Can we avoid a ‘mental health’ pandemic?

In this Tougher Minds Podcast, Dr. Jon Finn explains what we can do to avoid the potentially damaging mental health consequences of the Covid-19 Pandemic.

Data is highlighting this could be a major problem caused by the lockdowns. Dr. Jon discusses how we can all practically respond to this and overcome it.

He also explains how understanding our thinking habits can help us feel better, be more productive and less stressed.

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Podcast Transcription
Hi, everyone, Dr. Jon Finn here, welcome to another Tougher Minds podcast. Today I want to talk about the mental health pandemic, or what’s being projected will become a mental health pandemic. There are big fears at the moment because of the data that there’s going to be a long-tail, mental health effect to these lockdown situations we’ve been experiencing.

So I want to think about that, and help people to understand if they experience those types of challenges, or they’re seeing people at work or at home with those types of challenges, what we can start to practically do about it? And the first thing that I want to point towards? Did you know that when you beat yourself up and get stressed, and you do things like procrastinate, do you know when you’re doing those things, you’re actually getting better at them. Because whatever we practice, our brain adapts to get better at the thing that we’re practising. That’s how it’s designed.

Our brain is made up of about 100 billion neurons. And they are like strands of plasticine that change all the time. The current neurons that you have, you’ve developed through practising things, including thinking. And when you stop practising something, let’s say, when you were at school, I’m sure that you knew the name of every person in your class, because every day you practice saying their names you practice interacting with them. But right now, you probably can’t recall everybody’s name in your class. Because the neurons that you develop for their names have died via a process called ‘pruning’. And whatever we practice today, we get better at it.

So if we’re currently practising worrying, and beating ourselves up, we’re growing new neurons in our brain for that via a process called neuroplasticity, hence, the 100 billion or so in your brain, literally like plasticine. And I think a really helpful way to think about our day is to imagine it’s a bit like a barcode. But instead of it being a black and white barcode is a blue and red barcode. And the red lines represent times when we’re doing things that are not helpful for us being at our best. And the blue lines represent times when we are, when we are doing things that are helpful for us being our best.

There are only 24 hours in a day, that’s all we’ve got. And what we need to do is pack that day with as many blue lines as possible. Starting with sleeping well, eating properly, and exercising properly. Making sure that we’ve got good planning and reflection habits, making sure that we’re managing our habits around how we consume social media, and our ability to focus on the task at hand. In the 24 hour period, whether they’re blue lines or red lines, what’s emerging from modern neuroscience, behavioural science and big sets of compelling data, is that these lines are really your habits. Because most of what we do most of the time is automatic or semi automatic behaviour. We think at least 98% of it is a habit.

And this includes things like worrying and beating ourselves up and procrastinating and getting stressed. They are all habits. And the more you practice any habit, the better you get at it. And often the problem we face is that we understand ourselves that worrying and beating ourselves up isn’t such a helpful thing to be doing. And therefore we need to do something else instead. And what traditional support and training in these areas offers is primarily the knowledge of this is bad, so do something else instead. And then what you might also get is a few little skills here or some skills you could use to think in a different way, to develop better sleeping habits – which are essential for mental health – or skills to develop exercise habits which are essential or better eating habits, of course nutrition is essential for brain function.

But it turns out that – via these are new insights that have emerged over the last 20 years or so when we’ve actually started to understand how the brain works – the brain doesn’t run on knowledge. Most people in the UK understand that they need to eat five portions of fruits and vegetables per day. Or they understand that it’s really helpful to walk about 10,000 steps per year, yet every year, year on year, the NHS is spending billions of pounds on treating diseases that emerge because people don’t eat five portions of fruit and veg a day or walk 10,000 steps. Our brain does not run on what it knows it needs to do. It runs on habits and automatic behaviour.

And that means that the traditional way that we have, we’ve used to help people manage their mental health, but also manage their performance and their leadership, it doesn’t work. Because actually, if we want to do things differently, we want to move from knowing to doing, we have to build better habits. That’s absolutely essential. And what I’ve learned over my 21 plus years, and how working in this field of performance psychology – I’ve done three degrees in this area – including a PhD, is that the best way that I can understand looking at all the research and all the information out there and all our own research and applied practice is the best way to actually help people to think differently is help them to build better thinking habits to help them with their mental health, or again, their performance or leadership is to help them to become what we call Habit Mechanics.

And Habit Mechanics don’t just rely on outdated training and coaching practices, to help them to change their behaviour. They’re more proactive. They use the latest insights from neuroscience and behavioural science to help them to build better habits. So if knowing isn’t enough, what do we need to do?

