How to change your life: Stopping a negative state of mind
Rituals, mindfulness and turning off those phone notifications can really help each day
Changing a state of mind if you’re unhappy in your life is also about visualising a happier scenario.
In the first week of this series, we looked at one’s overall purpose as a starting point to changing your life, and last week, work was the focus for changing things up. This week, we’re examining state of mind. When it comes to changing your life, a big part of that change is changing how you feel and your perspective.
It’s important to state from the outset that if your mental health is suffering, and you are experiencing things such as anxiety or depression, this is best tackled by speaking to a professional who can guide and help your recovery through counselling, methods such as cognitive behavioural therapy, change of lifestyle and, potentially, medication.
But many people struggle with their state of mind in more minor ways, things that can be hard to put your finger on. The feeling of not being yourself, finding it hard to tap into a vibrancy you used to feel, feeling disconnected from the world around you, or feeling as though you are in a rut, are all states that can be frustrating and sometimes inexplicable.
So how do you change your state of mind?
The opening essay of Maeve Higgins’ new book Maeve In America is about Higgins taking a trip to swim with dolphins in New Zealand. “It was a laziness on my behalf, a reluctance to figure out my own dream, and a tacking on to other people’s dreams.” On the trip, Higgins realised she didn’t want to swim with dolphins at all. We often blur what we want, with what others – family, colleagues, the random people you went to school with – want for us, or indeed what we perceive society’s expectations of us are, and forget what it is we want from life. Examining whether what you’re doing is what others actually want you to do, can clarify why you’re not feeling “yourself”.
Comparing ourselves to others is a surefire way to knock our confidence, create negative self-talk, and cause us to fall into a rut of feeling like we’re not where we should be. Nowhere is this feeling more accentuated than by spending a lot of time on social media. Scrolling through feeds of other people’s virtuous pastimes, fulfilling careers, seemingly confident body image, and blissful relationships, can compound the insecurities we have about perceived inadequacies in our own lives. Even though we know that we ourselves curate the image we project on social media in a way that smooths the edges and (often literally) filters the blemishes from our daily lives, we still have a tendency to consume the lives of others as “real”. But they are of course not the whole picture.
Social media wrecks our heads in many ways. Besides the addictive nature of it, its tendency to addle the mind, and how it can interrupt sleep patterns, comparing ourselves to others “out there” or getting annoyed by people’s online personas can cause resentment and low self-worth. So a key step to changing one’s state of mind is stepping away from the scroll. Delete social media apps on your phone so you aren’t compulsively checking them. Turn off as many notifications as you can, perhaps leaving only incoming phone calls and texts. Create habits whereby checking your phone first thing in the morning and last thing at night isn’t the default. We’re constantly told that our phones are controlling us, but we are in control.
Feeling muted or withdrawn, or feeling a little fractured or less resilient, are obstacles that can put us in “stall” mode, where we feel like we’re treading water and yearn to “snap out of it”. Ruairí McKiernan is a social campaigner and consultant working in the areas of community wellbeing and leadership development. McKiernan cites a morning ritual as something essential to his state of mind. For him, that entails making some space to remind him that today is a new day, to reflect on what he wants to get out of the day, and what his goals are, “without turning your life into some sort of corporate strategy”, McKiernan says. This struck a chord with me, as recently I decided to try out a goal-setting planner called the Self Journal, which I write in first thing in morning and last thing at night. The results have been very positive. I feel more grounded in what I want to achieve and what I did achieve, and it also promotes periods of reflection at both of those times, instead of checking my email.
Not a good start
What we consume on a day-to-day basis obviously has an impact on our state of mind. With apologies to my colleagues in radio and current affairs television, I stopped listening to and watching news bulletins and current affairs programmes about five years ago. Having politicians arguing being the first thing I listened to in the morning was not a good start to the day. I find myself no less informed. If something of importance does actually happen on radio or TV, I can read about it or listen back to a particular segment. I’ve gravitated to a mixture of news podcasts that are informative without being shouty (The Daily by the New York Times), ones that expand my knowledge of the harsh realities of the world (Mothers Of Invention, Caliphate), pop culture that informs me rather than makes me feel dumb (Keep It), and ones relevant to my work (Longform).
