By Rob Furlong
As I write this article Australia’s Mental Health Awareness Week 2020 has just concluded.
“What in the world does mental health have to do with relationships?” you ask.
Everything, actually – especially in this time of what has come to be called “social distancing.”
The term itself has bothered me a little, subtly implying that we must cut off all contact with each other.
“Physical distancing” is much more accurate.
When we are cut off completely – voluntarily and involuntarily – from relational contact, our mental health suffers.
And so do our relationships.
We all battle negative or toxic thoughts, some of us more than others. Left unchecked, toxic thinking becomes an ingrained pattern in our minds – one that has developed over many years. You would be right in saying it is invariably our default way of thinking.
Science has repeatedly demonstrated that it is our thoughts that determine our behavior, emotions and ultimately, our character.
The South African Psychologist, Dr. Arch Hart summarizes the powerful influence of our thoughts in this way:
“Your thinking determines whether you move toward disease or health, success or failure, achievement or decline. It influences whether you will live a long or short life and whether you will be happy or sad most of the time. It even determines if you’ll get married or whether your sex life will be satisfying.” (Arch Hart, Habits of the Mind.)
What Hart is not saying is “just develop a positive mind-set!” Good mental health is certainly enhanced by more positive thinking but we must not delude ourselves with the idea that people who suffer from a genuine mental disorder will have it all solved by being told to “think happy thoughts.”
The Australian National Health Survey revealed that in 2017-2018 4.8 million Australians struggled with a mental or behavioural condition including things such as anxiety related disorders, depression or feelings of depression. This amounts to 20.1% of the Australian population. In other words, 1 in 5 Aussies struggle with some form of mental illness, debilitating them and their relationships, robbing them of a flourishing life.
However, the good news is that through the development of healthier thinking habits, many people can be helped in their struggles. I am not saying that they should stop seeing their counselor or go off their medication. I am saying that their mental health will be greatly enhanced with the development of new ways of thinking, in addition to the treatment they are already receiving.
I should know because I suffer from an anxiety disorder myself but I have been learning the enormous value of changing my mindset. What follows is something of what I have learned and continue to learn.
What is a toxic thought?
It’s a thought that says, “I’m no good”, “I’m worthless”, “I can’t do it”, “I will fail”, “I’ll screw it up.” (Basically fill in your own script here – you know what the thoughts are.)
These two principles below have helped me enormously in dealing with my own toxic thinking:
● When you become aware of the toxic thought, take it captive. In other words, acknowledge it and capture it, rather than allowing it to take root in your mind.
● Renounce the thought. For example, tell yourself “That is a lie! That is not who I am.” “That is not what I am going to do.” Don’t be too hard on yourself if you don’t capture the thought right away. Some really helpful advice I read recently is that it is better to take the thought captive later than not at all.
I will share some more principles next month, but for now, let the following wise words encourage you in your thinking – “Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honourable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.” (Paul of Tarsus).
By Rob Furlong