Is Mental Health Still Stigmatized?

I have a short answer and a long answer to the question above. The short answer? Yes, it is. The long answer? Give me a second.

When I ask questions in my posts, I often turn to Google to gauge how legitimate my question is. This time, though, I looked for something more specific – the dates of the results on the search page. I knew there would be articles, posts and web pages asking my same question, but I wanted to know if they were old or new. And what I found was that there was a mix of both. I’d see a study from 2012 next to a blog post from 2015 all jammed between two articles from May 2019. What did that show me? That this question is an ongoing discussion about how we deal with mental health in the United States.

The long answer to this question: while it is still stigmatized, it seems like that stigma isn’t as strong as it once was. That’s what I feel comfortable saying.

That answer doesn’t sound long, does it? Look at what I wrote though. The stigma isn’t as strong as it once was. What I’m saying is that I believe it’s not as bad as things used to be. Usually, that would imply that things are good in the present. But the argument that things are better than before is a dangerous argument to make (see: most of History). Will taking that approach with mental health help in the long run?

I’m encouraged at the number of celebrities who are being more open about their mental health. I feel proud when I see a professional athlete say they’ve gone through tough periods of depression or anxiety because I was an athlete growing up; I understand how brave you have to be to do that. I know these stories help other people who struggle with their own mental health and that’s wonderful (I can’t emphasize that enough. It’s truly wonderful). But we also have to acknowledge that if there wasn’t such a strong stigma, a famous person talking about mental health wouldn’t be so groundbreaking in a country where 1 in 5 U.S. adults experience mental illness every year. And yet, it is.

Has the stigma surrounding mental health decreased? Sure, you could say that. But if you do, look at where it used to be. That might reframe how you answer the question. And honestly, there’s plenty of ways to discuss/debate this topic. Is the stigma decreasing? Are people being more open about mental health? How can we reduce the stigma, or just overcome it?

All are valid questions, but there’s a reason I asked the question the way I did – I wanted you to react. When you read that question, you had an instant reaction. It might have been yes, no or somewhere in between, but you thought something. A key way to break down a stigma – any stigma – is to talk openly about it. So we need people to think about it and talk about it. Whether they think they’re right or wrong, opinionated or not. Because as long as mental health is stigmatized, there’s still work to do.

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Why I Can’t Accept a Compliment

Compliments happen all the time; they’re a natural part of life. I won’t do you the boredom of breaking down what a compliment is and why it happens (even though I did find an interesting study that says it feels just as good to give a compliment as it does to receive one – food for thought!) – instead, I’m going to tell you why it’s so hard for some people to accept a compliment.

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How I Mentally Deal With Minor Setbacks

This weekend, my laptop broke for the third time in three years. Since the reason I bought it was that I thought it’d be a reliable piece of equipment that wouldn’t break easily, I was pretty angry. First at the computer and at the company that manufactures it, which is understandable. But then I quickly turned that anger on myself.

I thought it must be my fault somehow. I must have done something, or forgotten to do something, and my carelessness is what led to my laptop breaking. I went to get it fixed yesterday (I should get it back this weekend) and the whole time I was at the store, all I could think of what how could you be so stupid? I could not get out of my head, and it really bothered me.

Now in the grand scheme of things, the situation isn’t all that bad. The fix will cost me some money (more than it should, but that’s a whole other issue), but in the end, I will be okay and my life will go on. But to me, it’s minor setbacks like these that are some of the most dangerous to my mental health.

Why are they such a big deal? Because they make me reexamine my actions, which is one of the last things an anxious person wants to do. I spend all day thinking about the choices I make, the words I say and the things I do. I don’t need another replay of a mistake I made; nothing good will come from it. I’ll only dig myself into a deeper hole and chalk everything up to how stupid I am. In this scenario, I suffer mentally and not only does the situation not improve, but I do not either.

Getting Past a Minor Setback

How do I get past a setback like this? Repetition, repetition, repetition. It’s worth telling yourself that it’s not the end of the world, that it will be okay. But only saying those things once means that they don’t have any staying power. Repeating these positive thoughts is a good way to have them take up more space in your head than negative thoughts. I’m not guaranteeing success (I know from experience), but I would say it’s worth trying. Like any other skill, you get better at it over time. While I’m not where I want to be with this repetition, I’m in a better space than I was, and it’s been super helpful.

