It’s funny how as children we are taught to take care of our bodies — eat a balanced diet, drink filtered water, wash our hands, exercise… but we aren’t taught to take care of our minds.
We aren’t told that like any other part of our body, our minds need to be taken care of as well to exist in their best form.
That just like our body, they need to be nurtured and fed. That our minds need a daily workout too.
As someone who believes that my mind is my most valuable asset, it was a bit disconcerting when a few months back I woke up one morning and felt like my mind was rusting. I could visualize a steel container with rust flaking away, a plant drying up for a dearth of water, and imagined my brain turning into one of the two.
I felt unfulfilled at work and given that I spent a majority of my life either working or thinking about work (work here referring to what I do professionally, which has always been an extension of my passions and beliefs), this had a heavy bearing on my mental well-being and overall health. I felt like my time (and the opportunity of being alive) was being spent on things that lacked meaning (to me). That my energy was getting drained, without feeling the high of expending it. That instead of spending my time with the people I love and being there for them when they needed me most (and even when they didn’t), I was ‘busy’ doing things I didn’t enjoy doing. I felt like I wasn’t growing, learning, evolving.
While I let all of this consume me for a while, I eventually decided this is not how I want to live my life, however long or short that might be. (As the Buddha said, the biggest mistake people make is that we think we have time.)
I took some hard (but long due) calls, struggled to form new habits (and expel a few old ones), and here I am, still struggling to find that perfect balance (#lifegoals), but happier than I have been in a long time!
I’m doing less, but more present. I’m able to pursue multiple (and very different) kinds of work and don’t care which day of the week it is anymore. I feel a deep sense of gratitude for what life has offered me, and seem to have boundless energy to pursue the things I love doing (though, confession, I’ve still got a long way to go!).
What struck me through this journey (which still continues) is how much I’d underestimated the power of daily habits and their impact on one’s mental well-being.
While there’s far more awareness, information, and empathy about mental health and mental illness in society and the media than ever before, there still isn’t as much emphasis on the need for every one of us to take care of our mind every single day, just as we brush our teeth every day…
Mental health and well-being isn’t just something that people diagnosed with mental disorders such as clinical depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, etc. need to cater to, rather is something that every one of us needs to actively take care of, as we navigate through the highs and lows of life.
We often associate nourishing our mind with gaining more knowledge, problem-solving, engaging in intellectual debates and discussions… but seldom relate it with daily habits, like how we treat our body or how we spend our time, which can directly impact our state of mind and how we cope with the circumstances life places us in.
I’m writing this piece to share a few habits and practices that changed the way I think, cope, live (for the better), in the hope that some of you might benefit from them as well.
1. SWEAT IT OUT.
There’s nothing quite like how a good workout makes you feel! It could be through playing a sport, working out in the gym, doing yoga, or any other form of physical exercise you enjoy! But get out there and sweat it out.
I’ve personally found myself feeling a lot more positive and confident on the days I work out first thing in the morning! (Exercise is known to be good for one’s mental health.) Further, some of my most creative breakthroughs have come to me while running on the treadmill or walking in the park.
While I highly recommend working out in public spaces over home-workouts (I’ve noticed I push myself harder), you can check out The Body Coach and Darebee should you wish to exercise at home, or while on the move!
2. HEALTH IS WEALTH.
“Sometimes we forget that our minds are part of our body and that the foods we eat affect our moods and level of general happiness.” (Mark Boyle)
While most of us agree that health is a priority, in our day-to-day decisions and actions, we often let it take a backseat. I have missed my morning workout more times than I can count with the excuse that I have a morning meeting I want to be on time for. I’ve chosen a cheesy pizza for dinner over a home-cooked, healthy meal, and OD-ed on Belgian chocolate ice cream more than I should. Sounds familiar? It’s indeed a daily struggle — until it becomes a habit.
I remind myself every day that my health — my body and my mind — are my greatest assets, and I ought to take care of them over everything else! It’s easier said than done for sure, but all good things in life come at a price, right?
3. DO WHAT YOU LOVE.
Too many people out there do work they don’t enjoy or believe in, don’t find time to pursue their hobbies, spend a majority of their lives with people they don’t like, and feel unfulfilled even after all the hours they put in at work.
We stop finding time to do the things we love doing, crave for them but seldom make time for them. Our profession becomes our identity, and our time is controlled by external factors.
For those of us who have the privilege of choosing a career of our choice, it’s a disservice to ourselves (and consequently to the world) to settle for work that’s anything less than what we love doing. Sure, there are pros and cons to every profession and workplace, but there are also plenty of opportunities out there to pursue one’s passion- we just gotta be at it, and not expect instant results or shortcuts.
Further, outside of our professional work, there’s always plenty of time and opportunity to pursue your passion. It’s all about how you prioritize what’s important to you, and make the time to do it. (Here’s how I did 12 trips in 12 months with a full-time job!)
