As we are approaching the end of Mental Health week, I have seen my socials being flooded with wonderful messages about mental health, mind wellness, mindfulness as well as calls to actions for people that might be in a difficult place right now. I cannot explain how delighted I am that finally the world is seeing that mental health is relevant, if not priority, in our lives. As a someone with a passion in Neuroscience and who has been working on her own mental health for about two decades, I have been curious on what are some ways to trick our mind into doing better, even when things do not look up or when I cannot be bothered to look up (or anywhere, for that matter).
There are many circumstances, whether physiological, environmental or genetic that affect mental health, and for this reason I was worried about writing an article with some tips, because I really do not want to play it down. But as I am a big fan of Positive Psychology, I also felt that I wanted to give out a little something that might help on one aspect of mental well-being and maybe there is a reason for you to be reading this article right now. This could help you or someone you know.
Having talked to many people in the music industry, as well as in many other industries and in the academic environment, one of the reasons why people might start feeling down is because they start experiencing a decline in their confidence. Confidence is not just about being bold: it makes up the building blocks of our self-belief. And what we believe about ourselves impacts many aspects of our lives. Confidence in doing something really drives many of the actions we take and, when we may fail at times, it knocks our confidence down. Not being able to get a well-paid performance slot might stop an artist from trying to book more. Not having many people listening to their new single, might discourage an artist, whether emerging or not, from releasing new music. There is so much talent and such wonderful art that hasn’t been shared because there is a lack of confidence and sometimes the know how.
Here are a few tips that might not solve the whole problem, but can help you get back on the right track. I gathered them through years of training, reading books, talking to coaches and mentors and my own experiences, but please, bear in mind that it is not medical advice and that you should reach out if you are feeling that it is getting too hard. These tips might sound silly or simple, but sometimes we need simple steps that can help us move forward in the right direction.
Acknowledge your achievements
One of the most daunting questions someone ever asked me used to be “what is your biggest achievement?”. My reaction to that used to be panic, going into this loop of what do they mean? Then automatically assume its financial achievements (ouch!), then talk myself into maybe they mean academic achievements (how do I justify that at 32 years old I am still only in my second year at university?) And then I would give into the usual being a mum, my kids are my greatest achievement. Sigh of relief. Or not. That answer that would get me out of the discomfort of the question, left me bitter. Do not get me wrong, my children are my greatest joy and, definitely, the fact that they are happy, healthy, educated and that possibly love me back is a great achievement. But is that my only achievement? Hell nah!
So I have learned a little exercise to recognize my past achievements, and the key to this exercise is to leave no stone un-turned.
All of us are born winners, we were the one sperm that won over a million others in getting to the egg. And then what happened next was also not guaranteed. About 10 to 20 percent of known pregnancies end in a miscarriage. But the actual number is likely higher because many miscarriages occur so early in pregnancy that a woman might not even realise she is pregnant. So you truly are a miracle and you are not here by chance. You made it through one of the most challenging times of your existence for the simple fact that you were born. That’s an achievement.
Then you had to learn to talk. From scratch. Have you ever tried learning a new language, different from your native language? When you were a baby growing into a child, you did not realise how much effort and how many neural connections were being developed whilst learning to speak. To add to it, at around the same time you were learning to crawl (then walk), swallow and eventually use the potty. What a lot of work and how many achievements! But then, for some reason something happens and your confidence starts to wain. Having to deal with some kind of rejection, being told “No” twenty times a day. Not being recognised for being a good kid when helping someone out but being told off for not putting away your toys. And in the meanwhile, as life goes by, people never remind you of the things you have done well. Often our parents would keep reminding us that if we climb up that tree we will fall off like the last time. They sometimes forget that it might take us ten times to learn something better, and that those ten times of trials do not define the quality of us. They might stop us from giving it another go, in the attempt to protect us. But that other go would have sealed the deal, built up our confidence and added to our portfolio of experience.
We carry this portfolio with us throughout our life and into adulthood. We apply that self-belief to our academic, professional and personal life, which means that we talk ourselves into not being able to do something and eventually settle for less.
The reason why I know this is because I have been through it all (multiple times) and also because there is such a massive number of books and courses on self-development and confidence building that makes me (and you) understand that most of us are or have been in that place.
Going back to our first step, recognise your achievements. When I think about it, I have started a university degree in Cognitive and Clinical Neuroscience at 30 years old. That took courage. I was terrified. I passed a total of 22 exams and assignments up till now. Achievements. Got up to attend a lecture when I could not be asked to: achievement. Put together the money to pay for my travelcard: achievement. De-cluttered my bedroom: achievement. Taught my kid how to lace his shoes: achievement. Paid the rent: achievement. Not losing it when someone seriously irritates me : achievement. Saved a little money for a holiday: achievement. Done the dishes after dinner: achievement. Started a music company to empower artists in the music industry: achievement.
