The entire self-help industry is run on strategies to decrease mental burden, so I don’t really want to rehash techniques here. But I wanted to comment on Ruth Whippman’s New York Times article about mindfulness, the self-improvement trend that Whippman says can turn into a type of victim blaming if we focus in on ourselves instead of solving the problems causing our stress.
So what should we do about our mental burden? Setting our worries aside to live in the moment may not help in the long term, as Whippman points out, but I think we should apply that mindfulness to more carefully analyzing our mental burden—along the lines of cognitive behavioural therapy, which has been proven effective as a treatment for anxiety and depression.
1. What is on your mind?
Make a list of what’s bothering you or what you’re concerned about. That is your mental burden.
(This exercise is easier said than done. To list everything that might be a mental burden for you takes practice and introspection that you might not be able to set aside time for, especially if you’re already stressed. Yes, ironically, it’s another mental burden. But! If you get in the habit of doing it when you’re less busy, it’ll be easier to do it when you are.)
2. For each item on your list, ask yourself if the burden is productive or unproductive.
If you can learn from it and use it to build schemata that will help you think more efficiently in the long run, it’s productive, and it might be worth working through.
I make this step sound simple, but it can be hard to tell whether a mental burden is productive or not. Sometimes you won’t find out till you process it completely, at which point you’ve already expended the energy.
What can seem unproductive may become productive depending on how you frame the problem. As an example, if you see a problem as a nuisance, you might do the bare minimum to make it go away. If you frame it as a challenge, you might invest energy in devising a shortcut or an automation to solve it that you can use again in the future, saving you mental burden then.
3. If you’ve decided an item is unproductive, try to figure out if you can get rid of it at the source.
The best outcome is to eliminate the source of the mental burden—easier if the source is external and readily identifiable. Internal sources of mental burden, such as in some mental illnesses, may be harder to get rid of.
For both internal and external sources, framing is key: by looking at a problem from a different perspective, if might not be a problem anymore.
Again, this step is more complex and nuanced than I make it sound, and it can be where scapegoating happens. If you blame the wrong thing for your problem, eliminating that thing doesn’t help you.
4. If you can’t get rid of it outright, see if you can offload it.
For tackling mental burden, I see a parallel with the 4Ds of time management: delete, delegate, defer, do. “Do” applies to #2 above, where you consciously process the mental burden productively to learn and build schema. “Delete” applies to #3—get rid of the mental burden if you can. If doing and deleting aren’t options, then you may be able to offload the mental burden to another person (delegate) or another time (defer).
Delegating can especially help if the person you are delegating to has schema you don’t and can process the mental burden more efficiently.
Deferring can help if you expect to have a lower mental burden later on, when you have more mental resources to tackling the problem, but you risk carrying at least the residue of the existing mental burden anyway, as the worry sticks arounds and niggles at the back of your mind. This is where mindfulness can play a role. In a way, it’s another kind of reframing, though one that may relieve your burden only temporarily.
In other words, mindfulness has its place, though I agree with Whippman that it shouldn’t be the only, or even first, strategy in problem solving. Other relaxation techniques—deep breathing, meditation, exercise, hypnosis, acupuncture, and so on—can also lower stress hormones. Whatever works for you. But what might be most helpful is to start being mindful about your mental burden itself.
OK, I promise no more self-help tips from me from now on. You should probably listen to someone who actually has their shit together.