Wednesday, November 28, 2012

What Goes In Must Come Out (Your Mind is a Sponge!)

Lately, I have been thinking about how I can take care of my own mental health. I have always thought of myself as a stable person, having been through some disappointments, family/friend deaths, break-ups, and the like, without having a major breakdown. (Sure, some crying in my room, maybe even a talk with a therapist, but I could always "pick myself up" shortly thereafter.)

But the more mildly traumatic experiences I go through (parents' divorce, car accident, even secondary traumatic experiences from reading through child abuse court cases), the more I realize that as resilient as my mind is, it is also very fragile. After my car accident in November 2010, I imagined the details of the accident, screamed out loud at other cars that so much as inched in my direction, and cried during my one hour commute on nearly a daily basis for months. I thought I was stronger than that. But I wasn't. Even when I told myself to be strong and stop being illogical about the road conditions, it seemed that I was only partially in control of the way my mind responded to the whole experience. It is hard for me to imagine what I would do if faced with a greater trauma. In may ways, I don't think we can know how our minds will behave until something happens and we just...react.

Many of life's traumas are outside of our control. I could not have predicted my car accident. Yet such unpredictable events can hold tremendous power over our mental health. (It's a little scary!)

Something I have realized lately, however, is that there are also so many things that we do have control over in terms of what goes into our minds. Think about how many choices we make in a day about which television shows to watch, which music stations to listen to, which news articles to read, which friends to call, which magazines to buy. Each of these choices has the potential to result in a lot of information intake for our minds. Knowing how much the uncontrollable traumas in my life have affected my mental health at different periods, I have concluded that as much as it is within my control to do so, I ought to be intentional about what I purposefully allow to engage my brain. I can and should prevent the unnecessary small (but often daily and accumulating) "traumas" that I can avoid.

Internet News Comments

I was talking to my husband a couple weeks ago, lamenting that people are basically rotten and critical of each other and that certain people just go around hating each other all of the time. Because he knows me well, and due to my tone and frustration level, my husband had the good sense to stop me and say, "Where is this coming from?" When I paused to think about it, the response was clear: "The comments at the bottom of the political articles I have been reading today." What a wonderful five second revelation!

But why should it have surprised me? The internet is a great place for the sharing of ideas. Yet the anonymity and lack of accountability for the things we say online often leads to harsher exchanges than I can picture having in person with most people I know, let alone with a stranger I've just met. It is easy for me to tell JoeJoe118 that he is an ignorant fool based on the 20 characters he has posted on CNN.com. At the same time, it is highly likely that I know a flesh and blood person in my real life who agrees with Joe's views, and I have a much more complex and moderated opinion of that individual than I do of Joe (and would also likely express my disagreement in different words to that individual).

I actually realized that reading these negative news comments was filling me with negativity, which I was regurgitating in my other conversations. Yes, it was still my choice what words to use in any given moment, but the ideas I was contemplating and the words that were most readily available on the "surface" of my brain, so to speak, were condescending or despairing ones.

This is not the type of conversationalist or person I want to be! I realize now that if I want this to change, I need to impose a limit on myself regarding the number and type of comments I read. The interesting thing is that in some way, if I am honest about my core, I actually enjoy reading the snide comments, even as they bring me down with them. Some of them validate the rude things I actually think but would never say out loud, whereas others make me feel superior when I can say at least I'm not that mean. Either way, I come out on top as the good guy. It gives me the ability to watch other people's drama and fighting, even to contribute to it on occasion, without having any real stake in or knowledge of the ultimate well-being of these cyber people. Who cares if these comments make someone feel like dirt? They started it! They shouldn't be reading the comments if they can't handle the tone.

Image credit: http://www.the48principle.com/
As much as I may relish the experience of taking in the negativity for a moment, when I ask myself, "Is this really good for me? Is this making me a better person? Am I learning something valuable? Am I doing something meaningful for someone else?" most of the time, the answer is no. And when I ask, "Is this hurting my mind in unintended ways?" oftentimes the answer is yes.

