Why you should throw that to-do list in the bin in the name of mental health

It’s not about changing the way you think, says life coach Allegra Stein - it’s about acknowledging that your thoughts have a big impact on how you feel

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New research has shown that even a brief period of stress can shrink the part of your brain that affects your memory.

According to a recent study from the National Centre for Biological Sciences, the shrinking occurs before it is evident in memory loss or in changes of behaviour.

In the wake of Mental Illness Awareness Week, how can people protect themselves against stress and other negative emotions? 

Rather than learning to solve your problems by working harder, finding the perfect relationship, or changing the way you think, New York-based life coach Allegra Stein teaches her clients to acknowledge their thoughts and realise those thoughts influence how we feel.

"It’s not about changing your thinking," she said.

"It’s like saying, ‘don’t think about pink elephants'. Saying you want to change the way you think is like saying there’s something wrong with the way you think."


1) Acknowledge your feelings and why you are feeling a certain way

If you notice that you're driving 80 miles per hour in a 50-mile zone, the first thing you do is take your foot off the accelator. The same metaphor applies when it comes to your emotions.

"The first thing you do is notice how you’re feeling, whether it’s anger, anxiety or stress – it’s an indicator that you’re not in your settled, quiet space," Ms Stein says. 

"The way you slow down is you take you foot off your accelerator, and you notice that’s what’s happening."

Ultimately it’s not the pile of paper on your desk, the impending deadline or a snarky comment from your boss that causes stress; the stress is caused by negative thoughts, she explains.

"If you had one deadline and a project and you presented it to 10 different people, they wouldn’t all feel the exact same way about it," she said. 

You can’t change the deadline or magic it away, but acknowledging your negative thoughts will "bring the power back to you".


2) Stop training your brain to think positive thoughts

It’s time to throw those to-do lists in the bin.

You have more thoughts than you realise, but the default state should be a settled mind.

"Think of children: it’s like they are floating around on the surface of the ocean," says Ms Stein. "They aren’t miserable all the time and they aren’t elated all the time. Optimism is their default."

The default state does not involve thinking negative or positive thoughts, making judgements, listing goals or reciting mantras in the mirror.

"We don’t need positive thoughts to feel great, just let your thoughts settle down," says Ms Stein.


3) Don’t stress yourself in seeking that 'aha! moment'

Thoughts in your head can be compared to a snow globe. The more you think, the more those bits of snow in the water are flurrying and swirling around.

"It’s just ego, chatter and noise - about the future and the past and making judgements about everything and everyone," she says.

Getting rid of that mental clutter will allow a different quality of thought to creep in.

"We convince outselves we have to think our way to that ‘aha!' moment. Just slow down and let it happen. We can accomplish the same thing through different ways."

Finding it hard to let go of those thoughts?

Take a five minute stroll, says Ms Stein.

"Physical movement dislodges your thinking. Your mind is like a river and it can get dammed up."


4) Don’t try to manipulate your friends and partners

The closer we get to someone, the more we think that our thoughts should cross over and align. 

"What they think is what you think, and if that doesn’t happen, you assume something is wrong with your relationship," says Ms Stein. 

"But everyone has their own story, and no one’s story is right. And what if your story isn’t true?"

Instead of arguing or trying to change someone’s mind, try listening instead.


5) Stop thinking like a victim

Thinking like a victim, says Ms Stein, is when you believe someone else or something else is responsible for how you feel.

"He/she is saying something, and it's is making me feel something," she says. "It feels awful. No wonder I feel angry. But what if you’re doing something to yourself?"

As Ms Stein explains, there is your business, someone else’s business and the universe’s business. 

"How much of your mind is filled with other people’s business?"

Recognise that you are simply interpreting and judging other people, she says, and you might not be right.

"People find it easier to talk about their boss or their husband, but not themselves," she says.


6) Don’t take yourself too seriously

As we grow older and form opinions, we start to believe these thoughts represent us and define who we are. 

"If I’m not stressed about work, then who am I? If I’m not always remembering the past, then who am I? Well, let’s find out," says Ms Stein. 

"It’s about a willingness not to take ourselves so seriously."

Admittedly, some thoughts feel more real or more pressing, including about our jobs, money, politics, our bodies - but they can also become mental obstacles that hold us back.

"Recognise the difference here: what you are thinking and what is reality," she says. "There is a crucial difference."


7) Take that first step towards your goal

Thoughts stop us from achieving something, says Ms Stein. 

What if it wont work out? What if she doesn’t like me? 

"It’s only a thought that keeps you from achieving something. It can prevent you from taking that small step, which could be simply making a phone call or booking that plane ticket," she advises.


8) Don’t worry about the future

A lot of people believe they can control the future by thinking their way towards it.

But thoughts change. Why waste your time and energy on something until it happens?

"The alternative is you’re a time traveller, or a fortune-teller," she says. "And that puts pressure on you to control or manipulate something that’s not happening right now."

Does that mean believing in the philosophy of 'what will be will be'?

"Sure, that’s better than thinking you can control what will be," she says.