It’s also a great way to start the day! When you spend the first few hours of being awake doing what you love, or whatever is most important to make that day well-lived, there are few things that can change your mood through the course of the day!
And if you’re not sure what you love doing, think back to your childhood and remember how you spent most of your time. You’re sure to find some clues there!
Over the past year, I’ve been trying to downsize every aspect of my life- possessions (clothes, books, material objects), social media engagement, ‘acquaintances’ (read Facebook/Social Media friends), information sources, even friends (prioritizing who I want to spend my time with and how). It’s only when you start downsizing your life do you realize how much we tend to hoard- unnecessary things, feelings, relationships- that suck out your energy without you realizing it.
While this is work in progress (and will probably be throughout my life), I already feel a lot lighter, and my mind a lot less cluttered. I have more space (mental and physical) for the people and things that matter most, and it’s a great place to be! (Check out this inspiring talk on minimalist living!)
As an introvert on most days, expression has been a bit of a challenge for me for as long as I can remember. I tend to bottle up emotions and thoughts within myself, and then explode at an unexpected moment when I’m unable to contain all that baggage any longer. My emotions tend to be expressed in part through writing, photography, and painting, but none of these are activities I take out time for on a daily basis, and definitely don’t cater to all aspects of my life (that need expression).
In more recent times, I’ve found solace in daily journaling (though I don’t do it daily, rather a few times a week), which has helped me express and process my emotions and thoughts on a regular basis (I highly recommend this practice, even if you’re not otherwise into writing!).
In addition to expressing through non-verbal mediums, verbal (human) communication is equally important and extremely hard to do, not just for introverts, but for everyone. While introverts might struggle more with verbal expression in itself, extroverts often struggle with self-awareness (getting to the root cause of their emotions) and expressing their feelings in their deepest, rawest form (though beyond a point these binaries/classifications of people are irrelevant).
While I’ve personally become a lot more expressive than I was when I was younger, I’ve still got a long way to go, and often find it hard to express my emotions and feelings with others, requiring a high level of trust between us, before feeling comfortable enough to open up.
No matter what the medium of expression is, what it helps with, is to not have thoughts and emotions bottled up within you, unprocessed and unexpressed, with the possibility of turning into negative emotions and thought patterns. (So just say what you need to say)
6. THINK SMALL.
Life is seldom easy, and it’s often difficult to wade through choppy waters without getting anxious. None of us know what the future looks like, and sometimes it’s wiser to focus on the immediate future (even just the present day and moment) than excessively thinking and planning for the future (something I’m often guilty of doing).
Further, when you have big dreams, it can get quite overwhelming thinking about what it would take to achieve them. In such situations, I’ve found that making lists of everything I need to get done and breaking down big things into smaller things helps re-orient one’s mind to feel like anything’s achievable, again helping one focus back on the work at hand, versus getting consumed by the end goal/destination.
My first tryst with the concept of mindfulness was through Thich Nhat Hanh’s books. However, I only truly internalized and experienced it in its practical form when I attended my first Vipassana course a few years back. Prior to this, I had never been attracted to any kind of meditation, but this experience changed the way I fundamentally think and live. While I haven’t been able to practice it regularly (another #lifegoal), the fundamental basis of the practice has remained with me through thick and thin, and sometimes even spending 10 mins of quiet time observing my breath has changed the way in which I’ve dealt with situations.
So whenever you’re nervous, anxious, angry, or stressed about something, just close your eyes, and observe your natural breath. While Vipassana is much more than this, even practicing observation of one’s natural breath can help calm one’s nerves and diffuse negative emotions.
Enjoy the stillness 🙂
8. DIGITAL DETOX.
In the age of technology and information (overdose), we seem to be getting more and more obsessed and consumed by electronic devices and what they have to offer. While a life without mobile phones and laptops seems blissful (to me), I also appreciate all the information and opportunities it has accorded me. The internet and social media have undoubtedly brought the world closer, but they have also pulled us farther away from ourselves and our immediate surroundings.
I’ve cherished my travels to offbeat, cut-off places with no network (and thus no notifications), only to be welcomed back to city life with hundreds of pings. In this context, where it’s almost become an occupational (and life) hazard for most of us, I’ve started keeping at least a couple of hours daily away from all electronic devices and media (and it’s not just my mind, but also my eyes that thank me for this!). Before bed and immediately after waking up seem to be the best time for this, though I’m hoping to gradually increase these windows.
Try it out, it’s not as difficult as you might think! (A dirty trick for you mobile-obsessed folks is to keep your phone out of sight and sound.)
Not sure about you, but greenery and being amidst nature certainly cheers me up! While there’s nothing quite like unending, untouched forests, even having a plant in one’s room, or stepping out for a walk in the park can do wonders to your mood! Try it 🙂
Here’s the tough part- none of the above will work unless REPEATED. Every single day. I know it’s difficult. I falter with one or the other of the above every day. But that’s life, isn’t it? It’s all about the journey, and getting a little better with each attempt!