As I write this article I have people close to me who are having a really tough time.  While they have either experienced significant trauma, loss, destructive relationships, or challenging business economic environment, they all have one thing in common, they are suffering emotionally, mentally and physically. I write this article because I genuinely care for these people, and what I write next comes from a place of empathy, heartfelt concern, and a wish for their lives to become easier.

There is evidence that mental health concerns in adults can be a function of genetics, family upbringing and life events, which in many cases are out of our control.  So, for some of us the causal or risk factors of Mental Illness are not a choice. For many of those who have significant causal factors out of one’s control, then battling mental health is an ongoing struggle, and in many instances requires counselling, significant support and medication.

However, we believe, that for most people mental health is a choice.  Our mental health is our responsibility alone.  We also believe that our mental health is primarily a function of how we are priming our brains and perceiving the world around us. We believe that by believing that mental health is a choice that we empower ourselves to enhance our mental well-being.

What happens if we believe it is a choice?

Essentially, if we believe that mental health is our choice, then we can choose to perceive the world in a certain way. If we believe that mental health is a choice then we empower ourselves to improve our mental health.  We give ourselves a chance to live the lives we want to live.

How do we make mental health a choice?

1.     Face Reality

The first step toward making mental health a choice is to take a hard look at the harsh reality of our current state of affairs.  We need to view this reality not through our skewed perception in our current state, but rather through the eyes of rational logic, the straight hard evidence and facts, the real unbiased current state of affairs.

Through all my 20 years of experience working with people, my observation is that in almost every instance, those experiencing significant mental health concerns are in some way or form avoiding or distorting the reality of the situation.

By putting the harsh reality on the table we create a visible, tangible and real starting point.  Without the clarity of reality, our journey to improving mental wellbeing is fraught with distortion and avoidance.

How do we understand the true reality? I recommend the following approach: Choose three people in your life – one person who you trust and knows the situation well; one person who you trust but doesn’t know the whole situation; and one person you trust but doesn’t know you or the situation all that well.  Then ask these three people to provide their perspective on the true reality of the situation (not their opinion on what to do).

Once you have clarified the harsh reality of your situation, write the reality down on a piece of paper and put this piece of paper somewhere accessible but safe (because you might need to remind yourself of the actual reality & to evaluate what has changed once things have improved).

2.     Evaluate how you are ‘priming’ your perception

Every one of us has a Reticular Activating System (RAS) in the back of our brain that is responsible for automatically sorting everything that we experience in our day to day lives into either irrelevant or relevant. We can prime our RAS in a certain way to automatically filter what we want to become conscious of.  This can be as simple as the words we choose to use.  This can come in the form of internal self-talk, or our responses to questions about how we are going. 

An example of negative self-talk: “I can’t do it” or “this it too difficult”

An essential component of making mental health a choice is to become acutely aware of the language and words you use; conscious of the first thought that crosses your mind when you experience some daily frustration; what you think is most important; and your first response to situations in your daily life.  A simple way of understanding this is to ask people close to you to provide you with feedback on what they are hearing or observing from you.

An example of unhelpful things we say: “I don’t have a choice” or “there is nothing that I can do”

Identify all the unhelpful ways that you are priming your RAS and once again write these down on a piece of paper.  This time pin this piece of paper to the fridge and give people around you permission to call you on any of the items you have identified.

3.     Consciously choose how you will prime your RAS everyday

So far we understand the harsh reality, and we now also know how we are priming our RAS in an unhelpful way. 

We now need to prime our RAS in a helpful way.  This starts with creating a vision for the preferred reality.  I recommend that you write down in a detailed manner the preferred reality and future (regardless of time frame).  We need to do this without emotion and without being deterred by our perceived barriers, but instead once again with honesty and authenticity (even it feels a little scary). Write this preferred reality down on a piece of paper and keep this piece of paper somewhere close and accessible e.g. your wallet or purse.

Then write down the words that you are consciously going to use every day and put this on the fridge.  For example, instead of saying “I’m hanging in” rather say “I’m staying ahead”.  Then choose a phrase, or word for each day and practice using this word a couple times through the day.  For example, when someone asks: “how you are going”, instead of saying “Not bad” rather say “I am fabulous”.

At the end of the day reflect on one thing that was good about your day and write this down. 

4.     Choose how you see the world

We can ONLY do two things to be more resilient:

  1. Change our environment or situation (sometimes this is either not possible or too challenging), or
  2. Change our perception of our environment

Perception is at the heart of mental well-being.  The way we perceive every situation has a direct impact not only on our immediate emotional and cognitive response in the moment, but then also primes the RAS. 

We need to become acutely aware of how we are perceiving the world around us.  How do we go about changing our perception of the world around us when we find ourselves getting sucked into the negative perception of an event?

We first need to ask ourselves how important the issue is to us and our team.  This partly about contextualising the issue or stepping back and looking at the big picture.  Sometimes the simple act of contextualising enables us to immediately let go of the issue.

Next, we need to evaluate our responsibility and what is in our control.  Many times we allow ourselves to get sucked into trying to change things that are not our responsibility or in our control. In many cases this step requires us to ‘let go’ of what we think is our responsibility.

Lastly, we need to focus on the opportunity rather than the threat.  We need to consciously shift our focus to the upside. I believe that there is always an opportunity in every situation.

We make a choice every day about how to perceive the challenges that we face. We absolutely have a choice as to whether we focus on the opportunity of the negative.  We have a choice about whether we whinge or whine.  We have a choice whether we let things go. We can choose to act and do something.  How we see the world in every moment is a choice.

Simple things to do

  • Ask for support and help if you recognise that you are not travelling all that well.
  • Take 5 minutes EVERY DAY to write down one thing that you APPRECIATE in your life.
  • Gain clarity on your purpose and reason for your goals. Practice articulating why you do what you do to your close friends and family.  Talk to your partner/family about goals and identify a shared goal.
  • Write down your greatest worries and fears. Realistically evaluate each worry and fear, identifying worst case scenario, what would happen if you did nothing, and what would happen if you took an action.
  • Find a reason to exercise every day. Even if it just for a walk.
  • Let it go!! Practice letting stuff go.
  • Choose every day how you want to be during each day. Choose every word more carefully.  Choose every behaviour more reflectively.  Choose how you see each and every moment of every day.
  • Just Decide. Making a decision (rather than in a state of indecision) is in many cases the most empowering way to improve our mental state.

I trust that this article has prompted you to consider how important choosing your mental health is to you being resilient and well. Choose differently today and then observe how tomorrow is different.


Greg Bayne - 2017


About the author

Gregory Bayne is one of the Directors of Total Leader and Coach Solutions Australia.  Greg works with senior and executive leaders assisting them to make shifts in the way they work, the way they think and the way they live their lives to become better leaders, colleagues and team members. Greg has a particular focus on assisting leaders create a culture or accountability and high performance. His expertise and knowledge is around building and developing a culture of accountability, leading high performing teams, and getting the most out of people to deliver the highest standards of work. We cultivate sustainable behavioural change in individuals, teams and organisations to drive a performance culture.

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