It wasn’t my intention to have a theme running through my posts when I began my blog a month or so ago. An early trend seems to have organically developed, however, which I don’t think will be permanent (unless I branch out into multiple blogs). Hmmm. We shall see.
The concept that appears to underpin my first three posts, including today’s, could loosely be defined as things that boost my mental health. So far I have spoken about finding solace in libraries, and of the camaraderie of my early morning running group; both of which have been vital to me in managing depression, anxiety, and my Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). Just quietly, I’m finding that writing a blog helps a fair bit too …
Have you ever had someone say to you that “you should think more positively” or “focus on the good things”? Infuriating, right? I mean, it’s great that they are in that emotional space, but for someone who is struggling with depression the last thing we need to be told is that we have a negative mindset and need to just snap out of it. When emotions rule the waves of our daily mundane interactions it feels like we have no control over our habitual pessimistic initial reactions. We would love to think positively … but how is it done? Like most things it takes time, patience and practice.
For the record, I’m no expert. I’m still struggling with the process. I was raised in an excessively negative household. The modeling, from my mother in particular, was a constant stream of pessimistic iteration, discouragement, repression, guilt and martyrdom. The journey is a tough one but there is hope.
Today I want to explore a seemingly innocuous but, in my opinion, a highly beneficial daily exercise. It’s one that I turn to intermittently and I always reap some rewards from it. You might find you have heard of myriad similar exercises and even tried some out in one form or another. It’s quite similar to the popular notion of a gratitude journal.
I call it:
Something Good Every Day
It may sound a bit naff at first, but hear me out. Basically what you do is finish each day by writing down the best thing that happened that day. That’s it … and, yes, the physical act of writing it down is important. Writing down the final result of your thought process gives you a tangible, narrow focus and helps enhance the quality of your positive perspective. Whilst the journey is the most important part, the concrete result defines the journey.
Even on the worst of days you will find something that was not so bad. And, the secret to the exercise is that it actually doesn’t matter what the thing is that you finally decide to write down. You may wish to write it in pencil and rub it out, type it on a device and delete it the next day, or keep a permanent list in a dedicated journal in your finest calligraphy … it doesn’t matter. Share your results with others or don’t … it doesn’t matter. What matters is what happens biochemically in your brain as you perform, and complete, the exercise.
Neuroplasticity. When I was a kid in the 1970s there was an urban myth about being born with a finite number of brain cells and that these cells could be “killed” through alcohol abuse, head injuries and so forth. The idea was that once they were gone, they were gone; you would be operating below capacity for the rest of your life. Fortunately for all of us we no longer live in the 1970s. Since the 1990s a great deal of research has gone into how the brain changes and regenerates over time and how we can actively influence the well worn neural pathways in our brain. You may have heard the term brain training. The great news is that you can indeed teach an old dog new tricks.
Something Good Every Day encourages us to focus on the positives, no matter how small or few in number they may at first seem. Try to relive your entire day (which also helps to reinforce your long term memory, by the way) through the lens of optimism. Start from the moment you got out of bed and try to think of every single little thing that was good. Some things will come to mind easily; others will not. Don’t neglect all the stuff many of us take for granted like central heating, warm showers, drinkable tap water and so on. You may find two or three things that compete for first place. Compare how these things stack up and choose one to write down. At that point the process is complete.
You may be surprised how soon you notice a subtle change in your immediate reactions in daily life if you start to perform this mental exercise every night.
It may not feel like it sometimes but we do have control over what we focus on. Try this — close your eyes and think of a colour. The instant you open your eyes everything in your field of vision that is that particular colour will grab your attention first. Now close your eyes and think of a different colour before opening them again. Cool huh? Our tendency in day to day life may be to perseverate on the negative, but this is a trait that can be unlearned. It’s very, very difficult for some people but, like almost anything in life, it takes practice. It takes persistence. You reap what you sow.
So it’s about forming a new habit. Focusing on the good things. Noticing the things we take for granted. If there’s one thing I will definitely take away from my recent experiences with isolation, it’s that there are a great many things that I take for granted. Public playgrounds. Our local cinema. Farmers markets.
You don’t need to suffer from a mental illness to benefit from this exercise. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if most people at least had the intention of reprogramming their brains to focus more on the good stuff and less on the bad? Don’t get me wrong. The habitual leaning toward the negative is not something that you are born with. It’s not a flaw. We’re conditioned. Tempted as I am to veer off on a tangent about mainstream media and to elaborate on the way I was parented, I won’t.
Because today’s message is about positive change. It’s about growth. It’s about choice. A friend of mine posted on Instagram this week a picture of a blossom tree with two paths leading in different directions from the tree. The text underneath said “you get to choose …. every time”. Sometimes it may not seem that we have choices, but we really do.
Earlier this week a guy driving erratically nearly cleaned me up on my way to work. That same day I made fruit bread. When I was in my twenties the first incident would have dominated my perception of the day. I would have replayed the event over and over in my mind. I would have convinced myself that the majority of people are terrible drivers who don’t give a tinker’s cuss about anyone else. I’d have regaled friends, colleagues and family members with my tale of woe. My mother’s legacy. A few decades on, and practicing my positive thinking as best I can, I immediately moved on and didn’t give it another thought for the rest of the day. I love homemade fruit bread! T’was a great day.
The post-COVID19 world probably won’t be as different as we originally thought it might be. At times I have felt great optimism that people will change their priorities, habits and attitudes for the better having had time to step back and reflect. At other times I find myself reading the comments section/s on various social media platforms (which I try really hard not to do) and I despair at the bigotry, pessimism, ignorance and hatred. I fear a regression toward darker times of racism, misogyny and homophobia. I’m reasonably confident that neither of these profound outcomes will eventuate.
Whatever we see in the future, I believe that now is a great time for people to try and identify something good … every day.