Train your brain

Kari Swanson

May is Mental Health Month.

Mental health is just as important as physical health.

People generally know what to do for physical health; exercise, eat healthy and drink lots of water. Do you know what to do for your mental health? Food, water and exercise fuel your physical health and allow you to perform at your best physically. When you lack in these areas you tend to feel sluggish, lazy and unmotivated.

To perform at your best mentally one of the things a person needs to have is the correct mental mindset involving positive self-talk, not just thinking but self-talk.

Negative self-talk can plummet a person’s mental health and be a catalyst for depression and anxiety.

People who engage in negative self-talk can learn to train their brain differently and as such have different mental results.

Similarly, a person who is a couch potato can train their body physically in order to have better results. Mental health and physical health require the best of you doing what is best for your body and your brain.

When I talk with children and adults about their thoughts, you wouldn’t believe how many people do not know what self-talk is or if they do it. Oh my goodness, I live on my self-talk. Honestly, I think I would be in a lot of trouble if I didn’t self-talk. My self-talk has gotten me through a lot of situations in which I’m not sure how the end would have played out had I not engaged in or listened to my self-talk. Again, self-talk differs from just plain thinking.

Self-talk is something everyone needs to engage in and understand how to engage in. Self-talk is your ability to talk yourself into or out of a situation. It is you being your very own cheerleader or worst enemy. It is you revving up your depression and anxiety or de-escalating your worries and triggers. It is your very own way of taking control of situations that you may truly feel is out of your control. It is magic and it is right in your own head!

The beauty of self-talk is no one can hear it but you! I use humor a lot when I am getting annoyed with someone or getting frustrated in a line when I’m in a hurry and it keeps my mind in a good state instead of a state of impatience or showing my frustration. Sometimes I even laugh a little at my self-talk because I can be funny!

I read a study about negativity and constant complaining having the result of people’s brains being rewired to be anxious and depressed. It actually made sense to me that a person who is constantly complaining and is always negative about things in his life would struggle with depression and anxiety. The sad part is that it is mostly at his own doing. I am certainly not suggesting that everyone that struggles with depression and anxiety has created this themselves and that all they need to do is be more positive. The study suggests that the brain becomes rewired as a result of negative thinking reinforcing the neuropathways associated with emotion and thus eventually making negativity an automatic reaction due to the constant amount of time this particular person spends in a negative thinking state.

How does self-talk help with this situation? Being aware of your self-talk is the first step. What do you tell yourself in situations in which you know you are going to be uncomfortable or in situations where you don’t want to be in in the first place? If you tell yourself the worst case scenarios then you are revving up your anxieties and getting prepared for negative results. If you tell yourself you are able to handle what is in front of you then you are de-escalating your anxieties and preparing for success. See the difference?

I like to explain to children that thoughts work like typing on a keyboard. We type on the keyboard what appears on the screen. Similarly, we feel what it is we say in our heads. If a child comes to me with anxiety or sadness I explore with them the thoughts that are occurring in their heads and where these thoughts occur the most, at home, school, away from parents, etc. When it is explained like this children seem to understand their thoughts and the impact their thoughts have on the way they feel. It no longer becomes “it is because my mom isn’t here” or “because I don’t like school”. It now becomes “it is because I told myself I can’t do it”. We call this developing an internal locus on control versus having an external locus of control. When someone is operating from an external locus of control, the way they feel is due to everyone and everything outside themselves. When someone operates from an internal locus of control they recognize that the way they feel is persuaded and influenced by themselves, particularly their thoughts.

In the movie “The Help”, one of the main characters continually tells this little girl in the film “You is kind. You is smart. You is important”. She repeats this over and over every day to this little girl. This is a way of retraining your brain. In my view, the character was encouraging the little girl to adopt this mantra in her head to help her in situations where people or the environment may be against her. If the little girl’s self-talk included these positive phrases, she would be entering situations believing in herself and her abilities.

It is difficult to always be positive about situations and outcomes, however, how you phrase what you tell yourself has a lot to do with how you will feel. If you truly believe that you are going to be uncomfortable in a social situation in which you would prefer not to attend but need to or have to then your self-talk needs to focus on how to get yourself through the situation and not on the negative or uncomfortable things that may occur. Your self-talk truly can increase or decrease your negative feelings such as worry, anxieties, depression, etc.

I am aware of the changes in my body language and facial expressions when I am uncomfortable in my surroundings. As such, I will self-talk “smile” or “be loose” in order to remind myself to not give off the feelings I am feeling which could further add to the discomfort I am already entering the room with.

When we are in situations we don’t want to be in or around people we would prefer not to be around we tend to be on the defensive and as such see things or hear a “tone in her voice” that may or may not really be there. In these situations self-talk is important. When you are in a room with people and feel that someone is not being nice to you or looked at you funny some of the self-talk you can use is “What else could be happening with this person other than my view of she doesn’t like me” or “If I was comfortable in this situation and around these people how would I see this situation, any differently”? Again, this helps to balance you and ground you a little bit so that the thoughts in your head do not spin out of control and if you are prone to anxiety, cause a full-blown panic attack. This again increases you operating from an internal locus of control rather than externally focusing on what the person is doing wrong to you.

I truly believe, as my previous articles have stated, that we do have more control over our emotions than we realize. By engaging in self-talk, recognizing from what locus of control you operate and changing the way you view situations you can assist in de-escalating angry outbursts, decreasing depressive episodes and better managing your anxiety. Self-talk can promote healthy mental health if positive or it can increase unhealthy mental health if negative. Explore your self-talk and see for yourself. Train your body physically and train your brain mentally.

Kari Swanson is a Master’s level clinician with 25 years of working in the mental health field. She is the founder of CORE–Choosing Openness Regarding Experiences which is a non-profit organization with the mission to provide mental health awareness and suicide prevention education to Warren County.