Can you think yourself to better mental health? New research offers a clue

There are lots of factors that shape our psychological wellbeing, including our attitude

Ian Hamilton
Monday 16 May 2022 12:40
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<p>But a positive mental attitude can only take us so far</p>

But a positive mental attitude can only take us so far

One of the many qualities Deborah James displays in her battle with bowel cancer is a positive attitude. This inner belief demonstrates a real strength that few would doubt has impacted her journey from diagnosis to end-of-life care. Sadly, this positive mental attitude can only take her and those like her so far; it can’t stop the inevitable advance of terminal disease.

Just like a physical health problem, a mental health one can make you feel impotent in the way it develops. So it’s encouraging to see new research from Denmark suggesting that if an individual believes they can improve their mental wellbeing, this will have a positive effect on their health.

While this may seem obvious, there has been little evidence so far to support the idea. Most of what we have relied on has been individual anecdotes. Having interviewed thousands of people, the researchers found that those who scored highest on a scale assessing self-belief were more likely to enjoy good mental health and, importantly, prevent mental health problems developing in the first place.

The same researchers have developed the Act-Belong-Commit (ABC) campaign, which is an accessible tool to enhance individual mental wellbeing.

Act: Keep physically, mentally, socially and spiritually active. Do something – such as going for walks, reading, playing games or taking up a hobby.

Belong: Keep up friendships and close social ties, engage in group activities, and participate in community events. Do something with someone – whether that’s going to dinner with friends or joining a recreational sports league.

Commit: Set goals and challenges, engage in activities that provide meaning and purpose in life, including taking up causes and volunteering to help others. Do something meaningful.

80 per cent of participants who had heard of the ABC campaign had benefitted from it, by either gaining new knowledge or putting it into action, the researchers reported.

Many reading this will think it all sounds like common sense, and to some extent it is. We can all think of a time when how positive or not we felt had a bearing on the way we approached a challenge, and its outcome. Psychologists call this “internal locus of control” – the belief that you have some control over how you feel, think and behave. Having a high internal locus of control contributes to a more active and less passive approach to life and the problems we face.

But we are not all born with an equal level of internal locus of control, and even those who do have a higher level will find this fluctuates over time. So, although we may know how important it is to have a positive mental attitude, it can be difficult to muster when we need it most. There are lots of factors that shape our positive or negative attitudes to psychological wellbeing.

One important factor is experience. If you have a reservoir of past situations where you successfully maintained or improved your mental health, this increases the likelihood of trying and succeeding to improve the way you feel now. Unfortunately, the converse is also true: past failures reduce our ability and belief in our capacity to change our mental health now.

In many ways, we are in the dark ages when it comes to our understanding of mental health and illness, especially in comparison to physical health. It’s always welcome to have new research intelligence like this Danish study, as it incrementally improves knowledge and provides practical tips to help improve mental wellbeing.

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My fear is that this new research promoting individual responsibility has the potential to be misused, particularly by politicians. As waiting times for access to psychological treatment balloon, it’s easy to imagine how the government might absolve itself from the issue. Instead of providing the resources needed for timely and effective mental health treatment, the onus will be put on the individual to enhance their self-belief to improve their mental health. While that might be effective for some, it won’t be enough for many.

You can no more think yourself out of cancer than think yourself out of anxiety and depression.

There will always be those who are fortunate enough to have the resource of a positive mental attitude and reap the mental wellbeing benefits. However, there are many who don’t: they have years of believing they are worthless and without hope, which make it nigh-on impossible for a do-it-yourself approach to mental ill health.

As with cancer, there is a need to support and treat people who struggle with their mental health. If we and our politicians don’t acknowledge this and provide the funds, we are taking away any morsel of hope they have left.

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