I also view setbacks as an opportunity to spend more time doing something else. Instead of focusing on the closing door, I look around to see what door is now open. In this specific case, I don’t know what the open door is, but I do know from experience that it exists. It might not always be what we expect, but it can be better than we ever imagined.

Again, this is my advice for minor setbacks – the things that happen in our everyday life that can get under our skin. There are major things that happen that can really set us back, which are much more difficult to process and deal with. But in most cases – like with my laptop – things aren’t as bad as they seem. The sun will rise. Life will go on.

A setback doesn’t make you a bad person, and I hope you don’t let yourself believe that it does. You have so much more going for you than a broken laptop, a flat tire or bad day at work. It might not always feel that way, but it’s true. It’s not how we fall, but how we get back up that defines us (that’s a cliche for a reason). You’re allowed to be upset, to be annoyed, but don’t let those feelings dictate your mood for too long because eventually, that will become who you are. And you’re a better person than that.

How do you deal with the little setbacks that happen to you during the day? Let me know in the comments!

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Five Common Cognitive Distortions

cognitive distortions

Last week I wrote about negative self-talk and how it affects me. While writing that post I ended up on the topic of cognitive distortions. Since that wasn’t the intention of my post I didn’t go into too much detail but when I read through the post, I realized I should have.

I didn’t know a thing about cognitive distortions until my therapist brought the topic up to me a few years ago. What are they exactly? Cognitive distortions are, more or less, lies that our brain tells us. They’re irrational thoughts and beliefs that, like any other thought or belief, grow more powerful the more they occur. Cognitive distortions come in many forms, and sometimes it’s hard to recognize when they happen. I decided to list and explain five of the most common cognitive distortions that I struggle with. I hope this helps!

Cognitive Distortion #1: All-or-Nothing Thinking

As the name implies, ‘all-or-nothing’ thinking is when you look at things in a very black-or-white, right-or-wrong way. You think in extremes – either something is very, very good or completely awful. You’re either perfect or a total failure.

Cognitive Distortion #2: Overgeneralization

This is one that many people I know struggle with because it’s so easy to turn into a habit. Overgeneralization is when we generalize about ourselves based on one event. For instance, if you don’t win a game, you think you’re a loser. If you don’t do as well on a test as you think you should have, then you label yourself as stupid. This type of thinking can lead to dangerous behavioral patterns and become very instinctual.

Cognitive Distortion #3: Mind Reading

This one sounds a little silly – of course, you can’t read minds! – which is why it’s so dangerous. When you try to guess what other people are thinking and make your decisions based on them, and not your own thoughts, you can end up expecting things from others that you’re never going to get.

Cognitive Distortion #4: Fortune Telling

We all love to predict the future, but when it’s done in a negative and pessimistic light, it might just be a cognitive distortion. Popular versions of this thought process are ‘I will never find that special someone’ or ‘every job I ever have will be terrible.’ You don’t know what’s going to happen to you, but by guessing the worst-case scenario you’re only causing more stress and anxiety.

Cognitive Distortion #5: Emotional Reasoning

Probably my least-favorite cognitive distortion of all-time, emotional reasoning is when you approach your feelings as if they are facts. For instance, if I feel like I’m worthless, I believe that I am worthless. Whatever I feel is true. Wrong! As we know, feelings are not facts, but no matter how many times I repeat this to myself, I still mistake what I feel for factual things.

While there are many different types of cognitive distortions, these five had played the biggest role in my life. I won’t say that they’ve disappeared now that I am aware of them, but in understanding my thought processes I have taken the first steps to gain a more positive mindset.

 

On Negative Self-Talk

Selftalk is a buzzword for me – I feel like I use that phrase once or twice a week when discussing my mental health. What do I mean when I say ‘self-talk’? On one hand it’s exactly what it means – talking to yourself. But it can be much more complicated or involved than that. It’s not just the words you say out loud, but the thoughts you consciously – sometimes unconsciously – have. Whether they’re about you or someone else, it’s safe to say that all of us engage in self-talk in one form or another.

