“You either control the mind or it controls you” – Napoleon Hill.
The mind is a beautiful yet dangerous thing. It can be both our greatest companion and worst enemy. As self-help author Napoleon Hill said, we can either take action to control our mind or succumb to being controlled by it. In this post, I plan to explore some history behind research of the mind and share what I have learned about how changes in mindset can put you back in a position of control and improve mental well-being. Quick side note… please remember I am just a college student sharing what I have learned and opinions of my own experience!
In the grand scheme of things, very little is known about the mind. Cognitive neuroscience is a subfield of neuroscience that explores the biological processes underlying human cognition. In other words, it explores the relationship between the brain and the mind. The field of cognitive neuroscience is a baby in the scientific world — being only about 35 years old. It is crazy to me that so much is unknown about the very thing that plays a huge role, oftentimes, a largely negative role, in our lives.
Now let’s move on to talk about mindset. I am sure you have heard many times about the power of having a positive mindset or learned in school about adopting a growth mindset to succeed. We hear society and the media talk about mindset constantly, but what does it actually mean?
The dictionary definition of mindset is a fixed attitude, disposition, or mood. If you’re a ‘brain’ fanatic like me, you’ll be fascinated to hear that the neural mechanisms behind your thoughts coincide really well with this definition. In the most basic terms, the amygdala, our emotional regulatory center, plays a major role in the processing of our emotions. How you process emotions translates into how you think, and your thoughts contribute to your mindset. If you constantly feed the amygdala with negative information, these neural pathways get strengthened and you are more likely to fixate on the negative when processing future emotional situations. This is why a negative mindset is so dangerous, because it can cause you to fixate on the negative in life.
I am obviously not an expert and am in no way saying I do this well, but this is why taking time to process these negative emotions is so important. Sometimes setting time aside to do so feels nearly impossible, especially when the stress of school, relationships, the future, and social life come at you all at once. However, there are two things I have found that help me in taking steps to healthily process my emotions: journaling and having compassion for myself.
Please don’t stop reading now if you think journaling is stupid. When someone suggested I journal for the first time, I thought that it was a time old therapeutic practice that people are programmed to say you should do if you are struggling and that it wouldn’t really help much. I am also a HUGE ranter, which my parents get the brunt of (so sorry mom and dad), so I didn’t understand why writing my thoughts on paper would be any different than saying them aloud. Don’t get me wrong, I still think talking and sharing your emotions with others is incredibly important. However, I have found journaling really helps me process intense, long-term emotions that feel incredibly overwhelming. In my experience, the act of actually putting thoughts on paper helps me process them tremendously. I think about it as taking the negative out of my mind/brain/body and moving it to the external environment. I know it may seem hard to know what to write or just weird at times, but if you’re having a super emotional day just try it! If you need convenience, write in your notes app or on literally any piece of scrap paper. If you need motivation, buy a cute notebook to journal in — mine is from Target but Urban’s online sale section has some fabulous ones right now. Just TRY IT!
Another thing that’s super tough about the mind is reconciling how you feel with how you think you should feel. In my experience, these two are almost always in competition with each other, especially when it comes to heavy emotions because I hold myself to a high standard and expect myself to be able to process emotions more effectively than I do. However, these standards just cause me to ruminate in the negative and feel these emotions much longer than necessary. I have learned that a huge part in reconciling these two feelings is having compassion for myself. When I was given the advice to ‘have compassion for myself,’ I was beyond confused. However, after reflecting upon the idea for a while, I have taken it to mean this: to acknowledge it’s okay to feel different than how you think you should feel and take the time to feel how you feel rather than holding yourself accountable to a societal standard of the timeliness and depth of emotional processing. I don’t know if that makes much sense, but when I am able to have compassion for myself and my negative emotions, I am able to process them much easier.
The mind is a crazy, unknown thing. Because of this, I think it is so important to take steps to reflect and assess your relationship with your mind. I am not saying this type of thought process and reflection is easy or will be the solution to ending one’s mental health challenges at all. But whether it be through journaling and self-compassion or other ways that work for you, being in tune with your emotions is so important. I hope you are all able to take a minute in the next few days to slow down and acknowledge how you are feeling in the crazy stress of life!