Changing a state of mind if you’re unhappy in your life is also about visualising a happier scenario. “At what point in the day do you make space for what might be an alternative reality?” McKiernan asks, “start to imagine that. Start to visualise it and feel it in your bones, that this alternative reality might be a possibility. When you start giving that energy, you might generate confidence to build that alternative reality. It does feel that in the rush and race of busyness and pressures – I don’t think ever in the history of humankind have we been so busy – there’s a danger we get caught in a slipstream, and it takes a particular navigational skill that ensures you’re going down the stream in a direction that suits you.”
The growing interest in, and industry of, mindfulness is obviously a reaction to a culture and a lifestyle that does not allow for reflection. But mindfulness doesn’t need to entail becoming a Buddhist or posting endless sunsets on Instagram. Mindfulness is a practice we can tailor to ourselves. It can be an actual mindfulness “course”, book, podcast or practice, or it can be running, gardening, cooking, clubbing, playing football, knitting, or anything that allows you to immerse yourself into the feeling of being present. Personally, I never, ever, ever, regret going for a walk.
Although it might feel counterintuitive to reach for your phone to help you mediate, if you’ve never meditated, there are plenty of easy to use apps to get you started, such as Headspace. “I hadn’t meditated three days in a row,” McKiernan said, “and I did this morning and a fog lifted in my mind. It was like I hadn’t brushed my teeth for three days”.
“Your mind is a place you can feed with positives and negatives,” McKiernan says, “it’s important to get that balance right. I’m not to say we always need to be thinking happy thoughts and ignore the harsh realities of what’s happening, problems with relationships, or bullying at work. But have a sense of oneself. Perhaps it’s to do with having a sense of your own personal agency and power. If you can find your centre in that, then there’s much more resilience in the day. You can press the refresh button several times throughout the day. Taking little moments, whether it’s going off for tea or coffee on your own, or a jog at lunchtime.”
Training oneself to adjust one’s attitude and responses to circumstances is a key factor in changing a slugging state of mind. We all have “glass half empty” people in our lives, who see the negative side to everything. This is something we can either recoil from or collude in. We know that negative people and responses can drag us down, so make sure you aren’t acting in the same way.
In a recent TED talk, Mark Pollock and Simone George detailed the trauma and resilience of making it through – emotionally and otherwise – Pollock’s accident which paralysed him. Pollock spoke of drawing from the realism of Admiral Stockdale a POW during the Vietnam War, again a lesson in attitude. “The ones who didn’t survive were the optimists,” Pollock says of Stockdale’s assessment of his fellow prisoners, “They said ‘We’ll be out by Christmas’ and Christmas would come and Christmas would go and then it would be Christmas again, and when they didn’t get out they became disappointed, demoralised and many of them died in their cells. Stockdale was a realist. He was inspired by the stoic philosophers and he confronted the brutal facts of his circumstances while maintaining a faith that he would prevail in the end.”
An extreme, but very instructive, example of attitude is found in Viktor Frankl’s endlessly inspiring account of his time in concentration camps. “We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread,” Frankl wrote. “They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. And there were always choices to make. Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determine whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity to become folded in to the form of the typical inmate.”
Tips for changing your state of mind
1: Develop a morning ritual that gives you time to reflect, prepare, and set goals
2: Delete social media apps from your phone, and don’t let reaching for your phone or mindlessly scrolling be your default
3: Examine your attitude. Can you try to see a situation in a less negative light?
4: Practise gratitude
5: Go outside. A simple half-hour walk can clear your head when it feels melted
In next week’s How To Change your Life, we look at relationships.