Overwhelmed? Build Your Mental Muscles

We live in a full throttle, reactionary world.  Chaotic cities, a demanding job and trying to balance work with the rest of your life, means sometimes it feels overwhelming.  You need to be mentally strong and that takes work.

We all recognise we need to do some exercise to be physically strong.  We can’t count on occasionally taking the stairs and some weekend sport to be enough to build our strength; we have to work at it regularly.

It is the same with your mental strength.  If you want to feel in control, optimistic and resilient for what life throws at you, you have to do some mental exercise regularly.

The good news is you are already busy thinking.  Reshaping what you’re thinking about will get you in to good shape.

What saps your mental strength?
There are things that research has identified as Twisted Thinking.  These are the things that are NOT helping you.  In fact, they suck out the joy and use all your mental strength with no benefit.  Here are a few:

Mental Filter – Singling out the negative comments and dismissing the positive ones

Catastrophizing – Blowing things out of proportion and imagining the worst

Should Statements – Using critical words about what we think we ought to do differently.

Here is a link that outlines Twisted Thinking, from David Burns Feel Good Handbook. It also talks about how you can overcome those thoughts.

My 6 exercises to build mental strength
Put some of your thinking time, especially that down time when you are driving, taking a shower or watering the plants, to building strong mental muscles.

1. Know what you want, not what others want for you or from you 
Take time to think about what you want from a situation.  When you have clarity, you will be more likely to get it and much less likely to feel annoyed or taken advantage of.

2. Be your own cheerleader
So many of us are waiting for external affirmation.  We need someone else to tell us we did well or we don’t think it counts.  It does count.  Congratulate yourself mentally when you have done something you’re proud of.  Recognize to yourself that something went well, that you handled a difficult conversation or walked into a meeting full of senior people and didn’t shrink to the back of the room. Tell yourself “that was good” and your subconscious will strive to do it again.

3.  Accept and absorb it when people are positive
It isn’t arrogant or egotistical to say “Thanks for noticing” when someone comments on how well you did something.  Don’t feel a need to deny or justify.  Don’t leap into all the ways it could have been better.  Give them credit for taking the time to acknowledge something that impressed them, by saying a simple thank you.

4.  Look at the facts and believe that you are employable
We can get ourselves in a dark place wondering whether we’d end up on the street with a grocery cart if we lost our jobs.  You won’t.  You are smart and experienced and you can earn enough money to be ok.  Spending your precious brainpower and imagination thinking something dire will leave you unemployed does not help you.  If you unexpectedly lose this job you will find another and you will be more informed about the kind of work you want to do and the kind of company you want to work for.

5.  Recognise what makes you special
We are all different, that’s the great thing.  Actively look for what makes you unique.  Comparing your weight, your IQ, your salary or your status means there will always be people above and below you.  Instead, focus on what comes easily for you, what you enjoy, the knowledge you’ve developed, the experiences that are uniquely yours.  They make you who you are, embrace them.

6.  What’s the best possible outcome?
We have no problem anticipating the worst possible thing that might happen.  It can be debilitating.  We get caught up in our imagination of this horrible result.  Focus your energy on imagining, in detail, the best possible outcome.  I often hear “If I think of the worst I’ll be prepared for it.”  Rethink this.  Things occur because we prepare for them.  If we approach our manager prepared for them to say “no” we send a load of signals in our body language  and wording that implies we’ll accept “no.”  If we’ve imagine all the positives, with the boss saying “yes,” being excited and encouraging us – that is equally contagious when you go with your request.

How to shift gears mentally
If you recognise you want to build mental strength, but need some help jumpstarting that positive view of life.  Try this:

Every day, for ten days, write down 3-5 things you did well, at the end of the day.  They don’t have to be big, just acknowledgments of things that you are pleased with.

If this is still too difficult, start with writing 3-5 things that you are grateful for at the end of every day.  Even this will jump start your thinking into a healthy area where you can build mental resilience.

I’m reading a book called The Power of Habit.  It quotes several research studies where people kept track of different things by writing them daily.

In one study people wrote down what they ate – with no other tools than this list, they lost weight.  In another they wrote daily goals for their physio therapy and that group recovered twice as fast as the control group.  In a third study, people were challenged to save money – their only tool was to write down everything they spent.  By the end of four months this group drank less alcohol and caffeine, smoked fewer cigarettes, ate less junk food and were more productive at work. Writing down their expenses triggered this.

You get the point, bringing things onto your mental radar and actively working at it is a powerful muscle.

So work it.  Reinforce the positive things you know about yourself.  Then you can tap into this when life throws you a curve ball, it will help you to stay strong and keep your balance.

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