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On Conditioning Your Mental Health


Welcome to my blog, where you'll find substantive, well-researched articles that blend neuroscience, philosophy, poetry, personal reflection, and the latest life coaching tools in service of helping people engage their full potential. 


On Conditioning Your Mental Health

Kirstin Hotelling Zona

Occasionally people will say to me, with regard to coaching or self help, "but all that focus on oneself; it's so tiring." "Tiring," in these exchanges, is usually spoken with an emphasis that means not only tiring, but annoying--as if sustained self-study is self-indulgent, myopic, selfish in the worst sense of the word.

These remarks remind me of the long history of criticism (often male, and white, but not always) levied at so-called confessional writers (often female) and artist-architects of so-called identity politics (often of color, often gay or lesbian or trans, but not always), an echo that warrants more consideration given, among many other things, the disproportionately female audiences and authors in both fields. But what I would like to offer here is this: we have, as a society, come to value collectively the importance of conditioning the physical body--gyms are overflowing with crack-of-dawn and cusp-of-dusk worker-outers, men and women who are willing to sacrifice sleep and family time for the sake of stronger bodies, who know how easy it is to slip into a sludgey physical torpor by way of the largely sedentary lives most of us live today. And while recess is, tragically, on the wane across the nation, we do thankfully prioritize physical education in our schools, and awesome initiatives like homegrown bike-to-school-and-work campaigns are springing up all over the place. 

And yet... We lag behind when it comes to conditioning our minds, to learning to manage our thoughts so that we can better manage our lives and our relationships--skills that are critical to the growth of compassion, resilience, and courage, cornerstones of thriving democracies. The self help industry is still stigmatized as "feminine" (which is itself still stigmatized), which is to say frivolous, surface-oriented, unscientific, etc. Too, there's lots of suspicion, rightly so, in response to the commercial quick-fixes proffered in the name of eternal happiness that clutter our inboxes on a daily basis. But to dismiss self help because of its scams is like swearing off exercise because of the exploitative dieting programs that hook so many while defeating self-esteem and depleting our wallets. 

There's a lot of astonishingly wise, scientifically-based, incisive, transformative material available to us today via the so-called self help industry--books, blogs, podcasts, programs, trainings, courses, etc. Some of it is expensive but a lot of it is not, and a ton of it is free, available online, and in some truly excellent podcasts. (Check out my latest blog post, which I conclude with a list of my current favorite resources). 

We need to start thinking about self help (a loose term that can generally be understood as a body of knowledge and teachings that emerge at the intersection of mindfulness and contemplative practices, the neuroscience of brain plasticity and consciousness, the psychology of human flourishing [not merely human dysfunction], and the study of social and emotional intelligences), as we do physical exercise: a necessity. We need to devote time every day to conditioning our minds just like we do conditioning our bodies. We need to be willing to invest our time, energy, and money--both individually and as a society--into the care of our minds and the collective consciousness we are a part of. The prefrontal cortex grows and strengthens when we practice mind-management skills, the tools at the core of coaching, and when we strengthen our executive functioning we simultaneously diminish our reactivity and impulsivity. And when we become less reactive and less impulsive we become better parents, teachers, bosses, colleagues, lovers, partners, friends, leaders, and citizens. Our families are healthier. Our communities heal. Innovation increases because fear decreases. 

Self help--the good stuff, which is a lot of it--is all about taking responsibility for our own mental health. And yes, it is sometimes tiring--but in the best way: after a good workout or a long run, my muscles ache. Sometimes I don't want to do it. Sometimes I'd rather sleep. Sometimes I'd rather zone out on social media or eat a bag of Skinny Pop. And sometimes I do. But I've learned to stick to it, by and large, because I FEEL so much better when I do. Everything improves. And because I know it's what I need to do if I want to increase my odds of living a long life. 

