Breaking Down Mental Health Terms: What Are Mental Filters?

Over the years, I’ve learned a number of words, phrases and definitions that have helped me understand my own mental health. Some of these are connected to mental illness or medicine, while others are connected to mental wellness. In this recurring series, I break down some of the mental health terms I’ve learned over the years. Today, I’ll be breaking down mental filters: what they are, what they look like, and what we can do about it.

What is a Mental Filter?

Like many mental health terms, this mental filters go by many names (negative filtering, mental filtering, filtered thinking) but the important thing to understand is understanding the definition. Filtered thinking is a type of cognitive distortion in which

“People diagnosed with panic disorder frequently use a mental filter to sift out all of the pleasant and fulfilling parts of their lives, while bringing more attention to their inadequacies and dissatisfaction.”

Very Well Mind

When people experience a mental filter they often bypass pleasant and positive thoughts, having a much clearer memory of the negative ones. We all have a tendency to do this from time to time, but it is the repetition of this that can cause problems. Over time, this filter can be easier to jump to and become more instinctual. Without meaning to, we’ve created a thought pattern that builds a mindset based on untrue assumptions and false thoughts that go unchallenged.

What Do Mental Filters Look Like?

Mental filters can be tricky unless you’re willing to call them out or see them in your own thinking. Filtered thinking can grow stronger when these thoughts aren’t challenged. People experiencing mental illness don’t always have the strength, knowledge or awareness to challenge these thoughts, which can allow a simple thought to grow into an unhealthy mindset.

Here’s a (fictional) example. Last week, I went to the movies. I enjoyed the movie and had a fun time with my friends; afterwards we got a bite to eat. Overall, it was a fun night. But during the movie, I spilled my soda slightly on my jeans. When I think about that night days or weeks later, the biggest memory that stands out is that I spilled on myself while I was trying to enjoy a movie. This filtered thinking reinforces the negative perception we have of ourselves. If it goes unchallenged, we’ve created a negative memory that conveniently leaves out the positive aspects in favor of more negative feelings.

Mental filters can sift out positive emotions in favor of negative ones. They can turn our irrational feelings into palatable, more rational thoughts. We’re not always going to catch when we’re filtering, but it’s the sheer magnitude of these thoughts that can create real issues and put a strain on our mental health.

What Can We Do About It?

Now that we know more about filtered thinking, what can we do about it? Recognizing when we’re filtering is an important first step. Once we recognize when we filter our thoughts, we can acknowledge these thoughts for what they are. But recognizing our own filtering is much easier in theory than in practice. Our filtered thinking ranges from smacking us in the face to being camouflage it takes years to see.

Mental filters don’t change what happened to us; they change the way we perceive those events, which can shift our perception of the world and our place in it. Once we’re able to acknowledge our filtered thinking, we can start to try and reframe these perceptions. Also known as cognitive reframing, reframing situations and events can help us filter out our negative perceptions of things, and replace them with a more objective/accurate view of things. It is widely used in an effort to grow positive thinking, but it also can be very helpful if you have trouble remembering things are are susceptible to negative thoughts.

Mental filters can be challenging to sort out but the more we know about them, the more we can start to see them in our own thought patterns. It’s not easy, but the effort alone can make a big difference in the way we see the world – and see ourselves.

"It's not what you look at that matters, it's what you see." - Henry David Thoreau

Balancing Accomplishments with Wellness

Earlier this week, I investigated why people (myself included) downplay their accomplishments. There was a lot I learned from writing the post, but the most important thing was this: people don’t do things for no reason. There is something behind the way we are, even if we can’t see it or understand it. I don’t always know why I do the things I do, but that’s okay. That doesn’t mean I can’t work toward my goals, toward things I’ve dreamed about. But it’s not easy. What can be challenging is acknowledging where our mental health is at – and how we can continue to strive for more.

