Glass Shards and Mental Hygiene

Last night, I wrapped up my first week in Toronto alone and in tears in my kitchen, plucking tiny slivers of glass from my fingers.

It had been a long day. I had made the trek out to IKEA in Etobicoke to pick up the essentials for my new place; since I took a bus to get there, I arranged to have my purchases delivered to my house later that day. After spending the rest of the day scrubbing and organizing the kitchen, I answered the door to two deliverymen, who dropped off my things and sped away to complete the rest of their route.

Once they had left, I picked up the package containing a side-table with a glass top, and it sounded like it was full of gravel. Not a good sign. Sure enough, as I opened the box, millions of glass shards spilled out–several lodging themselves into my fingers and palms. I remembered what the clerk at the store had told me: “If anything’s damaged, you have to declare it when it’s delivered. Otherwise, we won’t be able to give you a refund.” My precious money wasted on this stupid broken table.

As I stood at the counter with the tweezers, watching bright red droplets of blood well up and fall into the sink, it all caught up to me: my immediate pain, the stresses of the week, and my worries for the year ahead. Was I going to like it here? Would I make any friends? Would I have enough money? What did it say that I already dearly miss the ocean, forests and mountains of BC? Did I make the right choice to come here? 

I thought to myself: I’m sure there’s a lesson here. I’m sure in a year, I’ll look back and laugh. But right now, this just sucks.

***

There’s an article that was published in The Atlantic in September 2015 that you may have come across, or at least seen referenced. It’s called “The Coddling of the American Mind: How Trigger Warnings are Hurting Mental Health on Campus“. In the article, writers Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt decry what they see as today’s overly-sensitive and protected university students, and the increase in mental health issues that has come of it. While I don’t necessarily see eye-to-eye with these writers on trigger warnings in the university setting, something in this article has stuck with me in the months since I read it: a list of “Common Cognitive Distortions” that outline the ways in which we see only the bad in the world, leading to our unhappiness. Lukianoff and Haidt mention it in the context of cognitive behavioural therapy (a kind of psychotherapy) but they make the point that really, it’s a universal idea that’s been around forever:

For millennia, philosophers have understood that we don’t see life as it is; we see a version distorted by our hopes, fears, and other attachments. The Buddha said, “Our life is the creation of our mind.” Marcus Aurelius said, “Life itself is but what you deem it.” The quest for wisdom in many traditions begins with this insight. Early Buddhists and the Stoics, for example, developed practices for reducing attachments, thinking more clearly, and finding release from the emotional torments of normal mental life. Cognitive behavioral therapy is a modern embodiment of this ancient wisdom…

The goal is to minimize distorted thinking and see the world more accurately. You start by learning the names of the dozen or so most common cognitive distortions. Each time you notice yourself falling prey to one of them, you name it, describe the facts of the situation, consider alternative interpretations, and then choose an interpretation of events more in line with those facts. Your emotions follow your new interpretation. In time, this process becomes automatic. When people improve their mental hygiene in this way—when they free themselves from the repetitive irrational thoughts that had previously filled so much of their consciousness—they become less depressed, anxious, and angry.

Whatever disagreements I have with this article, this I believe in: practicing this “mental hygiene” is something we all need to work on, individually and as a society. (A caveat: I’m not talking here about addressing these cognitive distortions as a way to cope with serious mental illness, like PTSD or clinical depression. What I mean is that the general public should practice “mental hygiene” to look after their mental health, just as we should exercise and eat well to take care of our physical health.)

I think we need to get better about talking about our low points and how we deal with them, too — in today’s context of seeing others’ fake-perfect, carefully curated social media lives, it can be easy to have a distorted view of the world and how you measure up. Plus, in everyone’s pursuit of the perfect Instagram feed, people don’t want to share their struggles — which makes us all feel more alone.

***

When I revisit this list of cognitive distortions with last night’s events in mind, I see all the ways in which I was participating in the game of seeing the very worst in the situation. I was fortune-telling: I won’t be able to adapt to life here. I was what-if-ing: What if I graduate in a ton of debt and it’s not worth it? I was focusing on the negatives: My place here isn’t as nice as my apartment in Victoria. There’s so much traffic and noise.

When you’re in the depths of a low mood, it’s hard to put things into context and act with a rational evaluation of the situation. Sometimes you just need to have a little cry, pick out the glass shards, and sleep it off. Life isn’t always awesome. The key, I think, is whether you can summon the strength and use coping mechanisms to banish those common distortions from lingering — if you can face the next day with a better attitude, seeing the positives, using your what-ifs to explore all the beautiful possibilities that are before you. For me, it’s a work in progress.

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