Mental Health Awareness Day
There is no doubt that mental health awareness is an extremely important area of development for wellbeing. When we’re implicitly led to believe by society that mental health is something “only the weak have,” we are unable to address the problem of our own mental health and we will forever be plagued by it. Like saying to someone with a broken leg, “only the weak have broken legs,” and “it’s a state of mind, just get over it”: that person will be encouraged to ignore their leg. They’ll be embarrassed to talk about managing it with their friends and they’ll be reluctant to treat it. Their leg will never set correctly and they’ll be walking with an impairment the for rest of their life. All of this is preventable, or at worst, manageable: by recognising that there is a problem that needs to be unashamedly addressed and by taking the appropriate steps to correct it.
However, there’s an issue with mental health awareness that I feel will surface in the next few years. Awareness and appreciation is the first step for society, but it might make things worse before it makes things better for individuals with anxiety. “Why?” you ask. Hear me out.
On Polar Bears
Don’t think of a polar bear.
Pretty hard, isn’t it? The more we tell ourselves, “don’t think of a polar bear,” the more we entrench ourselves into a recurring thought process, where we get more and more desperate to not focus on the things we’re focusing on. We focus on what we don’t want to focus on by telling ourselves… not to focus on it. But there is a way to win this game. At least, in the long term.
In the first few seconds of the game, there is no way to win. To understand the requirements of the game, we need to recognise what a polar bear is, so that we know what not to focus on. We also need to focus on that object, so that we know what not to focus on. There is no way to win the game if we are to understand its requirements in the first few seconds.
Once we’ve understood the requirements, though, we can employ a different strategy: just think of anything else instead. Think of an orange tree. Think of a cloudy sky. This is the only way to win the game.
The issue of mental health is harder than the polar bear game. On one hand, we need to address the issue so that we can manage it. And we need to do this for society, not just one individual. This will blur the lines as to when to switch strategies. On the other, the awareness of the issue can compound the problem.
Anxiety is an especially tricky subject. By being aware of our anxiety, we can become anxious about that very awareness of anxiety. Like an electric guitar that picks up the noise from its own amplifier, this can lead to a negative feedback loop: noise creates more noise, which creates more noise, getting louder and louder until it’s a deafening scream. And mental health awareness days encourage this negative feedback loop to take place. So how do we overcome this?
Mindfulness is one great tactic because it uses the same strategy as the polar bear game. Instead of saying, “don’t be anxious” – and getting anxious about being anxious – it reverses the narrative. It makes us focus on how we’re grounded and calm through different strategies. My personal favourite is visualisation strategies. “Imagine your mind as a crystal calm lake. It has a mirror finish to its surface. You can let a single rain-drop fall and watch the waves flow out from the impact point completely unobstructed.”
I also think we should have a day which celebrates all our positive mental health attributes. At the moment, mental health day focuses on the negative attributes of mental health: and this is necessary in the first step. We can’t win the anxiety game until we become aware of what anxiety is and learn the appropriate steps to manage it. But after that, we need to change our strategy: now that we are aware of our anxiety we don’t need to focus on it anymore. We can focus on the strategy to overcome it, which includes focusing the positive opposites of that trait. By celebrating instances where we were calm, instances where we were confident, we will remind ourselves that we are able to overcome anxiety. In doing so, this time we’ll create a positive feedback loop: where reminders of instances of when we were calm will facilitate our ability to be calm in the future… which give us more reminders.