Over the past twelve months much has been said about the importance of healthy habits and routine and their impact on our health and wellbeing. When we are stressed and under pressure often the first things to slip are ‘priorities of self’ like exercise, mindful practices, decompression time (which may or may not be social) and good food choices. Less is said about what happens to our habits of mind when we are stressed and under pressure.
It is well documented that stress (especially chronic stress) impacts our brains negatively and can result in brain shrinkage, changes in structure, loss of memory and trigger, or exacerbate, mental health issues. Our habits of mind are also impacted by stress, and we can regress to many negative and unhelpful patterns that also then impact our health and wellbeing, as well as our functioning and relationships.
Firstly a little on habits generally... habits are formed in order to increase efficiency in the brain, leaving space for us to process and concentrate on other things. We are wired as humans to work towards automation, our brains don’t discern between positive and negative in this sense. A ‘habit loop’ occurs quickly when a reward (perceived or actual) is given for a behaviour that is triggered by a stimulus e.g. I pass a stranger in the street, I smile, they smile back. The smile they return is rewarding but the safety of them not attacking me is also a reward. Once I have done this a few times and have been rewarded, my habit or default becomes to smile and the more it results in safety, the more reinforced it becomes. So much so in fact that I won’t remember when or why I initially chose this behaviour to deal with meeting strangers as it is automatic. Riding a bike is another example of how complex behaviours that take intentional choice to begin with become automatic, like our default settings.
When we are aware of negative habits, we can bring them into consciousness and change them. The first crucial step is therefore becoming aware of how we think. I would recommend a great app called ‘Moodnotes’ to help you find out what your main habits of mind are. No sponsorship, it’s just a fab app (though sadly not available for android). For those of you not on the app store, feel free to email us at [email protected] and I will send you a handout with the ten main habits of mind on there. Here are a list of the main habits of mind that are UNHELPFUL: all or nothing (black and white) thinking; blaming, catastrophising; downplaying positives; emotional reasoning, labelling; mind reading; negative filtering; over-generalising, personalising; fortune telling; should or must statements.
Once you have identified that you say for example use ‘fortune telling’ (i.e. you negatively predict what will happen in the future, ignoring more likely positive outcomes or ignoring the here and now) then you can use thought stopping strategies to create some distance from your thoughts and allow yourself to consider the other possibilities; or simply stay in the here and now instead of worrying about the future so much. Even if you don’t believe the other options, by simply challenging the automatic negative thought you start to disrupt the habit of that type of thinking. The more you practice, you will eventually catch yourself mid sentence changing what you say, and correct yourself. Over a period of time then you replace the old habits of mind with better, healthier ones.
These habits of mind impact our perception and perspective in all situations in life, be they work, relationships, parenting, the weather. At MindTime we recognise and encourage the development of healthy habits of mind as a part of working on the Individual component of our program. The sooner and younger we can learn about our unhelpful habits of mind, the easier they are to change. It is never too late though and like all behaviours, what is learned can be unlearned and replaced.
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