How Finding Our Alternative Voice Can improve our mental health
We know talking with others improves our well-being and helps to prevent feelings of loneliness and isolation.
It's the reason why awareness-raising initiatives such as Time to Talk on 2 February are so important, but it's equally valuable to have meaningful conversations with ourselves in ways that can improve our mental health.
The trouble is, what's often going on in our heads is a monologue rather than a dialogue. When we're anxious, all we can hear is a persistent negative voice telling us there is something to fear and avoid, and then we worry that we're worrying, and so it continues.
Breaking this cycle is hard to do. It's human nature to go on autopilot. We tend to hear what we want to hear and see what we want to see. There's a famous video - the basketball players, which demonstrates this perfectly.
What's more, we now live in a technological age in which our preferences are constantly reflected back to us through Facebook, Twitter and Google. It's very difficult to have counter-cultural debates because it is easy not to be exposed to them.
So how can we find an alternative voice to give us more meaningful and insightful conversations with ourselves?
Our reactions to situations are not always generated by conversations in our heads, but in our guts. We're all familiar with physiological effects of stress - the butterflies in our stomach, the urgent rush of fear. But research shows that even the subtlest of responses are generated by tweaks in our intestines. We've reacted to something even before we're aware we've reacted, or know why.
It's as though we have two brains, but instead of giving us alternative points of view, they are both saying the same thing. The key is to turn this wounding and habitual monologue into a helpful dialogue.
Try these pointers for more helpful conversations with yourself, and then talk to others too.
1. Try to be compassionate rather than stern or derogatory. Think of how you might talk to a distressed child who needs your help.
2. Examine the evidence. Take your time and listen to the detail of what you are saying; turn towards it rather than away. We tend to be extreme in our self-criticism. But if you treat yourself like a legal case, look at the evidence for and against what you are thinking - are there more realistic appraisals of the fact, and how do you feel if you can manage a more balanced thought instead?
3. Switch off your personal alarm. When we respond to gut experiences we respond to our own personal alarm. Switch your alarm off by changing your breathing. Take a long slow breath out while counting to six, hold it for a count of two, then gently allow yourself to breathe in. Do this over the course of a minute or so and you will feel calmer. If you breathe slowly look this, it tends to calm a racing brain, try it before tackling things that feel difficult
4. Alternate your focus to stop the earworm of worry. Try listening and focusing on a talking radio programme for a minute, followed by a minute of focusing on your thoughts, feelings and physical sensations. This is difficult to do, but if you practice it, you can develop the capacity to tune in and out of your experiences.