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How to develop a healthy mind

Psychologist Martyn Stewart offers advice on thinking your way to mental fitness. By Holly Sands

Written by
Time Out KL contributors

How many people honestly feel as optimistic as they did on January 1? As the world quickly settles back into its routines, gym attendance plummets, fast-food deliveries increase and reality kicks in. However, our New Year’s malaise may be a risk to more than our toned physiques. It might put a healthy mindset into jeopardy too.

Some people remain imprisoned within their own shells for months or years, immersed in toxic thinking or environments. Despite this, in both personal and professional circumstances, we still demand clear thought and flawless decision-making in the most critical of situations. Would we make such expectations of our bodies? To attempt a marathon without training would obviously be ludicrous. However, we push our minds for much more. Some people even expect perfection.

Psychologist Marie Jahoda identified six characteristics of ‘ideal’ mental health, including adapting to the environment and being resistant to stress. However, when improving our mindset – as with our bodies – we must be realistic. Aiming for excellence, not perfection, is healthy.

An unhealthy fear
We all face difficult moments and having the occasional ‘crazy’ or unhealthy thought is not unusual. While navigating life’s inevitable peaks and troughs alone, we may not recognise ourselves as we condemn those we feel criticise us. We may question our own ‘inferiority’ in comparison to others. A room full of avid conversation and smiling faces is often perceived as a sign of psychologically healthy people. However, we’ve all hidden in the mid of such façades. You’re not the only one barricading your insecurities and personal issues. In fact, you’d be more ‘abnormal’ if you weren’t.

So why such fear of the unhealthy mind if so many are potentially afflicted by its existence? Besides the social stigma attached to it, a lesser discussed but equally powerful contributor may be a fear of vulnerability; of being exposed. Vulnerability means you can be hurt or damaged somehow, so naturally we defend ourselves. The aim is to safeguard our self-esteem. Unfortunately, many people invariably use dysfunctional mechanisms, such as elaborate self-lies or diversionary tactics. These often backfire and actually result in feelings of shame or embarrassment, driven by our vulnerability.

Brene Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, says that many people hide aspects of their character or experiences as they believe it makes them unworthy of connection with others. For example, those unhappy with their weight may conceal it with specific clothing. This fear of being exposed can wreak unimaginable havoc with your mental state. As a result, many people believe they must be perfect or at least ‘fake it until they make it.’ The reality, however, is you’re never going to achieve perfection. Nobody’s perfect. The hardest part is overcoming the mental lies we tell ourselves to fit in and avoid being exposed.

Regaining health
We know what we want. That mental place where we have control of our world; where personal stress is minimal, self-acceptance is complete and our issues and insecurities don’t impact negatively on anyone. These are hallmarks of a healthy mind. However, opportunities to positively exercise our minds should not be missed. This doesn’t mean you won’t have normal feelings of self-doubt or unproductive thoughts from time-to-time, but maintaining a healthy mind is an everyday habit. Stick to it or your positive mental capabilities will be eroded quicker than a diet of cheeseburgers ruins your waistline.

Exercise your mind
In ambiguous or challenging times, hard choices must be made. When things need to be done, we must learn to be decisive and act. Use productive thinking and be responsible for your actions. Start by developing the habit of successfully completing a few small challenges. Then build up. Address the impact of this on those you have regular contact with. Knowingly surrounding yourself with people who aren’t conducive to your long-term healthy mind is destructive. Differentiate between the positive and negative. Make a list if you have to. Finally, don’t be afraid to be vulnerable. Just like personal trainers and nutritionists, expert psychological practitioners and support groups contribute daily to amazing personal change, working together to achieve your goals.

This is the bottom line. The difference between a healthy mind and an unhealthy one is that you’re either controlled by your thoughts, or you control them. Today’s a good day to take control of your healthy thinking.

Martyn Stewart is a chartered psychologist and relationship coach with more than 15 years assisting individuals internationally through teaching and mentoring. He is currently Head of Psychology at Doha College, a published author and public speaker.

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