One of the things I love most about people is the variety of the hopes and dreams we have. Our goals are as unique as we are; the road to success for one person can look entirely different from someone else. Not only do we have different goals, but we also have different ideas about how we can meet those goals. A natural approach for me could be a completely foreign idea to someone else, and vice versa.

If you’re reading this and thinking that I’m stating the obvious, and you may be right. But when people talk about achievements and accomplishments, we don’t always include context. You and I might have the same end goal, but getting there could look different for each of us. And not only is that okay, but it’s a necessary reminder if we want to maintain mental wellness.

When we fall short of our goals, it’s natural to feel dejected and down on ourselves. An added challenge, I’ve learned over the years, is the non-stop comparing I do when I feel like this. I compare my situation to other situations, I compare myself to other people. Sometimes I don’t even compare my situation to one that’s similar. The only difference is that someone succeeded and I failed. Logic goes out the window, and hurt feelings are the only thing left. But when we fail to recognize these things, we legitimize them. We build a flawed thought process that is damaging to our self-esteem, and that can grow over time.

Sometimes doing things in life can feel like a lose-lose situation. We’re frustrated when we can’t accomplish things, and dissatisfied when we do. Everything is too good for us but at the same time, nothing is ever good enough. We have an instinct to compare ourselves to the world around us. These comparisons can cost us our mental health and wellness.

But knowing this instinct and understanding this conflict matters. So much of my experience with mental health is retroactive. I can recognize things that I’ve done or experienced and notice patterns, but it’s all in the past. Knowing what’s going on in my brain in real-time feels like an impossible task, but it’s one I’m improving on every day.

In order to balance my accomplishments with my mental wellness, I need to be present with myself. I need to recognize what’s going on with my thoughts and feelings, and how that impacts me in the moment. And I’m not able to do that in every moment, but I can do it more than I used to. In a world where this was a foreign concept to me when my depression was as bad as ever, I call that progress. And at this point in my mental health journey, that’s good enough for me.

Five Ways to Manage Thought Spirals

Earlier this week, I wrote about thought spirals, what they look like, and what we can do about them. Thought spirals can be tricky to deal with, but there are ways we can try and manage them. I’ve dealt with many thought spirals over the years, and these are some of the most effective ways I’ve found of slowing my brain down and getting back to center:

Acknowledge what is happening to you. Name the fact that your thoughts are spiraling. This might not sound like a big deal, but there is tremendous power in being able to define something, to name it or to understand what something is called. This is especially relevant when it comes to mental health, because we as a society haven’t always had healthy ways to define our experience, which lead to further stigmatization. If it feels like your thoughts are spiraling, it’s good to admit that. You might not be able to solve the problem in the moment, but knowing what something is can make it less intimidating.

Control your breathing (make sure it’s steady – check on your physical self in this moment). The link between mental health and physical health is a very real one, and our physical health can absolutely be impacted by mental health challenges. I know for myself, anxiety manifests itself physically, which means that an anxiety attack can sometimes impact my body as much as my brain. A good way to find some semblance of control is to regulate your breathing. Whether that’s taking a few deep breaths spending more time to find your breath, getting back to level is a great way to calm your brain down.

Ground yourself. Though this might sound similar to controlled breathing (and they are certainly linked), grounding yourself is much different. Thought spirals can lead to getting lost in our minds, which might mean we’re less in tune with what’s around us. Finding ways to ground yourself (here are some tips!) and remember who you are, where you are and what’s around you can help slow down that thought spiral.

Challenge one of the thoughts you’re having. A thought spiral can create a lot of different irrational thoughts, ones that can build on each other and make things overwhelming. But if we can isolate one of these thoughts and challenge it, we can try to lessen the impact of this domino effect. Challenge one of these thoughts by asking questions like is this true? Why do I think this is true? Attacking illogical thoughts with rational logic is good way that I slow down when my thoughts are getting out of hand.

