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4 Ways to Build Strong Mental Foundations

It's not just buildings that need strong foundations, our minds do too!

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I feel healing energy. Portrait of serene girl with closed eyes enjoying atmosphere of coniferous wood
I feel healing energy. Portrait of serene girl with closed eyes enjoying atmosphere of coniferous wood

I took the opportunity during lockdown to take a really good look at myself as a business owner. What was my vision? Was I set up in a way that would help me achieve that? Where was my time going? What systems or processes did I need to create to be more efficient? And crucially, how was my mindset? Where was I mentally struggling and where was I holding myself back?

It made me think about the role of strong foundations in everything we do.

We all know how important it is to start with a strong foundation when we’re building something that’s got to work well and stand up to stress.

A business could collapse without effective processes and systems. Buildings could collapse without strong footings. Society could collapse without collective beliefs and rules. But what about our minds? We often ignore, or don’t even notice what’s happening in our inner world. But yes, your mind could collapse without strong foundations.

If your mind’s equivalent of footings, processes, systems, beliefs and rules are not working properly, your stress tolerance is going to be low. If they’re not directed towards your vision, they will hold you back in life.

It took a complete mental breakdown for me to learn this the hard way. Everything just seemed to happen to me. I was totally out of control, on auto pilot, reacting to everything. I didn’t have a strong mental foundation to operate from. I didn’t understand what was happening, what had gone wrong, and the worse thing was that I didn’t know how to fix it. You can learn more about that story in my blog “From Breakdown to Breakthrough

There’s huge concern today about the impact the pandemic is having on people’s mental health so it’s more important than ever to be aware of what’s going on in our own heads and start to become more familiar with the inner workings of our minds and how we can regain some control of it.

Understanding ourselves at this deeper level is a journey. We spend years layering on beliefs and habits as we go through the experience of life, so the layers have to be carefully peeled back with curiosity and compassion in order for us to choose what we want to keep, and what we can do without.

“A tree with strong roots laughs at storms.”

Proverb

It does take conscious attention and a willingness to go inward and do the work on yourself. Most of us are only forced to change when there is a crisis.

Seeing as we’re all in a global one right now, I want to share with you 4 things you can do to start to strengthen your own mental foundations.

Before I get into that, you need to understand something about your mind.

Our minds need to run as efficiently as possible, so nature gave us a nice energy saving auto-pilot solution. Our subconscious mind. Everything goes in there. All our beliefs, memories, everything we’ve ever experienced and made a meaning from, and every action we ever took, is recorded and stored. So, when an external event happens, your mind goes through the records, finds a best match for that situation, and runs a program. The thing is, it may not be the most appropriate program anymore but it’s so fast and automatic we don’t catch it running!

In my blog “Does your life feel like Groundhog Day?” I shared a shocking fact – scientists estimate that on average we have around 60,000 thoughts per day. 95% of those thoughts are the same ones from the previous day… and the day before that! Effectively we’re stuck in looping thoughts from the past. The majority of these looping thoughts are negative which can lead to excessive worrying, anxiety and stress.

So, how can you interrupt your auto pilot and create stronger foundations that will help you become more resilient and less prone to stress and anxiety?

Here’s 4 things that work for me.

Embrace mindfulness

I owe a big part of my recovery to waking up to the present moment and actually noticing what was going on around me. I was so caught up in my own internal dialogue it’s like I’d been sleepwalking for most of my life.

What is mindfulness? It’s described as “purposefully bringing one’s attention back to the present moment without judgement”. Sounds easy but actually it’s quite difficult to focus on the present when your mind just wants to constantly jump to the future or worry about the past. It takes practice. Constant practice. After a while it becomes a habit to gently bring your mind back to where you are.

Take time out for a mindful walk and notice the sights, sounds and smells. Have a go at journalling. Try a guided meditation. Doing something that engages all your senses makes being in the present moment easier.

“If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the present.”

Lao Tzu

Get intentional about noticing your triggers

Have you noticed how certain people or situations can send you from a reasonably sane human being into a blubbering wreck or raging crazy person in seconds? You don’t even know how it happened it just did. And did you want to act that way? Probably not. This is a trigger. Your subconscious mind has gone off to the files and thought, “oh, I recognize this situation, I need to run program XYZ”.

This is great in a crisis, or when we’re dealing with something mundane. The problem is your mind can’t tell the difference, so the “I was attacked by a giant bird when I was 3” program might be still be selected when 45 year old you encounters a pigeon in the park resulting in you running around terrified and screaming.

Over time you’ll start to become aware of what’s setting you off, and then you can take back control.

Adopt this belief – No-one can make you feel a certain way

Let me repeat that.

NO ONE CAN MAKE YOU FEEL A CERTAIN WAY

I know this one may be controversial, especially if you’re going through a difficult time right now. We can all feel that life is against us at times (including me) and yes I fully embrace the right to be upset about other people’s actions. And I fully agree that it’s “OK to not be OK”.

I’m inviting you consider a different perspective.

They made me upset. They made me angry. They made me happy.

The truth is you made yourself upset. You chose to be angry. You decided to be happy.

It may not feel like it, but it’s true. It all starts with a thought in your head. A belief about yourself. That thought creates the feeling and the emotion, and that dictates how you act.

Here’s an example: You have a belief that you aren’t good at public speaking. Your boss or client asks to do a presentation, and you think “OMG I can’t do that, it will be a disaster. Just like that one time I had to do a talk. It was so bad, I went red and forgot my words. I can’t do it”. Then the emotions kick in – panic, worry, embarrassment…. Then you burst into tears. Who’s “made” you stressed and tearful? Clue – it’s not your manager!

Tony Robbins, a famous coach & motivational speaker says:

“ If you believe people have to behave in a certain way for you to be happy, and if they don’t, you’re unhappy… you’re always going to be unhappy.”

Be response-able

Believe me when I say, taking responsibility for your own reactions and owning your emotional responses is life changing. For me, things felt easier, I was able to cope better in stressful situations. I was less affected by office politics. I felt calmer, more in control. I stopped feeling responsible for other people’s actions or reactions, it was their stuff, not mine. I just didn’t take things as personally anymore.

As I said before, our automatic reactions can be helpful, especially to keep us safe in dangerous situations. However, the problem is we rely on these reactions too often. They slip by unnoticed, unquestioned. To be able to respond more effectively we need to be more open minded about what we’re putting out there.

And here’s another controversial point – it might just be you that’s the problem!

Let’s say you struggle with people who are more senior than you especially if you consider them quite confident and dominating. Your habitual response is to be quietly compliant, saying yes to everything to avoid conflict. You then ruminate, worry and complain because you don’t really have the time to do the thing you’ve said yes to. You have created your own stress.

Instead, buy yourself some time. Pause, and say “I’d love to help, I’ll check my workload and get back to you”. You can then respond from a logical calm place as opposed to an emotionally triggered one.

Pay attention to yourself. Make a conscious decision to challenge that thought. Examine the habit. Notice the feeling. Put some space in between you and the situation or person.

Breathe.

Now when you are able to catch your automatic reactions, notice when you’re being triggered, and know no-one has the power to make you feel a certain way, you have more choice in how you respond.

“You have to train your mind to be tougher than your emotions. I promise it will take you much further.”

Justice Branai
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People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

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