The way we think is central to everything we experience. Some years ago my life had come off the rails and I was diagnosed with clinical depression…

brain power

photography: D Coetzee

…The journey back from that dark place was long and slow. Prescribed anti-depressants improved my mood sufficiently to give me space to think more rationally. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) gave me some new frameworks and models for thinking about my life. Mindfulness exercises brought me back from unhelpful thinking patterns into more productive ones.

I would certainly recommend both CBT and Mindfulness to anyone finding themselves suffering any significant degree of depression. And whilst they don’t ‘fix’ the problem, medically-prescribed anti-depressants can at least lift your feelings enough to give you some room for manoeuvre. But in the end it was by the power of my own God-given brain that I found a road to recovery and freedom from this debilitating illness.

CBT and Mindfulness only work because of the tremendous capacity within each one of us to think about and reflect upon our own ways of thinking and processing the world around us. Psychologists call this meta-cognition; it is what sets us apart as humans from the rest of the animal kingdom. Put simply – you think yourself better.

Note: I can assure you that although for me the solution was ‘simple’, the process itself was in no way easy. If you know anyone suffering or recovering from depression, please give them time, space, care and respect. It’s a horrendous ride. If you want to help, read here first.

A diet for your brain
Today I am blessed to be fully recovered from mental illness. However, I have come to realise that the way I think remains vitally important to my life of Self-Improvement. Just as you can pay attention to your food to ensure healthy eating, there are things you can do to maintain “healthy thinking”, too. In essence, you can put your brain on a ‘diet’. Our ‘mental health’ is something we should all pay attention to.

Believe me, I know all about food diets. I tried many, many different plans and methods before I finally found one I could stick to and lose weight steadily over the long term (more of this in a later post, I think!) And just like any food diet, in your Brain Diet some items are added (you intentionally consume them regularly), some are restricted (you control your intake) and some are eliminated (you avoid them altogether).

Here are my 12 Brain Diet items:

ADD:

  • Ritual – Organise parts of your life into set routines and rituals. Do more daily tasks in the same way and in the same order each day. Your brain will thrive on making these connections and getting things done will become easier and more habitual. Your brain is happier when it knows what is coming next.
  • Gratitude – Take time daily to be grateful for all that you are and have in life. Give thanks to God, the universe, Mother Nature, Chance or to whoever you feel comfortable. What matters is that you focus on the positives – and we all have them. The ‘feel good’ factor will follow naturally from this process.
  • Meditation – Even if (like me) you’re not the ‘spiritual type’, there is huge value in taking time out to quieten your mind and simplify your thoughts. If you know nothing about meditation, just sit silently for twenty seconds and think about your breathing. There – you did it! A couple of minutes’ research on the Web will give you more information.
  • Afformations – You may have heard of affirmations: statements you make that express an ideal version of your life (“every day in every way I get a little better”). Afformations are similar, but they involve rephrasing affirmations as questions. The idea is to stimulate the problem-solving power of your subconscious. I’ve been using afformations for a few months and I’ve been very pleased with the results so far. Google it.
  • Writing – Write a journal. Write an eBook. Write a letter of encouragement. Draw a mind-map. Anything: just write. Writing helps to organise your thoughts, externalise your feelings and develop your ideas and stimulate creativity. I write a journal (by hand) every day and I do my ‘electronic’ writing for this blog in a regular daily slot, too. Writing soon becomes a habit; I look forward to it every day.
  • Learning – By all means enjoy a good novel, but do you read non-fiction, too? There are lots of free information eBooks out there (and the Kindle app is free, too). Enrol on a course, take up a new hobby. Watch a TED Talk and take notes. Get alongside a friend or colleague with a skill you don’t have. Widen your knowledge and expand your horizons – a valuable exercise in Self-Improvement.
  • Exploring – be curious, question everything. Get outside and observe nature, big and small (anything from stars to ants). Explore yourself too: question your own habits, motives, reactions, responses, preferences and actions. Curiosity generates good questions – and good questions inevitably lead to good answers.

RESTRICT:

  • Television – How many hours do you devote to TV in a week? On your deathbed, will you really look back and say, “I wish I had watched more television”? Try cutting your viewing time in half, and consciously fill the time up with brain-enhancing activities from the list above. Last year I began to intentionally watch less and less TV over time. Now I rarely turn it on. I’ll probably watch Doctor Who later this year, but not much else. I don’t miss it at all. That red button on the remote is labelled ‘Power’, so press it and take yours back!
  • News – We are surrounded by ‘fast news’: in the newspaper, on the TV, car radio, PC, laptop, phone, tablet. And it’s almost exclusively negative, so why feed our brains with it?. I have intentionally eliminated all news from my life except for a 5 minutes on Google News each day. I am still no more than 24 hours out of touch with any important story, but I have removed a huge negative influence. Take back control: go on a news diet and see the difference in how you feel.
  • Distraction – “Multi-tasking” has been debunked: you can only focus on one thing at a time. Rapid task-switching kills our competence and creativity. Turn off all your notifications (phone, computer, etc.) If you can, find a quiet place to work. Try some noise-cancelling headphones (even if there’s no music!) Establish boundaries with family or colleagues. Remove distractions and your work and creativity rate will soar. Managing your focus at home is important too…do you really need to react to that Tweet or Facebook update within the next 30 seconds?

ELIMINATE:

  • Self-condemnation – One of the hardest lessons I had to learn was to stop putting myself down. It is so easy to fall into the trap of comparing ourselves to others or setting unrealistic expectations. You are human. You will make mistakes. Embrace them, learn from them and adjust your expectations where necessary. Learn to love yourself, because you cannot give away what you don’t have. Give yourself a break. Give your brain a break.
  • Judging others – I’m still working hard on this one. It’s so easy to put others down: finding fault is an all-too-convenient way of procrastinating on improving yourself. Constructive criticism is okay where it is welcome, but anything else is generally unhelpful, both to the other person and to you. Thinking negatively is equally damaging regardless of whether you aim it at yourself or someone else.

This list is not intended to be exhaustive. You may want to add, restrict or eliminate your own Brain Diet items according to your personal situation or needs. But I hope these will give you a good starting point. Please feel free to add your Brain Diet ideas to the comments on this post!

Just as with food diets, success lies in application, consistency, persistence and resilience. I have less-than-perfect days and sometimes I fall off the Brain Diet wagon completely! As with any diet, the sooner you get back on, the better.

Take Action
Continue your journey of Self-Improvement by putting yourself on your own Brain Diet today. You probably already do some of these things – that’s great, it will be easier to add more! And when you start enjoying the benefits, come back here and tell everyone! Comments are always welcome.

To our continuing Self-Improvement and success!

David Hendra
The Self-Improvement Guy

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