Same for our mental health. We can condition our minds daily as we do our bodies. And sometimes it feels like a pain in the ass. Sometimes it feels like too much. Sometimes it's exhausting. Sometimes it hurts. But when we make a habit of it, we feel more empowered. We feel alive. We feel free. We feel far less anxious, far less fearful. We feel more capable--we are more capable. We feel more peaceful. We still feel sad and grief stricken and despairing at times, but we can feel these emotions more fully, can mine them for what Keats calls the "wakeful anguish," that quickening of sorrow that softens us, that opens our hearts and makes us merciful. 

Since making mindwork a part of my own daily (well, almost daily :)) practice four years ago, I've become so much more capable. I still struggle, and I still cry, and I still feel regret and shame and guilt and all of those things: but not like I did. I no longer haul around a huge net of resentments behind me. I rarely feel defeated. I can almost always see a way out of my own largely self-imposed miseries. I spend a lot of time creating and very little time complaining. But this didn't used to be the case. My own dreams used to overwhelm me and make me anxious-- which meant I lived in a constant state of denial and distraction, which for me meant overworking, chronic busyness, and relational stress/distress. 

Does this sound familiar to you? Do your own dreams oppress you? Do you swing between feeling exhilarated by them and totally daunted? Do you find all kinds of ways to let yourself off the hook from your commitments, from the things you know will make you feel better, more productive, healthier, and more alive?  I get it, if so. I've been there, believe me. But you don't have to choose between a comfortable (less fearful, less anxious) life half-lived and a life fully expressed (and borne on the back of panic attacks). In fact, this choice is an illusion. A delusion manufactured by the primitive parts of our brain that are grooved to keep us safe, risk-averse, and close to "home." 

We can learn how to identify and change the thoughts that cause us pain, and release ourselves from the cycles of blame and resentment that suck the lifeblood out of our relationships. We can learn to reveal and heal the shame that we carry like an iron weight, so that we are able to give and receive love in ways that nurture the best of what we can be as humans. We can learn to recognize fear for what it so often is-- a portal into our own evolution and therefore fullest capacity to be of service and help to others. 

Just as we strengthen our muscles through repetition and refinement, so too do we strengthen our minds and our ability to manage them--and thus our emotions, feelings, and actions--with more intention and precision. 

Sometimes people say to me, "well, I don't buy the whole free will thing. Research shows us that most of our decisions are made non consciously. So all of this emphasis on visualizing and manifesting sounds like rubbish."

But that's like saying that we might as well eschew a committed exercise regimen because cancer, heart disease, and any other vast number of diseases could, and likely will, overcome us at some point, and in fact may be at work in our bodies as we speak. What we do have conscious access to in our minds is of vital importance: while the old concept of free will no longer holds scientific water, current research also show us that deliberate conditioning of our minds through mindfulness and thought-management actually changes our neurology. Our brains--the neural pathways that anchor habitual behaviors, from automatic responses to addictions, our dopamine and serotonin production and release cycles--can be changed over time by focusing on and taking responsibility for the parts of our behavior that areconscious, that we do have control of. 

Just as we've ushered major changes into our healthcare systems, schools, and workplaces in service of physical well being, so too do we have the opportunity to build upon, become part of, and significantly expand the exciting work that's being done around the world in service of mental health (such as replacing punitive, shame-based "discipline" in our schools with mindfulness teaching and trainings). 

And we can start with ourselves, right now. We don't have to wait for crisis to do so. We don't have to reserve our mental health workouts for therapy alone (though I think therapy is immensely worthwhile). We have a million resources at our fingertips. It's okay if it's tiring sometimes. It's okay if it's hard work. Hard work is good. Good for us. Good for each other. Good for the world.


P.S. Here are just a few of my favorite resources at the moment (some classics, some new): 


  • Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance
  • Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart
  • Brene Brown, Daring Greatly
  • Brene Brown, Rising Strong
  • Jen Sincero, You Are a Badass
  • Jonathan Haidt, The Happiness Hypothesis
  • Stephen Pressfield, Turning Pro


  • The Good Life Project, hosted by Jonathan Fields
  • Tara Brach, hosted by Tara Brach
  • The Life Coach School, hosted by Brooke Castillo
  • The Psychology Podcast, hosted by Scott Barry Kaufman
  • Brain Science with Ginger Campbell, hosted by Ginger Campbell



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