At Tougher Minds, we break this down into nine areas, and we’ve created our Nine Action Factor model. So these nine factors explain why we do what we do and why we practice what we practice. And it turns out that when you want to when you want to build what I call a complex behaviour, like instead of worrying thinking in a more constructive way, or instead of just staying up late and watching the next episode episode on Netflix actually going to bed on time, or instead of eating unhealthy junk food, eating more healthy food. Instead, when we want to build these complex behaviours. We need to activate as many of these nine change factors as possible. So I’ll just give you a quick run through of the factors.

The first factor we call mindset. So we have to adopt this Habit Mechanic mindset where we understand that we can change and our brain is running on habits and there’s sort of one over one or one of brain function, which we explained through our lighthouse brand model. And anyone can get access to these Habit Mechanic insights, just sign up for the free level one Habit Mechanic course.

Number two is what we call the habit factor. That’s about understanding that we can make change, we can start to learn how to think in a different way. But we can only make one tiny change at a time. Often we try to make changes that are too big, we fail, we beat ourselves up. And we get even better are the unhelpful thinking habits we’re trying to get rid of. Number three is what we call personal motivation. So any small change you want to make today has to be connected with your bigger goals. And in our advanced mechanic course we have tools like the fan forum, where we teach you how to set strong, structured goals into the distant future all the way back to today.

The next factor is knowledge and skills. If we want to build better thinking habits, we’re going to have to have some personal knowledge and skills to help us to do that. So just one really simple thing , one of the tools. In fact, our Me Power resilience planner has the three to one end of day reflection, where we write down three positive or helpful things about the day. And then one thing we can do even better tomorrow. So we need these knowledge and skills to be able to help us to make the change.

The next factor is community knowledge and skills. So if you want to build better thinking habits, it’s really helpful if people around you know how to do that as well. That’s also why we have the Habit Mechanic community forum, which is part of the level two advanced Habit Mechanic costs, so that you can actually communicate really easily with other Habit Mechanics and share insights and stories. But it’s also why we’ve created our training, so that it’s super simple. So that you can start to share it with other people in your life. So that you can all help and support each other.

The next factor is social influence. So a really simple example is if we want to build a better sleep habit, we’re gonna have to get other people to buy into our home as well. Because if I want to go to bed early, but nobody else does, it’s going to probably cause a problem. So we’re really, it’s really important for us to get the buy-in of the people around us before we make a change or connect to a group that wants to do the same sorts of things as we do.

The next factor is rewards and penalties. So what’s the reward for building the new behaviour? What’s the penalty? So at a very simple level, you could think about intrinsic rewards, extrinsic rewards, social rewards, or extrinsic penalties, intrinsic penalties, social penalties. The next factor is the triggers, what are the reminders around us. So if I want to practice a three to one reflection, at the end of the day, I’ll create a daily plan every day. And having the printout of that plan on my desk might be a really helpful trigger, or setting an alarm clock for me to go to bed might be helpful.

And the final factor is what we call Brain state. So if I want to practice building a new habit, it’s going to be easier to do that, if I’ve got lots of energy. So if I’m sleep deprived, you know, building a new habit will already be very, very challenging.

So you can see here that knowing that you need to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, for example, isn’t enough. We need to activate as many of these nine action facts as possible. And this is what we show people to do in really simple and practical ways. And we train them to become Habit Mechanics.

So the data looks very compelling to me, it makes a lot of sense that there is going to be an increased problem with poor mental health for people. Because the world is more challenging, it’s harder than ever to live in an environment that doesn’t help your brain to work properly as the basis of good mental health. But the traditional approaches don’t work. And they’re less and less effective. One reason is, they’re not based on how your brain actually works. But the other reason is, the world is just getting more challenging. And the more challenging the world gets, the less effective those traditional approaches will be. And that’s why we have to adopt the Habit Mechanic mindset. That’s going to help us to make the sort of changes that help us to be individually and collectively healthier, happier, and are best more often.

So as I said, as always, we have lots of free resources. If you want to learn more about becoming a Habit Mechanic, just sign up to a Level One free course through the website and we’ll send you a certificate, absolutely free. I’m going to talk lots more about these ideas in future podcasts so keep listening guys.

Thanks for listening to this one. And remember that Habit Mechanics now that they’re only ever one small habit away from being at their best. So we can change. We can learn how to do things differently. We just need the right information. That’s why we’ve designed the Habit Mechanic training programmes. Until next time, guys, stay safe and speak again soon.

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