The great thing is that while I do not have any control over what other people write on comment boards, I do have the choice not to read the comments. And this is a discipline I have recently been striving to undertake. I still like to read a couple of comments after each article to gauge others' reactions or learn of new facts unmentioned in the article. However, before I find myself twenty comments down and fuming about the plight of humanity, I am now quick to ask myself, "Is this beneficial?" If the answer is not a clear "yes" after those first few comments, then I muster up my strength and close the article. The momentary enjoyment of a few snide remarks is not worth the potential lasting impact on my mental state. So I choose to look at something more meaningful or uplifting. I see this as preventative medicine for the mind.

Another Website Example (facebook-related)

Recently, one of my friends forwarded me a link to a website that posts screen-shots and commentary on other people's racist facebook posts. She was emailing it to me expressing disbelief that people could be so disgraceful, especially posting such ignorant thoughts on a forum as public as facebook. The commentary on the website is written to point out just how bad these racist people are and how incredible it is that they still exist in the twenty-first century. While I may agree with many of the points being made in the commentary, this site gave me reason to pause and once again ask, "How is reading this website benefiting me or society? Is it possible it is hurting me?"

What I am not saying is that we avoid awareness of "unpleasant things" and pretend the world is a perfect place. On the contrary, I read a lot of books about difficult world issues and news about current events. I want to have my eyes wide open to the hurt of others in order to empathize and support them. But I am usually reading these things from a posture of desiring knowledge to help develop solutions or prevent similar events in future. There are undoubtedly many other good reasons to be educated about disturbing or difficult things. But that is not the same vantage point, in my opinion, as the "gawk and shake my head" experience that this website encourages. Here is an excerpt of my (colloquially worded) email response to my friend (note - we are very good friends and express our opinions about various issues frequently to one another, so this was not an out-of-the-ordinary critical commentary that I suddenly sprang on her):

I don't think it's all that helpful/healthy to read much of this junk. It's obviously very messed up, we know it's messed up, and we are always going to think it's horrible. Yet to me, this site also feels a little bit like voyeurism into something twistedly entertaining and anonymously judgmental. There are people with very distorted views of reality and of love, and there are always going to be people like that. But I think this sort of website can also become fuel to skew your own beliefs in what those who are "other" from you in this country are like (rural versus urban, living in certain states, having certain political affiliations, having higher education or not, etc.) Negativity and "isms" abound across the spectrum, from what I can tell. We should definitely be aware in order to fight against such issues in our culture, but I don't know if it's good to spend too much time consuming the rhetoric.

Another way of stating the above is that we take a secret pleasure in thinking of ourselves as better than those who are quoted on the site and revel in seeing them lambasted in a public space. Yet isn't this the same sort of thinking for which we are criticizing them in the first place? These are people we have never met. They do appear to have a skewed view of humanity from what we can see on this website. But beyond that, we know little of them, and yet we easily hate them. Of course, we rightly disagree with racist comments. But once we are made aware that racism still exists and understand some of the fuel behind it, what value are we adding to society by leering in disgust at these complete strangers from the comfort of our sofas? Furthermore, is it possible that our voyeurism is potentially fueling our own stereotypes of others and filling our minds with negative thoughts that serve little positive purpose? Is spending time disapproving of the people on this website beneficial?

When I saw the website, it immediately reminded me of my new commitment not to read news comments that encourage excessive negativity. I decided that reading one or two of the posts on the website was enough to get the flavor of the quotations and to see the main points being made. When I noticed myself starting to feel angry and superior, I closed the site.

