In India, when training elephants, handlers begin by sturdily chaining one of the elephant's hind legs to a tree. Over time, they gradually decrease the size of the chain until it takes just a flimsy string to hold the elephant. It's not the string that restrains him. It's his belief that he is stuck.
Similarly, your mind can help you pursue and succeed in your dream job, have healthy relationships, and stay on the sunny side of life.
On the other hand, you can mercilessly criticize every move you make, sabotage your relationships, and hold yourself back, like the elephant's string.
Think about it. At the most basic level, your reality is constructed by your brain. Your brain makes sense of the world and its happenings by interpreting the signals it receives as you go about your days and interact with your environment. Each of us experiences the world uniquely (meaning, your perception of reality is fundamentally different from everyone else's) because every human possesses a different combination of physical brain function, memories, beliefs, and attitudes about him- or herself, others, and the world.
These subjective influences—family, religion, school, culture, and life experiences past, present, and future—are typically subconscious. That makes them no less influential than your conscious biases and perceptions in determining how you respond to the world, behave in relationships, and perceive yourself.
These subconscious, deeply ingrained perceptions are the source of what I call "mind traps"—negative thought patterns that cause stress, anxiety, and depression.
Here are some common mind traps we experience.
1. Black-and-white thinking, with no gray areas.
What it sounds like: “I’ve completely failed.” “Everyone else can do it.”
2. Projecting our fears onto other people.
What it sounds like: “They think I’m boring.” “People must think I’m stupid.”
3. Crystal-ball gazing or speculation.
What it sounds like: “There’s no point in trying. It won’t work.”
4. Mass generalization/catastrophic thinking.
What it sounds like: “This relationship ended, so I won’t ever meet anybody.”
5. Disqualifying the positive.
What it sounds like: “I may be a good mother, but anybody can do that.”
What it sounds like: “I can’t find my purse. I’m going senile.”
7. Unrealistic expectations.
What it sounds like: “I should keep going, even when I’m tired.”
8. Name-calling, to self or others.
"You're such an idiot."
9. Unreasonable self-blame.
“She looks angry. I must've done something wrong.”
For most of my life, I let my mind bash, bully, undermine, and torture me. I was depressed for a decade and even attempted suicide. I didn’t realize just how much my brain shaped my decisions until it stopped working altogether. The injuries sustained in my suicide attempt actually turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
They finally forced me to make radical changes in my life that I'd needed to make long before. Because I killed so many brain cells in this suicide attempt, my perceptual foundation died along with them. I got to start with a clean slate, so to speak.
This time, I consciously choose to rebuild my brain to make healthier patterns and put my mind to work for me. Just as your brain influences your interpretation of the world, your world physically influences the structure of your brain through a process called experience-dependent neuroplasticity. There's a complex explanation, but the concept is simple: Every minute of every day, you're shaping your brain.
In my life today, I incorporate mental health practices into my daily routine to maintain the balance and happiness I’ve found. I’ve made friends with my mind and learned to make it work for me rather than against me. The difference in my life is incalculable.
Here are four strategies to help you take back control of your brain.
1. Become aware of your thought patterns.
The first step in making your mind your ally is to become aware of your thought patterns, feelings, and reactions as they happen, known as mindfulness. Being mindful is not only being aware, it's being aware of your awareness. It's paying attention to your mind on purpose and waking up from a life on automatic.
2. Challenge your thinking.
Distance yourself from and question your thoughts and beliefs. Analyze them objectively from all angles. Is this really what you think or is it an inherited belief from your past? Drop the storylines usually running in your head and any personal emotional investment in the situation for a minute. Try on different points of view and zoom out. Have the intent to give your mind guidance, like a wise, caring parent. Control it instead of it controlling you.
After examining your thoughts mindfully, consciously decide what you want to believe, how you want to behave, and who you want to be. Hold that image in the forefront of your mind and move forward taking the appropriate actions. Deciding isn't a onetime thing. The priorities upon which you decide have to be considered and honored in the little choices you make every day and revisited as things change and new information becomes available.
Meditation becomes a place to work with your thoughts and emotions and for self-inquiry to help reinforce new thinking patterns. The purpose of meditation is to exercise passive awareness of your mind objectively, detach from your thoughts and feelings, and observe rather than identify with them. When meditating, you just let thoughts and feelings bubble up—the good, the bad, and the ugly—without labeling or judging them.
A meditation practice physically changes your brain so that it’s calmer all the time and has been linked to lower rates of anxiety and depression. If you already have a meditation practice, great. If not, start one. You can learn how here.