Penny for your thoughts!

– Rukmini Iyer

From the ancient philosopher Hermes to the modern film-maker Rhonda Byrne, several successful people have propounded that our thoughts are as important as our deeds. And that is because our thoughts are deeds in the making!

As children we are exhorted by our parents and teachers to imbibe good habits. These habits are usually practical in nature, ranging from keeping our rooms clean to finishing homework on time to brushing twice a day. We are told that these habits have an impact on our personalities and on how socially acceptable we are. Since the repercussions of these habits are obvious on our social lives and physical health, we usually do not question their importance.

But is that all there is to habits? For if it were only physical habits that were important, it would have been easy to create a society full of fairly disciplined, successful people. Here’s where thoughts make their grand entry. Habits refer to pattern of behaviour acquired through frequent repetition. Behaviour could be physical or mental. Therefore, mental habits are as important as physical ones.

For example, do you, before eating at a road-side joint, pray fervently that you should not get an upset stomach and end up with exactly that? Or do you dread that appraisal meeting with your boss so much that you have a splitting headache before it? If so, it’s time to watch your mental habits.

“I realized I kept thinking and calculating about many small things and events, often unnecessary, and became very critical,” confesses World Chess Federation rated player, coach and arbiter Hrishikesh Salvekar. His professional habits filtered into his thought process and he did not realize it for years, till it started affecting his social interactions. He explains, “Chess is an individual game directly related to using one’s intellect. Even when there are team events, it is the individual performance that matters. So your ego tends to develop without your conscious knowledge.”

Similarly, a lot of us who are in professions or activities that place a premium on certain skills find that those skills tend to impact our lives, often in a negative manner. Mental habits formed for coping with one’s profession such as strategizing, attention to detail, convincing people, etc. become so ingrained in our system that we tend to apply them in all spheres of life, whether they are relevant or not. And it is here that they can be detrimental.

For they not only affect our social relationships, but also our health. A host of psychosomatic ailments including stress, high blood pressure, headaches, etc. are caused when a physical illness or weakness combines with unhealthy mental patterns. Every thought pattern has an impact on our bodily fluids and functions and negative patterns weaken the body so that it becomes more vulnerable to diseases. Here’s a look at the effects of some of our mental habits on our organs, and the illnesses that we consequently expose ourselves to:

Detrimental mental habits and probable impact on health

Mental habits Area of impact Possible ailments
Suppressing anger and emotions such as frustration, rage, etc. Liver and kidneys Hyper-acidity
Undue anxiety about performance and situations in life Heart Stress, high blood pressure
Excessive fear of things beyond one’s control Joints Arthritis, joint pain
Feeling rejected and harbouring low self –esteem Brain Fever

It is important to note that ailments may be caused by purely physical reasons, too. But mental habits help them anchor to the body more easily. For example, the thought of fear instinctively makes us tighten our muscles and makes the joints stiff; this is a primordial reaction known to us since the Stone Age, when our body was the only means of our defence. Now, when we harbour fear for a long time, the body naturally goes into a stiff mode, and if coupled with a life-style that renders itself to joint-pains, leads to ailments such as chronic pains and arthritis. Simply put, unhealthy mental habits prepare a breeding ground in our body for illnesses.

So it is possible to change mental habits? The answer is Yes! Here’s how you can start:

Identify your mental habits

Observe your thought processes and reactions for a week and list the patterns that emerge. You may wish to enlist the perceptions of people that are close to you, in this process. Jagruti Gala, an educator who works with children in the area of holistic learning and conducts workshops on ‘Habits of the Mind’, shares her experience, “My mind resisted mundane work and ideas that I could not ‘enjoy’. But I realized that these activities are also crucial to take life forward and therefore I need to do them well.” In her case, Gala ensured that she arrested her habit well before it caused stress.

Chart a course of action

Once you have identified the mental habits that you wish to change, decide what you would wish to replace the negative habits with. And yes, it is possible to do this at any stage in life. “Healthy habits of the mind are very crucial to develop – they are the aim of all learning, the ultimate outcome. The earlier we start the better,” asserts Gala.

For example, if you have a habit of being critical about people, attempt to replace it with empathy. The next time a subordinate presents a report that you think is below par, instead of voicing your criticism, offer help. Ask him/her what inputs from your side could help the person do better. In this manner, you become more solution-oriented and constructive.

Set targets

It is a proven psychological truth that any behaviour practised for 21 days at a stretch becomes a habit. Set target dates and identify potential situations where you can demonstrate your new mental habits. Make it a point to journal those situations and your response to them. Do not lose heart if it is difficult to change your reflexes early on. Slowly, as the success stories in your journal increase, you will realize that Nike is true, after all – Impossible is nothing!

Tips and tricks

“I discovered that being focussed on the present moment without having the mind wander into the past or the future breaks its habit of generating useless thoughts. This helps to calm and focus the mind and my creativity, peace and positivity increases,” shares Gala.

Productive mental habits

  • Be open to new ideas – List all the things you did for the first time in life and were successful. Remind yourself of these success stories whenever you feel fear or anxiety. And you’ll feel that knot in your stomach loosening itself!
  • Give constructive feedback – Avoid holding back critical feedback, for it will stay lodged in your system if you do not express it. But learn to express it in a solution-oriented manner, where you shift the focus of your thoughts from being critical of a person to getting better results. You’ll not only regulate your own blood pressure, but also save others from stress.
  • Promote self-awareness – Be aware of your body. A dull pain or throb could give you timely clues about what to change in your life, before it becomes a full-blown disease. Remember, your body is the vehicle of your thoughts and it certainly knows what it carries.
  • Be accountable for your actions – Avoid being judgmental. It is perfectly human to go wrong at times. Rather than avoiding responsibility for one’s actions and rejecting an aspect of oneself in the process, own up your mistakes with the same flair with which you take credit for your success. Respect yourself for who you are, for that is the foundation of who you want to be.
  • Stay focussed on the present moment – Effective mental habits are all about being in the here and the now. Being aware of the present moment and of yourself in the present moment helps you make decisions that are pertinent and true to the reality. This helps you avoid reflexes that are pattern-bound and not always relevant.

So the next time you get frustrated or sad, remember, you can recreate the situation by simply shifting your habitual thoughts. The universal is mental – you are your imagination. Think healthy!

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