Hoarders

The concept of controlling what goes into your brain in order to curb what comes out is not exclusive to  reading internet content, of course. I had a similar experience with the television show "Hoarders." I had never seen it before, when I noticed some of my friends raving about the show on social media. So one evening when I was bored, I decided to check out an episode through A&E's website. The show documents the experiences of people who accumulate possessions to such an extreme that it harms their health, relationships, homes, and lives in general. After watching one episode, I was interested in the subject and thankful to be educated that this exists. I also felt sad for the people who seemed to be suffering so much from the mental illness that brought them to this place. One of the individuals profiled, for example, had always had some compulsive buying and hoarding tendencies, but it took over her life after the death of her child. Her remaining children were left to live in the filth of her problem.

A couple of days later, I watched a second episode. One of the women featured was an elderly lady whose hoarding had gotten so bad that when her plumbing stopped working, she wore adult diapers and just threw them on the floor rather than disposing of them. Her house had thousands of pounds of diapers and feces in it, bug and mouse infestations, and was literally rotting due to the several-foot-high piles of garbage throughout every room. Since her bedroom was no longer viable for sleeping, she tied herself into a medical toilet seat in her kitchen on top of a pile of trash to sleep at night. She retold a story about one night when she did fall out of the toilet seat and  was unable to get out of the trash pile for hours; she could have died. The thought of an elderly woman living this way brought me to tears. I also started to feel extremely disturbed. A few hours later, I realized why when I had this thought: I was watching this woman's mental illness as a form of entertainment. Wow.

Is that form of entertainment really helpful and beneficial? I don't think so. I am glad that some of these individuals are getting help through the show, but watching episode after episode of self-destruction through mental illness seems voyeuristic, even cruel, as viewers simply stare in disbelief and disgust at the path these people have taken. I also noticed myself feeling down and confused after the episodes I did watch, even feeling slightly paranoid that my love of buying gifts for others could morph into an insatiable obsession with collecting junk and that the small pile of papers on the kitchen table might be a sign of something sinister in my future involving large piles of trash (as if my super organized husband would ever let that happen). I decided that it is not healthy to feed these ideas to my mind on a regular basis and do not plan to watch the show again. It may be fascinating to peer into the tragedies of this mental illness, but it is far from uplifting for me personally and does not at all involve me in providing assistance to the individuals affected. There are other ways that I can and do engage with mental illness in my community, by supporting programs and individuals who need it. While these outlets can also be mentally challenging and emotionally taxing, I believe they are making a real difference in the lives of others and growing me as a person, so I will stick to them rather than engaging from a distance through television.

Movies or "Other"

There are so many other examples I could provide, but of course, there is not space for them all, so I will just give one last one. The other night, my husband was trying to convince me to watch that new movie about Abraham Lincoln being a vampire slayer. Aside from the fact that the movie trailer just looks ridiculous, I also realized that watching scary movies gives me bad dreams. So I put a stop to that plan quickly. It is not wrong or weak to choose not to inflict a negative experience upon yourself when you are able. On the contrary, it often requires the strength of self control. Some people can handle scary movies just fine. I know I can't. So I exercise my will and choose not to open up my mind to the negative effects that are sure to come later.

For other people, movies are not a trigger of spiraling negativity. It may instead be a certain television show that portrays violent crime, or a certain facebook friend who is constantly talking about how much he or she "hates drama" (read: seems to always be surrounded by drama), or a book genre that reminds you of a difficult childhood experience, or a game that takes up too much of the time that you should be spending on other rejuvenating activities, or a magazine that prods you to feel badly about your body.

I think a lot of what it comes down to is knowing yourself, being willing to "get to know yourself" even better/more honestly by asking tough questions, and being willing to challenge the status quo of what you do every day. I have been reading CNN article comments for years. And I know some may judge me for my choice to limit my intake now, saying that I am too strict or that I am sheltering myself. But why should I put others' opinions or my normal routine ahead of what I know is best for my mental health?

I know that there are experiences that happen to me or around me that I cannot control and that have a profound impact on my mental health. I also know that much of what comes out of my mind is based on what I put into it by choice.

Therefore, I will guard that gate preciously.

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