As the title indicates, I wouldn’t be bringing this up on a mental health blog if I had a problem with my self-talk being too positive. No, when someone asks me what’s wrong my answer usually is…

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(courtesy of Netflix)

I don’t know when it started, but my thoughts about myself have never been all that great. Call it low self-esteem or an unwillingness to care, but I have a tendency to deflect compliments and downplay achievements. Since I’m not your therapist (or my therapist) I’m not going to explore why this happens, but I will tell you some things you might not know about negative self-talk – and how to be aware of it.

Another Buzzword – Cognitive Distortions

‘Cognitive Distortions’ are thoughts that our mind tries to convince us are true. There are tons of them and they can happen in plenty of different situations. While there are tons of ways they can manifest themselves, they all have a few things in common:

  • they’re not true
  • they’re often illogical
  • they can cause psychological damage if left unchecked

There’s plenty of resources available on cognitive distortions if you Google it, but this post from Psychology Today could be a good place to start. Cognitive distortions are basically the various ways our negative self-talk can occur.

It’s More Common Than You Think

Great, so now you’ve read about cognitive distortions and realize you engage in negative self-talk more often than you think. Bravo! But are you aware of how much you really do it? I know I wasn’t. One time to find out, I decided to write down every negative thought I had about myself during a day. Multiple pages later, I realized I had a problem on my hands.

Again, I’m not a therapist so I will not pretend to counsel anyone, but I know there are plenty of things you can do to rewire your thoughts and try to think more positively about yourself. Some things that have worked for me in the past have been

  • changing my tone
  • not taking every thought so seriously
  • don’t suppress these thoughts – acknowledge them and move on

Like any change in behavior, it’s easier said than done. But don’t think that being aware of the issue will solve it.

There Will Be More

There’s a lot more I can – and will – say about negative self-talk, but I think being aware of it is a good first step. Next week I’ll talk more about cognitive distortions and the role they play in negative self-talk.

How did you become aware of negative self-talk and cognitive distortions? I’d love to hear from you!

 

 

How Powerful Are Our Thoughts?

“I think, therefore I am.”

This famous quote, first uttered by Rene Descartes, is something that’s been on my mind this week. I recently started listening to an NPR podcast which is all about the invisible things around us that affect our daily lives. The very first episode was about the ‘secret history of thoughts’ where the hosts asked a question: are my thoughts related to my inner wishes, and do they reveal who I really am?

All my life, I have been told that what I think is important, that my thoughts matter. They do, and so do yours! But not every single thought is important. Not every single thought needs to affect your life. Learning that – and accepting that – has been one of the most important tools when it comes to how I approach my thoughts.

Think, really think, about the insanely high volume of thoughts you have every day. Thoughts can come from anywhere and be about anything. How often do we get sidetracked by our thoughts, or get distracted by thinking of something completely different from what we’re doing? Anxiety or not, depression or not, I know this happens to everyone.

I have intrusive thoughts that pop up every single day, most of which are negative. And I obsess over them. Some days they are all I can think about. And I get stuck.

But what if I didn’t give these thoughts so much power? What if I took them for what they are? It would not be easy, but it’s not impossible. As I have been told by several therapists who specialize in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), one way to reframe my thought process is that instead of trying desperately to ignore the negative thoughts in my head, I can acknowledge them for what they are – thoughts – and move on with my day.

I tried that, and it proved to be very difficult. I still gave importance to every thought that popped into my head, and I was getting stuck on the negative thoughts. I’d like to take a new approach that takes my thoughts beyond the base level of acknowledging them and moving on. I’d like to address those thoughts and tell them what I think of them – that they won’t last, that they aren’t important, that they aren’t me.

I am not my thoughts. I am not a collection of the thoughts I produce. I am a complex person who will have millions of thoughts in his lifetime, and not all of them count. I am going to try to pay more attention to the ones that matter and can make me a better person. As for those intrusive thoughts? Those can go right in the trash.

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Reading and Mental Health

As a kid, I loved to read. While I had favorite authors and genres, it came to a point where it almost didn’t matter what kind of book it was – if I hadn’t read it before, odds were that I’d give it a shot. I’d guess that I’ve read hundreds of books in my lifetime, but the vast majority of them happened before I went to college – and I had to deal with my mental health.

