When was the last time you got caught up in a frenzy of motivation and promised yourself that this time, yes—no holds barred, you were going to break free from anxiety or depression, or lose weight, or benchpress 250, or find healthy relationships, or get your dream job, or see a shrink?
Most of us lay claim to at least one vestige of a failed motivational spurt: an old Google doc of therapists to check out, unread personal development books and online courses never accessed, unused gym membership, fitness machine as clothes hanger, and the list goes on.
Who can blame us? Technology and 24-7 information bombards us with everyone else’s success stories. And surely, starting something is better than never trying in the first place, right?
Yes and no.
Starting and failing at a new wellness craze is like yo-yo dieting. Short bursts of progress yield quick results, but are not sustainable. And each time we quit we feel guilty and our confidence falters.
According to Scientific American, psychologists have identified three critical elements that support motivation:
- Autonomy. Whether you pursue an endeavor for its own sake or because external forces compel you, motivation increases when you feel in charge.
- Value. Motivation is heightened when you stay true to your beliefs and values.
- Competence. As you commit more time to an endeavor, you notice your skills improve, and you gain a sense of mastery.
But knowing is not the same as doing. The key to feeling better is knowing you don’t need to eat the elephant whole, just take a bite out of its ass for starters (and if your goal is to lose weight, you’re welcome 😉 ).
In addition to upping your motivation game, the following 9 skills are important components of your mental health tool kit.
1. Ask yourself this critical question: “What am I afraid of giving up?” Because that’s the essence about not changing. My clinical supervisor used to say, “The goal of therapy is not to get clients to change, but to find out why they don’t…”
Pursuing a new goal means giving up something else. Some losses will be great, while others are minimal. There’s a big difference between giving up a three-bedroom house post-divorce, versus giving up sleep to make it to CrossFit at 5:00 a.m.
2. Grieve. Change entails giving up on your lost hopes and dreams for the future. The divorced woman who stayed in the marriage far too long after discovering her husband cheated, or the mid-level manager who won’t pursue a writing career while he has two college-age kids to support. The upside is when you stop living in the future you have time for now. Scary initially, but worth it in the long run. The more you focus on mindfulness-based practices, the quicker your brain will rewire that automatic response to dwell in a fantasy land.
3. Question your anguish: “Is my worry useful?” might sound like a trick question, but the point is to become aware. Do your worries keep you stuck in rumination, or are you nervous about tomorrow’s work presentation? Mild worry helps us prepare and problem-solve, while obsessive worry ensures we’re parked on Compulsive Anguish Avenue.
4. DO a mental health plan. Preparation is key and will keep you on track. Speaking of, health and fitness warriors swear by keeping their running shoes next to their bed in preparation for their early morning run. Click here for a downloadable PDF to help structure your (Nike-optional) day. And click here if you’re serious about changing…
5. Focus on what you’re doing right, no matter how small. Our brains are wired with a negative bias, so we have to work harder to remember positive events. Because my brain’s a bit tired from step 7, I’m not going to try and cite the research, however, my yoga teacher recently quoted a master yogini: Apparently, it takes seven times more energy to create a positive thought than it does to create a negative thought.
6. Recognize anxiety. While the anxious mind looks different depending on who you ask, know that the overall problem is the same: Focusing too much attention on the content of your worries, and too little attention on your ability to problem-solve. If you’re struggling with OCD, this article will definitely help you to quiet the mental chatter.
7. Move. Studies abound about the positive impacts that exercise has on our moods, mind and body. Youtube.com has tons of wonderful fitness videos that you can do without equipment in the comfort of your own living room.
8. Meditate. The beauty of meditation is there’s many iterations, so choose what works for you. For some, sitting in silence is a spiritual practice, while others cultivate inner peace by listening to the rhythm of their breathing. Personally, I find meditation keeps my emotions in check, so I’m less prone to going off next time that skinny little skateboarder comes careening down our street and crashes into my new car, as he did last week.
And go off, I did. On him and his skinny little video-recording friend: “Um…you know you don’t have to use that language. We know it was wrong and we’re leaving now.”
Me: “You’re right. I don’t have to use that language. But fuck it, because maybe you’ll think twice next time you decide to Ollie off my new car tire, got it?”
Not my finest moment. So yeah, definitely meditate. Here’s a meditation video for beginners I made at a time when I was actually calm.
A golden segue for our final step…
9. Know that you’re never there. Mental health is not a destination like scaling Mount Everest. On some days happiness and peace of mind will be easier. On those days you struggle, you will work harder and devote more time to feeling good. As us therapists are prone to say, “It’s all a process.”
The mind is a muscle. With practice, you can rewire your brain to be happier and healthier. So next time you decide to go all balls-to-the-wall and make drastic, sweeping changes, know you can take it slow and steady.
By making incremental changes daily you’ll start to notice when your focused on negative, fearful thoughts. And when you pay attention to what you pay attention to, you’re living with intention and making deliberate choices, which means you’re more likely to choose healthy coping skills. Your brain may reward you for it, too 😀
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Yours in always learning,