Get someone else’s perspective. Mental health challenges feel isolating. Oftentimes, people think they’re the only person in the world who feels the way they feel. That can make someone feel helpless or hopeless, and makes it more of a challenge to reach out. Getting someone’s perspective can be invaluable, and can be a big help in many ways.

Now, over to you! What are some things you do when you’re dealing with a thought spiral? Is there anything you do that’s effective when dealing with a thought spiral? Let me know in the comments!

A Reminder About Healthy Foundations

Earlier this week, I wrote about how everything we do serves a purpose when it comes to our health and wellness. I focused on physical exercise and my therapy sessions, but it applies to all areas of life. Each activity can serve a different purpose, and each moment can help us in a different way. Today, I want to elaborate further on that point because something else needs to be shared along with it. In the same way everything serves a purpose, there’s not one thing we need to do that will “solve” our mental health. There’s no magical elixir that will solve all our issues. It may sound obvious but it’s often forgotten, which is why that’s the reminder I want to share in this post.

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Finding More Ways to Reset and Recharge

Recently, I noticed a lot of my posts this summer have focused on resting and recharging. This got me thinking about how this happened. I know people tend to focus on relaxing in the summer, which makes perfect sense. But all year, I’ve had a fixated interest in the concept of rest. At first, I wanted to unlearn the concept of rest that I’d practiced my entire life in favor of something new. But I learned something else invigorating about resting and recharging, and I’d like to share that today.

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Why My Mental Health Makes Me Feel Stagnant

It happens to all of us every now and then — at certain points in our lives, we feel stagnant. We feel like we’re doing too may things and not enough at the same time; we feel like we’ve accomplished so much, but at the same time haven’t accomplished anything of value. And while I have tried to figure out ways to deal with these feelings (keep an eye out for Thursday’s post!), today I wanted to write about how that makes me feel because here’s a secret: part of the reason I feel stagnant is because in many ways, my mental health is improving. And while that can be good, I don’t know what to do with that.

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Five Ways To Cope With Limitations

As I wrote about earlier this week, it’s been a very interesting road to coming to terms with some of my limitations. Identifying my limitations (whether they’re physical, mental, emotional, etc.) is an important part of growth I’m coming to terms with. But the next step is more challenging: how do I cope with these limitations? How do I manage my feelings around them so they don’t make me upset, annoyed or depressed? I found five things I’m going to start trying in an effort to cope with some of my limitations, and I hope these offer some help to anyone looking to do the same!

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I Don’t Want to Leave My Anxiety At Home

Every day, people go into the world and do things. We run errands, we go to work and school, we exercise…the list goes on. And when we go out into the world, we bring our whole self with us. If we’re happy, we’re going out into the world with a smile on our face. If we’re upset, we’re not in a good mood, and the world is going to hear about it. Either way, we still go out. I’m usually annoyed at the fact that I have to continuously interact with the world, because it means I have to bring my depression and anxiety with me. But everyone once in a while, I can actually use that to my benefit.

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The Difficulty of Putting Mental Wellness First

Mental wellness is one of my favorite things to talk and learn about. Because of that, I’ve learned a lot about the ways that people incorporate mental wellness into their day-to-day lives. From therapy and meditation to physical exercise and coping strategies, there are plenty of ways that we tangibly put our wellness first. However, focusing on mental wellness in our daily lives isn’t as easy at it sounds. Why? Simply put, life happens – and that’s okay.

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Changing My Perspective to Improve My Mental Wellness

The inspiration for this post came a few days ago. I was riding a stationary bike at my girlfriend’s for the second day in a row, and I wasn’t sure how much I was going to get out of it. The day before, I slogged through the ride, feeling like I wasn’t really getting what I needed. I didn’t think I had the mindset to do that again, so I decided to adjust everything on the bike – and I mean everything. The seat, the handlebars, the resistance on the pedals. I ended up having one of the best workouts I’d had in a few weeks. When I was done, I immediately thought about the connection between this workout, my mental health, and how perspective is allowed to change and adapt when it comes to our wellness.

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