeatedly reinforced that if you touch a hot pan it will hurt. As such, your almost automatic thought and action will be not to touch the pan without oven gloves. That’s something that’s become ingrained so heavily with an emotional outcome that your corresponding neural pathway is automatically triggered. It’s a belief that has been reinforced by evidence and experience – and those are some powerful drivers for behavioural change.
The important thing to note is that from our brain’s point of view, its core purpose is to keep us safe and it does that by keeping us firmly in our comfort zone. As our neural pathways and cognitive processes are created and strengthened by having new and reinforced experiences there seems to be a direct conflict at play.
What happens when we’re feeling anxious, depressed or stressed over and over again is that our brain starts to connect the situations going on around us with these negative thoughts and emotions – whether they’re based in reality or otherwise.
So, it might be that you perceive a danger to be lurking around the corner, and whether you have any logical evidence or otherwise, the imagined potential experience feels very real to your brain. As a consequence, your brain seeks to protect you by preventing you from completing that action or makes you feel the necessary dread to reinforce that this is a bad idea. At this point, you have not looked around the corner or tried to rationalise the fact that most corners are perfectly boring and safe. Your brain has been wired to expect the worst.
By limiting our behaviours in this way we actually remove the possibility for our negative beliefs and thoughts to be disproven. When evidence and experience are the key drivers of belief formation, this therefore rids us of the opportunity to positively alter our neural pathways for future, similar interactions. And so the negative cycle continues to rumble on.
Fundamentally, we don’t try new things that we know will help us to feel better because we don’t want to be disappointed or hurt if they don’t work for us. Realistically and logically we know that until you try you don’t know what will and won’t work for you personally, and it might take a few attempts to find the right solution. However, particularly if you’ve tried a few interventions before that haven’t worked for you, your beliefs and neural pathways surrounding mental health solutions may already be quite strongly negative, thus making you more reluctant and cynical when it comes to trying again.
The thing that’s going to transform those neural pathways and negative beliefs? Taking action.
Now, contrary to popular belief it doesn’t have to be a huge, life changing transformation or transcendental, habitual shift – in fact little changes over time are much more sustainable and as such, much more likely to last long term.
So, what actions are going to help us actually feel better? Essentially the kind of actions we’re looking for is anything you can focus all your brain power on so that you don’t start daydreaming and thinking about hypothetical situations. That’s why exercise, baking, sewing, meditation and reading have all been linked to improved mental health; you have to concentrate on one thing at a time to get the most out of it.
When our mind is occupied and focused we don’t seem to have the bandwidth to worry or catastrophise on hypothetical or past matters. What serves initially as a distraction soon becomes a hobby or coping mechanism that you can reach for when you feel yourself getting overwhelmed. Over time your brain will rewire so that you make a habit out of the activity and as such you’ll automatically start to feel better.
However, the key remains getting started. With so many options it can be difficult to navigate what is actually going to work for you and how to structure your journey in a way designed to provide meaningful results.
New mental health web app, Leafyard, combines science and study to motivate people to take control of their own mental health.
It does this by educating and motivating you to take small steps every day. There are always new things to learn and try – real, scientifically proven things that can help make you feel better. Leafyard is helping to change the way people think and feel all across the world.
‘The combination of education and sense of control work together to show the user that yes, they actually can feel better if they do the things in this course and this is the reason why,’ says Leafyard co-founder Jon Davies.
‘Having a sense of control is something that is massively important when it comes to dealing with our mental health – we often feel helpless or useless – having that reassurance to know and realise that we actually can do something about it every single day is incredibly empowering and effective.’
As we’ve seen, our brain thrives when it’s in it’s comfort zone because it feels safe and in control, but when we’re struggling with our mental health we don’t actually feel either of those things. Our brain thinks it’s protecting us when really it’s limiting our behaviours so much that we don’t end up doing anything new or exciting out of fear that it could potentially harm us mentally, physically or emotionally; even if we logically know it’s unlikely to occur.
When we’re in this space, taking positive action can seem impossible; maybe all you want to do is lie around and scroll through your phone or something similar – but this is not going to help you feel better long term. That’s the hard truth. Realistically, what you’ve been doing so far has not been working so what do you have to lose by trying something new?
Just find one small thing. Maybe it’s taking the time and focus to read this article. Maybe it’s getting up and making yourself a cup of tea. Maybe it’s messaging a friend to go for a walk. These little actions add up to provide big change. It’s about taking back control of your mental health, of how you think and how you feel.
These are tenets that have been around for years, this isn’t a revolutionary shift in the health and wellbeing sphere. Think of how the Apple Watch reminds us to stand up and stretch every few hours. Think of how Fitbit urges us to set fitness goals and do a minimum of 10000 steps a day. These behavioural nudges have been used to get people to take positive action for a while now, it’s only now, with Leafyard, that this kind of behavioural science is being utilised in the mental health space.
The adage goes if you change the way you think you can change the way you feel. Taking meaningful action that allows you to wholly focus on the task at hand fundamentally changes your thoughts as well as the wiring of your brain. It therefore stands to reason that if you take action you can actually feel better long term.
Rebecca Crowe is an in-house and freelance writer in health, lifestyle, and other aspects of well-being.