I want to talk about the biggest threat to your mental strength. And it’s probably going to surprise you, because it’s not what most people think.
But first I want to share a story…
On the slopes of a high old mountain in Northern Canada lies the ruin of a gigantic ancient tree.
Scientists estimate that, during the course of its long life, it endured huge storms, gale force winds, several huge avalanches, and was struck by lightning.
Through all this, it remained resilient and survived.
But, one day, an army of tiny beetles began to invade the tree and attack it from the inside out. These tiny little insects slowly gnawed away inside the tree, destroying its inner strength with their tiny but ceaseless attacks.
This titan of the forest, which storms and winds had failed to bend, which time had not diminished and lightning and avalanches couldn’t destroy, was at last levelled to the ground by tiny little beetles, so small and fragile you could crush them easily between your fingers.
This story serves as a good metaphor for what I have seen to be the greatest threat to most people’s mental resilience. In my work with people over the past decade, I have found that most of us can summon up the resolve and strength needed to get through times of great crisis when we have to.
Don’t underestimate the power of ongoing negative thoughts
It is the small everyday unhelpful thoughts that tend to eat at us from the inside out. It’s the gnawing negative thoughts, the worries, the ruminations, the self-doubt, the resentments, the self-criticism, the dissatisfaction, the craving or the fear.
This is what saps our mental strength the most. What often happens is we get stuck in these unhelpful patterns on repeat. The mind plays it over and over and over.
And what we know from neuroplasticity is that when you repeat a pattern over and over, it becomes a habit and a habit eventually becomes a trait.
In other words, if you repeat anxious thoughts, you eventually become an anxious person. If you repeat self-critical thoughts, you eventually erode your sense of self-worth and confidence and become a shy or suppressed person. If you think angry thoughts you eventually become an angry person, etc.
These repetitive negative thoughts are often what pull us away from our connectedness with our own innate wisdom, peace of mind and inner strength.
However, through using the skill of mindfulness, we can learn to identify when we are getting stuck in those unhelpful thoughts, let them go, return our attention to the present moment and, in turn, our place of steadiness and mental strength.
Use mindfulness to escape
Every time we do this pattern of noticing unhelpful thoughts, letting them go and returning attention to the present moment, we weaken the unhelpful pattern instead of reinforcing it.
We grow resilience, calm and happiness and, with practice, we grow an unshakable core of strength that can carry us through all the ups and downs of life.
So, how can you start to utilise mindfulness today to break those unhelpful patterns that can erode mental strength?
You can use this 4-step STOP method.
This practice has been shown to be incredibly helpful in reducing stress, anxiety and negativity and increasing resilience.
The STOP method
S is for Stop
Interrupt your automatic negative thoughts by pausing whatever you’re doing. Take a moment to become still. Especially if you are rushing or feeling reactive, just taking a brief pause—even for five seconds—can help gain perspective and awareness.
T is for Take a Breath
Take a breath, bring your focus to the feeling of your breath and then breathe a slow, full breath in and out. This helps to calm the nervous system and ground you in the present moment.
O is for Observe
Open your awareness to your senses. Here, we want to redirect our attention out of being caught up in thoughts and bring focus into the present moment and into our senses.
Identify what you can feel, see and hear.
Feel your feet on the ground and the breath in your body.
The goal is not to try and get rid of your thought. There’s no need to push it away, stuff it down or pretend it’s not there. Just let it be, but unhook it from your attention so you’re no longer caught up in it by bringing your focus into the moment.
Take a step back from the thought and reconnect.
P is for Proceed with Awareness
Intentionally consider how you’d like to proceed. Try to be connected to your senses and also think about how you’d like to respond to what is happening from a place of strength and awareness.
I want you to imagine right now that you’re in a situation where you’re having really stressful thoughts. Your mind is racing, your heart is starting to pound, you can feel emotion rising and your mind is generating some unhelpful thoughts:
- “Why is this happening?”
- “This is so unfair”
- “I’m such an idiot”
Now, practice the STOP method.
Stop… so physically pause, relax your arms, settle in your seat, put down your drink or your pen or whatever you’re doing.
Take a deep breath in and out.
Open awareness to your senses. Let your thoughts be. Let them do whatever they want to do as you focus on:
- What you can see
- What you can feel
- What you can hear
- What you can smell
Finally, proceed with awareness.
It’s crucial to remember that your thoughts are just thoughts. You don’t have to believe them or buy into them, nor do you have to obey them. You can smile at your mind’s antics and proceed with your day, choosing your actions and thoughts with awareness and intention.
And that is the STOP method.
I invite you to take on a little challenge this week. Why not try the STOP method for at least one day?
Each time you catch yourself caught up in unhelpful thoughts, practice the four steps and pay close attention to the effects that it has on your body, on your mind and in your life.
If you find it helpful, keep using it as a tool to maintain and build your mental strength so that you can live a more happy, healthy and meaningful life.
Thank you for reading. Take care and stay strong.
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