When my mental health worsened, it became hard to read. I had difficulty concentrating on one task at a time, and the result was many years of multitasking. I would have music on while studying, or stream a show on Netflix while doing some writing. I could not focus on a sole subject or interest because I could not develop a one-track mind. Instead, I would have two thought processes running in my head: 1) the normal thoughts and feelings about what it is I was doing at the time, and 2) the negative thoughts and self-talk that seemed to be popping up more and more every day.

By multitasking, I was occupying both thought processes and keeping my mind fully occupied and away from the negative thoughts. But reading a book meant that I would have to develop a one-track mind that concentrated on the words on the page – a near-impossible ask for my anxious self.

This meant that over the course of my college career, I read very little outside of what was required for school. After college, I tried to get into reading a little more, but it proved to be too difficult. I thought that I had to be busy all the time in order to combat the negative thoughts, and the result was an unhealthy lifestyle that definitely didn’t make me feel better about myself. So, like in many other aspects of my mental health and my life, I took a new approach.

First I started rereading books that I’d enjoyed in the past. Some were easier to read than others, but it helped me get on a good schedule of reading consistently because even if I didn’t enjoy it, I’d already read the book before so it wasn’t a total waste.

When 2019 started, I decided to take a chance and really get into reading again. I started by making it a goal to read only 10 pages a day. It was a small chunk, but it was manageable and made me feel like I’d accomplished something. Soon, I started reading during my lunch break at work, which satiated my need for multitasking while helping me learn how to focus on reading.

It’s taken a few months, but I’ve finally hit my groove. I’ve read four books so far in 2019 and I just started my fifth, and while I’m not in love with reading like I used to be as a kid, I like it a whole lot more than I have in recent years. I hope that as my mental muscles grow stronger I can read not only as a coping mechanism but because I genuinely enjoy it.

Has your mental health affected a hobby or activity that you love? Let me know in the comments!

Fear of the Unknown – And the Known

When I was a teenager, I would feel…off. You know how it feels when something is off. It’s like having a pebble stuck in your shoe, or that last bit of corn in your teeth. Of course, those situations have solutions. Take the pebble out of your shoe. Get a toothpick. Now imagine feeling that way but being unable to change it. That was my reality before knowing what was wrong.

Fear of the Unknown

So when I first saw a therapist, when depression and anxiety were first mentioned, I assumed I would be relieved. But I wasn’t. Instead, my anxiety grew, and I was more nervous about my situation than before, when I didn’t know what was wrong.

There’s a lot to be said for fear of the unknown. It makes sense. I’m not saying you should or should not fear the unknown (maybe I’ll tackle that subject another time), but I am saying I had that fear, and I understand why. But what I didn’t understand was the fear that followed. Even though I knew what was wrong, I was still afraid. In many ways, it was worse than not knowing.

Fear of the Known

I was shocked. I was unprepared. I didn’t think I’d be that much more afraid of knowing something than not knowing something, but I was.

I’m not sure why I thought that fear would go away. Maybe I thought I would be a braver person now that I knew what I was dealing with. In many ways, I was. But as those close to me could attest, in many ways I was not. I let fear of my mental illness dictate what I did and did not do. I let fear in, and it won. For a long time, it won.

These days, fear wins less. Every day I get stronger and learn new ways to attack my mental health. But one of the biggest changes was recognizing the role fear played in my life and trying to minimize that as much as possible.

Whether you’re afraid of something you know or something you don’t, fear is fear. When you battle it, you won’t always win. It would be naive of me to tell you that I’m no longer afraid of my mental illness. But for every bit of strength I gain, that fear, every so slightly, shrinks.

Like many things in life, mental health is a marathon, not a sprint. Each day is an opportunity to be better. And since we’re honest here, it’s also a chance to get worse. And sometimes, it will be worse. There’s no way around that. But letting the fear of mental illness dictate what you can and can’t do? You can fight that. You can fight back. And you might not always win, but you will get stronger. And the stronger you get, the better you can fight. And my hope for you is that the fear you have, of the known and the unknown, slowly fades into nothingness.

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