The Mental Health Epidemic (And How We Can Begin To Combat It)

coaching mental performance mindset Nov 05, 2021

If you feel like the world has gone to hell in a handbasket and as a result, you're more stressed than ever, you're not alone. It seems like now more than ever the focus is all on problems, problems, and more problems. This is true for the news, social media, those around us, and probably even in our own heads! 

Dr. Jason Selk has a great term that describes this focus on problems; PCT, which stands for "Problem Centered Thinking" (he has an awesome book on the subject called Relentless Solution Focus, which this post is based on). This is something that is hardwired into our DNA from generations of humans whose sole focus was survival. It was much more costly for our ancestors to assume everything was fine than always being alert and thinking about what problems could be out there waiting to kill us. As a result, the wheels were almost always spinning in our brain, thinking about every potential threat to our survival.

While this way of thinking served us back when we were nomads, this is no longer the case. Constant focus on your problems is no longer going to help you survive... in fact, it's probably contributing to the exact opposite. If nothing else, Problem Centered Thinking is not only making you miserable, but it is also throwing off your body's hormone balance and making sure you are constantly in a state of "Fight or Flight". It makes things even worse when everything and everyone around you shares the same PCT focus.

The reason PCT is so detrimental is twofold.

  • The first reason we already touched upon briefly- a constant problem focus will cause your body to produce too much of the stress hormone, cortisol. This can lead to a number of chronic diseases and in the short term, it plays a big factor in brain fog, poor focus, and negative emotions.
  • The second big issue with PCT stems from the fact that we CANNOT multitask. I don't care who you are or how good you think you are at multitasking, our brain does not have the ability to actively focus on more than one thing at a time (if you think you are multitasking you are actually just task switching... I could write a whole post on why this is a bad way to operate but in short, it burns up your brain's fuel crazy quick). 
    • The fact that we cannot focus on more than one thing at a time means that when you are focused on a problem you will not be able to come up with a solution.

Now that we know what PCT is and why it's so bad for us, let's get into how we can begin to shift away from this way of thinking and towards one that suits our goals, ambitions, and overall happiness. The first step in solving any problem is to become aware that we do it in the first place. I challenge you to be a little more active and critical when listening to your internal dialogue. Take note of how often you are focused on problems or get stuck in a negative self-talk loop. Dr. Selk recommends that you take 60 seconds to count the number of problem focus thoughts. Multiply that number by 60 to know how many you will average in an hour and then by 16 (subtracting 8 hours for sleep) to get an idea of how many you average in a single day. The first time I tried this my number boiled down to about 4,000 problem-centered thoughts as my daily average.

Take this practice of becoming aware of PCT a step further and keep a mental note of how often those around you or the content you listen to are focused on problems... it's eye-opening to say the least.

It's great to be aware, but that's not enough to make a change. Our brain doesn't respond to negatives, so trying to tell yourself "don't think about your problems" isn't going to work. My favorite example of this is one that Dr. Selk uses in his book- If I tell you to not think of a pink elephant, that's the only thing you'll be able to think about... UNLESS you replace it with another thought.

The way I approach this with my clients (at first) is by having them develop a positive statement about themselves and using that thought to disrupt the problem focus. My quick affirmation to crush my ANTs (Automatic Negative Thoughts) is "I am disciplined and focused. I am a great coach". This helps me redirect my focus back to the work at hand which, more often than not, will solve whatever problems lie ahead.

This thought replacement is a great exercise to get started on breaking your negative thought cycle and regaining control of your mind, but it's just that... a starting point. Dr. Selk's solution to combatting PCT is to cultivate what he calls a Relentless Solution Focus, which he simply defines as "taking no longer than 60 seconds to assess your problem and replace any problem-focused thoughts with a solution focus". This is incredibly difficult to do and easier said than done, but mental toughness takes time and active effort.

I will be posting more about "Relentless Solution Focus" in the future, but for now I want to leave you with the following action steps that I am currently doing myself:

  1. Start to develop an awareness of how much of your thinking is problem-centered or plagued by ANTs.
  2. Create an affirmation that means something to you (it should recognize your strengths).
  3. Use the affirmation as your thought replacement weapon to crush your ANTs and PCT.

The process of developing a Relentless Solution Focus is one that takes time and discipline. It's also a process I am going through currently myself. Having PCT is natural and it impacts everyone to varying degrees, but that doesn't mean we can't change it. I challenge you to join me in breaking down your current way of thinking and replacing it with something that will better serve your goals and happiness!

If you want a more in-depth look at PCT vs RSF I would highly recommend you check out Dr. Selk's book, "Relentless Solution Focus". I bought my copy on Amazon.

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