There are many ways in which we can improve our mental health by practicing mental therapy without a therapist.
We can develop lifelong skills and tools to:
- Improve our self-awareness and self-knowledge
- Increase our mental discipline
- Strengthen our memory, concentration and attention
- Stabilise and improve our moods
- Reduce anxiety and increase our resilience to stress
- Change our feelings about our circumstances, by managing our thoughts and beliefs
As we have seen, the brain’s neuroplasticity allows us to improve our thought patterns and beliefs and therefore our feelings, and this can be done through self-therapy.
Change your thought patterns, beliefs and feelings
You are not your brain. Your brain works for you, delivering thoughts, sights, sounds, smells, etc. It’s not your brain which is thinking, smelling, seeing etc. but rather your mind.
You are not simply receiving a fixed reality, but rather you are shaping it, with your attitude, associations, etc.
The way in which we perceive our lives is our whole experience of life, regardless of external reality.
If we want to change our lives, and change how we feel in our lives, we need to change our perceptions of our lives, by changing the thoughts and beliefs which unconsciously form these perceptions and generate these feelings.
Each thought and belief we have affects the way our brain communicates with the rest of our body, and has an impact on our body’s chemical state – our hormones and our neurotransmitters.
We can learn to train our brain, become aware of our thoughts, and alter them, in order to affect our experience of reality, our feelings, and our actions. This is a form of self-therapy.
Learn how to use your brain instead of letting it use you.Chopra, D. and Tanzi, R. E. (2013). Super Brain. Rider Books, Random House, pp. 77-84.
Stimulate your brain
You have seen how to manage your negative thoughts and beliefs to ensure more balanced feelings and behaviour.
But it’s also important to keep stimulating your brain in other ways for optimal mental health, especially for cognition — concentration, processing and memory.
The more you ask of your brain, the more it can do. In order to learn new things, you have to let go of old ideas and be flexible, and sometimes this can be uncomfortable.
Below are some suggestions for stimulating your brain.Hyman, M. (2008). The UltraMind Solution. New York: Scribner., Chopra, D. and Tanzi, R. E. (2013). Super Brain. Rider Books, Random House.
It increases the level of oxygen in the brain and will help you to think clearly.
- Most memory lapses are attention lapses
- Did you really forget the new person’s name, or were you not concentrating when she told you?
- A regular meditation practise can help
Including things outside of your field of expertise, or daily habits. Try new things, stretch your mind.
Don’t listen to people who say that losing your memory is an inevitable part of ageing – this is a myth, and there are many positive steps you can take to preserve your memory
- Memorise all of your friends’ phone numbers, and all of your credit card numbers
- Give yourself a minute to try and remember something when you’re mid memory lapse
- Sometimes, people panic, and give up too quickly
- Try and remember things you associate with whatever you’re trying to remember
- Give yourself cues
- Lists can be useful, but if you rely on lists and similar memory crutches all the time, you’re not working to strengthen your brain
- Use multi-sensory learning:
- Auditory (through the ears)
- Record ideas and listen to yourself narrating
- Listen to podcasts
- Listen to music while studying
- Repeat facts out loud
- Paraphrase ideas and create stories around them
- Visual (through the eyes)
- Use colored pens
- Draw diagrams
- Make mind-maps
- Tactile (through touch):
- Kinesthetic (through body movements):
- Make up gestures to associate with new information, for instance dancing around as you repeat what you want to learn
- Auditory (through the ears)
Do things you love doing at least once a day, and spend time with people and activities that make you feel alive, energetic and happy.
There are many great brain-training applications which can be helpful to stimulate your brain, and balance your moods and your nervous system.
However don’t let yourself get sucked into screens, and monitor the amount of time you spend watching TV and on your phone.
- Doing SuDoku and a cross-word puzzle and word games use different parts of the brain, and so do learning a sport and learning a language
- Seek out new ideas by attending lectures or local classes
- Be creative – write in a journal, paint, make music, or dance
- Do maths in your head, instead of with a calculator
- Join a study group or book club
- Travel and explore new places
Read books, take courses, do retreats, surround yourself by people who can guide and teach you.
Bibliotherapy is a broad term for the practice of reading as therapy. It focuses mainly on literature as a way of working through common mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.
The Ancient Greeks referred to a library in Thebes as a ‘healing place for the soul’.
- Mental health problems can make us feel isolated and alone, however reading can help us feel more connected to universal human experience
- That is part of the beauty of literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone F. Scott Fitzgerald, in a letter to Sheilah Graham. Phillips, L. W., ed. (1986). F. Scott Fitzgerald On Writing. New York: Charles Scribner, p. 10.
- Good books can help us to escape from personal problems and immerse ourselves in another world, giving us respite from stress
- Reading was shown to reduce stress levels by 68% by the University of Sussex in 2009 Lewis, D. (2009). Galaxy Stress Research. Mindlab International, Sussex University, UK.
- Reading a book before bed has often been recommended as a way of getting better sleep
- Reading can give us new perspectives on our situation, helping us to explore human relationships and different responses to difficult situations in a safe environment
- Reading can release us from the moral obligations and boundaries of the outer world and give us insight into our true desires and possible reactions from the safety fictional characters and situations
- Self-help books can provide helpful insights, concrete strategies and tactics for growth, and encouragement and support during times of change
- If we are unable to access face-to-face mental therapy, reading may give us a sense of being recognized and understood
- Reading encourages imagination and empathy
We have started to show how identification with fictional characters occurs, how literary art can improve social abilities, how it can move us emotionally, and can prompt changes of selfhood. Oatley, K. (2011). Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, p. ix.
- Reading is accessible and free – most places have good public libraries, and the internet has wonderful second hand books which cost almost nothing full of self help books and literature
- Organized bibliotherapy can take many different forms
- Literature courses for prison inmates
- Reading circles for elderly people suffering from dementia
- Book clubs
- In the UK
- The charity the Reading Agency promotes reading because ‘everything changes when we read’
- Alain de Botton of the School of Life is bringing Bibliotherapy to the masses through specialised courses and prescriptions (The School of Life: https://www.theschooloflife.com/london/classroom/bibliotherapy/)