• When stressed, we find it harder to access the parts of our brain that are best-placed to actually help us resolve the problem

  • Coach Anneke Loubser offers 6 practical tips to slow things down and stock up your mental health toolkit

During a discussion for World Mental Health Day on BBC Radio One Newsbeat, which aired on 11 October 2022, Prince William used a toolbox analogy in relation to mental health and said: “You can be living life one minute and something massively changes and you realise you don’t necessarily have the tools or experience to be able to tackle that”. 

With the media regularly showing the impact of a variety of world and local events, as well as dealing with everyday life challenges, now is a good time to focus on building our mental wellbeing toolkits. It can help us deal with these challenges and obstacles in healthy and impactful ways.  

Building our mental wellbeing toolkit need not take much time and it's easier than you think! Here are examples of some practices that could be a useful start. 

Please be aware though that these practices are shared for information and educational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical or professional health advice. Always consult your doctor or other qualified health professional with any questions you may have about a medical concern.  

1. Notice 

A first step in dealing with overwhelm, stress or challenges is to notice your experience. This step is so powerful, because our stress response (also called the fight-or-flight response) triggers a series of events inside our bodies that leaves us less able to fully use the cognitive functions we need to deal with stress or challenges in creative, productive or healthy ways. 

It does this by sending more oxygen to our limbs, which might be needed to fight or run away, but less oxygen to the part of our brain we need most for problem solving, which is mainly in the frontal lobe of the brain. Whilst the frontal lobe is responsible for so much more, for the purpose of this article, I will refer to it as the problem-solving part of the brain. The stress response and its follow-on chain of events happen in a fraction of a second and whilst we don’t have a significant amount of control over it, we can try to interrupt it and  mitigate its effects.  

Becoming aware that we are experiencing something as stressful or overwhelming gives us that useful pause where we can choose to search our toolkit for the right tool for the situation. It enables us to respond, instead of react.  

2. Breathe 

As stated above, we cannot control the stress response once it is triggered and so some of its effects might already have made an impact, such as an increased heart rate or less oxygen going to the part of our brain involved in problem solving. A quick and easy way to mitigate the effects of the stress response is to practice deep, rhythmic breathing. 

There are various breathing techniques and they can work well to interrupt the stress response and bring about a more relaxed state. It is in our calmer and more relaxed state that we can access the problem-solving part of the brain more fully.  

3. Deal with the ANTs (automatic negative thoughts) 

It is tempting to believe that there is no time for noticing or breathing, as the stress response often makes us feel that the matter is so urgent that nothing else matters (and sometimes this might be the case). But the reality is that the challenge you are facing will likely still be there in a few minutes, so you can take a moment or two to gather yourself, and prepare access to your toolkit. 

In times of stress or conflict, you might experience an involuntary response. This can include as negative thoughts about ourself, the world or other people. These automatic negative thoughts (ANTs) can cause additional stress and overwhelm, and it is important to recognise that they can strengthen the stress response, thereby leaving us with even less oxygen to the part of the brain that we need for problem  solving.  

We might not be able to deal with all ANTs immediately in that moment, but we can halt their  progress by asking ourselves some of the following questions: 

  • Is this always true?
  • Does this need to be true right now?
  • Is there a track record of this ANT helping me to find a solution?

These questions might be sufficient to interrupt the ANT long enough for us to choose a different tool from our toolkit and to send some oxygen to our problem-solving parts of our brains.  

4. Break it down

Micro-goals are another useful tool to buffer against overwhelm. As the famous quote goes: “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” (often attributed to Lao Tzu). There is also a Tibetan saying: “If you take care of the minutes, the years will take care of themselves”. 

These sayings are in step with how our brains focus on goals and outcomes. We tend to focus on what we think about. As an example, many sportspeople don’t focus only on winning the match or game. They break it down into smaller steps so that they can fully  focus on that next small step and not become overwhelmed by the challenge ahead of them.  

Once we have identified the overall goal, problem or challenge to deal with, it is important that we break it down into smaller parts. If the goal we are attempting feels reasonable, achievable and manageable, we will feel less overwhelmed and have more resources available to do achieve it. Importantly, by focusing on the micro-goal first, we can also build our mental resilience and confidence in addition to expanding our toolkit. Taking care of each micro-goal in turn, will take care of the overall goal. 

If we continue feeling overwhelmed despite having set micro-goals, it might be that our micro-goals are still too big. They may need reworking into even smaller components.  

5. Seek support 

Our mental health toolkit can always be strengthened by seeking support from friends, family, colleagues, a coach or mental health professional when we need it. We need to speak up if we need some support and it can start with a simple call or text saying “I need some help please”. Having a support structure is essential to our toolkits. 

6. Celebrate progress 

This is an essential part of our mental wellbeing toolkit. It serves an important purpose: celebrating our progress can release a chemical called dopamine (in addition to other helpful chemicals) in our brains. Dopamine is known as the feel-good hormone because it gives us a sense of pleasure, which in turn can increase our motivation. It forms an important part of  our brain’s reward system. Dopamine release can help reinforce existing healthy habits and motivate us to create new ones. As an example, if we manage to face a challenging situation by slowing down and remembering to notice and breathe before responding, this is progress that we can celebrate.  

Dealing with life and its challenges can be hard – very few have it easy – so it helps if we are compassionate with ourselves and others on this journey. The above are great additions to our mental wellbeing toolkit and practising them regularly will ensure that they are ready for use when we need it most. 

In addition, if we celebrate the use of any of these or other resources from our toolkits, it will in turn help motivate us to use it more and to add new resources.  

Anneke Loubser is a verified Welldoing coach in Reading and online

Further reading

Try this 1-minute grounding exercise for a stress-free start to your day

Are you guilty of catastrophising? 9 steps to regain control over your thoughts

Why do some people get more stressed than others?

How to stop little things from winding you up

As a counsellor, here are 4 anxiety tips that have helped me