I could go on and on. Once you start, you will see that your achievements are hidden everywhere. And you can be happy, proud and feel grateful for every little one.
Create Opportunities for new wins and do what you said you would do
If you felt you had a particularly bad time, in which you have not been sticking to your plans, not finished that coursework, not submitted your music to enough websites, not got enough people to your gig, then you might be feeling like a loser. Again: been there, done that.
There is a trick, which might seem lame, quite silly and cheeky. Might not be elegant, or classy. But it works, and because “it works”, it is good enough for me.
Set yourself a simple, easy to achieve goal so, rather than saying “from now on I am going to wake up at 6am every morning and go jogging and do everything I need to do”, start with “tomorrow I will wake up at 8:30 am”. You might be wondering what on earth is that. Truth is that it is more likely for you to wake up at 8:30am than at 6 am and go for a jog. And when you do that, when you do what you said you would do, that will do something to your subconscious. It will be a win. New synapses will be created thanks to that win which might look so obvious, but it is not. Slowly move the alarm back. Then progressively introduce new challenges. The way your brain works, is that novelty (as well as many other things) is dealt with in the frontal lobes. Your frontal lobes help you focus your attention, hold back from temptations (inhibitory control), keep in mind a goal whilst working towards it (working memory) and other amazing skills. When learning something new or taking up a new challenge, it is really hard work for the frontal lobes (just like when you learned to walk). But eventually, as an action is repeated over and over it becomes a habit. When it becomes a habit, it is transferred to a different area of your brain, so that your frontal lobes can keep dealing with their own business. That is pretty much what happens when you stretch that comfort zone. If you hate that sentence like I do, when you feel like you cannot take it anymore, just think that you need to keep going long enough until your files get transferred over. A very common example is learning to walk (achievement!), at first your executive functions really needed to work hard (one foot here, one foot there, do not faaaaaalll!), now you just do it.
So my little tip is: start setting EASY goals throughout your day, that you know you will definitely do because they are easy, and get in the habit to win the day. It will rebuild your confidence little by little and slowly you can make them a little bit more challenging for you, eventually you will notice that they are directing you towards the person you want to be. If you told your friend you will call them back, call them back. If you said you were going to buy eggs, go buy eggs. Get in the habit to keep the promises you make to yourself and others, no matter how simple, and that will increase your confidence as well as your credibility.
If you have an appointment with a booking agent at 9am and you are in the habit to go to bed at 3am, chances are that at 9am you will not even hear the phone ringing. So just book your appointment at 3pm, so that you have time to smarten up and do what you said you would do. Nothing builds belief like action. And you want to do actions that help you believe in yourself.
Create small, simple habits that lead you into the right direction
One of my favourite books is “The slight edge”, by Jeff Olson, which is about making daily choices that eventually add up together and that take you along either the curve of success or the curve of failure. One good choice won’t make a tangible difference. One bad choice will not make a tangible difference. However, a bunch of good choices will make a difference and so will a bunch of bad ones. Whether you are conscious of the slight edge or not, it still works in the background, it does that over time and there is nothing you can do about that BUT making conscious choices. And then you have to give it the time to flourish. So consistent actions over time will make a difference and you need to adjust as you go. One example of something that adds up over time is organic growth on a music platform: if you are a musician working on a campaign, you would look for organic growth that adds up over time (rather than buying clicks and shares, that may be fake). If you are building a business, daily small actions will take you a longer way than doing 3 hours of work once a week. Be patient and kind to yourself and be sensible in the tasks you assign to yourself. If you cannot do it all, delegate, ask for help or re-adjust.
When you finally recognise your achievements and create new ones for yourself, celebrate them! Nothing tells your subconscious that something you have is good like a reward does. There is a whole science on reward and to give you an idea of how powerful it is, just know that many businesses use that to create loyalty or addiction. So celebrating yourself and your achievements will sculpt them in your mind as a good thing and you will be more likely to do them again.
Right now, celebrate yourself for getting to the bottom of this article, as I know it was quite long, but I am so grateful you stuck around this much.
I would love to hear about your experience using these tips and know if they helped at all!
Have a good day and happy mental health week(end)!
Olson, J. (2013) The Slight Edge. Greenleaf Book Group Press. Austin, TX.
Diamond, A. (2013). Executive Functions. Annual Review of Psychology,64, 135-168. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-psych-113011-143750