Mental health recovery toolkit (DIY edition): Use the right mental health tool for the right problem

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Do you want to take control of your mental health on your own? This is the one guide you need.

If you only know how to use a hammer, everything will look like a nail. This is popularly called Maslow’s hammer. Avoid Maslow’s hammer to manage your mental health. Let me explain why.

  • If you are deep into meditation, it’ll look like everything can be solved with meditation. 
  • If you only know about affirmations, you’ll use affirmations to solve all personal problems. 
  • If you are obsessed with astrology, you’ll see every problem has an astrological solution. 
  • If you can have positive thoughts, you’ll think positive thoughts will reset your mind. 
  • If you’ve learned about diet and nutrition, it’ll look like everything can be solved with diet.

In short, you can’t meditate or yoga your way to good mental health for just about any mental health problem. So what do you do?

Mental health recovery toolkit, avoiding maslow's hammer

True understanding of the healing process lies in knowing which tool does what. The right tool at the right time matters a lot in solving mental health problems.

These are the common functions of common mental health tools. We’ll explore an extensive list later in the article.

  • Meditation: Thought awareness
  • Affirmations: Build self-esteem
  • Positive thoughts: Change perspectives, defend against negative thoughts
  • Diet: Improve body function
  • Boundaries: Limit interactions
  • Gratitude: Social harmony
  • Breathing/Stretching: Relax
  • Journaling: Articulating thoughts, self-reflection
  • Hobbies: Fun, de-stress, satisfaction

Mental-health tools are evidence-based behaviors that you can use to manage a mental health problem.

Mental health problems morph into new problems, and you need new mental health tools when they do

Mental health symptoms and concerns themselves change over time. Today’s self-esteem issue can turn into depression. Today’s lack of skill can turn into self-esteem issues. Today’s manic behavior can turn into becoming poor. Today’s paranoia can turn into social anxiety and loneliness. The symptoms are all connected and morph into each other given enough time.

Advanced computational methods used to analyze symptoms in patients over time clearly demonstrate this. Newer trends in understanding mental health symptoms suggest many causal factors work together in a way that starts a self-sustaining network of problems. Even when the causal factors are gone, the network continues with one symptom leading to other symptoms. So hunting for the “true cause” is not always as helpful as tackling the issues for what they are. Your mental health tool doesn’t have to address the true cause – it may no longer exist.

The standard method of getting a diagnosis becomes less useful because the diagnostic criteria themselves don’t account for change over time, and healing is, by definition, change over time. Take the classic problem of Depression. While most people have common depression elements like not feeling aroused or excited by anything, everyone’s depression is unique. It manifests differently. And most people cope with it in different ways. So they use mental health tools to suit their needs.

These mental health tools also change the nature of the problem. So at some point, you have to use new tools to address changed problems. In the story of depression, one may have negative emotions and anxiety at one point. Then they start a new routine of exercise and give up unhealthy habits like drinking and smoking. Later, their depression changes into numbness because the workload increases, and all of their attention is diverted toward career goals, for example.

With such a dynamic problem, restricting mental health problem-solving tools is quite pointless. Sticking to one tool, say meditation for a long period, may be useful when meditation is relevant. But when the symptoms change, meditation would become irrelevant.

As the problem evolves, the tools have to evolve.

Each tool contributes to the solution. You have to know what contributes the largest when you need it the most. 

Examples of bad outcomes from using the wrong mental health tool for the wrong problem

If you use a mental health tool just because you know it at the wrong time, new problems can emerge. So they don’t serve your healing goals. So don’t just meditate your way out of any mental health issue; it doesn’t work that way – that’s the Maslow’s hammer trap.

  • Using positive affirmations when your beliefs are very negative you will psychologically reject the affirmation because it doesn’t fit into your self-concept and that will solidify negative thoughts.
  • Using diet to build self-esteem issues from low professional skills. Dieting might make you feel you are working on yourself, but to build self-esteem for skills, you need practice. If you don’t practice, your self-esteem issues might continue making you frustrated and conclude “nothing is working.”
  • Using positive thoughts to protect you from bad behavior. Positive thoughts will justify your toxic patterns and distract you from making important changes to your habits.
  • Using astrology to gain confidence without skill. You will start relying on a good destiny, and the universe saving you and not develop real skills, so confidence becomes overconfidence.
  • Using boundaries to control others. If you keep forcing boundaries on others, you are essentially controlling people. For social harmony, you have to negotiate an acceptable way of interacting. Don’t use boundaries to justify/excuse your bad behavior.
  • Using journaling to record all thoughts might force you to revisit your trauma and saturate your mind with negative emotions. Begin journaling for productive and neutral thoughts, and only when you are prepared to go into a deep self-reflective honest state of mind and have the skills to relax and distance yourself from your thoughts, go into emotional journaling.

If you continue following Maslow’s Hammer, you’ll get frustrated or feel worse because you expected a win, because you put in so much effort but got nothing out of it (this is called heaven’s reward fallacy).

When you use the wrong tools and apply them with a lot of effort, you may be giving in to the “Illusion of control” instead of being in actual control of your mental health. You may waste your effort even though it feels like progress. Only, 6 months later, you realize your problems have changed, and you are just as dissatisfied with your mental health. This may also put you in denial of your poor mental health with rationalizations like “I am doing so much for my mental health, so it must be improving.”

This is when you don’t give up. This is when you change the mental health tools. 

Method to identify the right mental health tools

  1. Start with sleep, exercise, diet, vitamin and mineral deficiencies, hygiene, managing disease and medical issues, relaxation techniques, and money.
  2. When they fail or are irrelevant, use new habits, nature, socializing, hobbies, and learning/achievement.
  3. When they fail, use meditation, journaling, thought-stopping techniques, identity building, fake-it-till-you-make-it, mental-health worksheets, and affirmations.

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Mental health problem-solving heuristic

I call it the BOCO approach – Behavior Over Cognition approach

If you are able to think a lot and analyze, the solution should be behavioral – new habits, routines, and entering a healthy environment. You can talk endlessly in hypotheticals just because you can. So changing thoughts might not be useful for those who can think flexibly. Get straight to the behavior. By modifying your behavior, you will automatically manage your emotions and thoughts.

If you can’t analyze much, learn new concepts, and follow the expert who either motivates you to make changes or becomes a role model for you to emulate. If you aren’t able to think and analyze, just copy someone.

List of mental health tools, their benefits + ideal use case, and unwanted side-effects + problems

Mental health tool Ideal use case Unwanted side-effects

Identity building

 

Bounce back from midlife/quarter-life crisis, find meaning and purpose, feel in control, make choices that feel right, improve self-esteem and self-concept. Get overly attached to one aspect of your identity (politics, relationship, personal achievement, etc.)
Concentrative Meditation (focusing attention on an object, sound, breath, or thought while sitting still) Controlling rapid thoughts, building tolerance, calming down  
Behavior modeling (imitating someone who you respect and value) Improve communication, cope better by using others’ strategies  
Skills training of all kinds Improve skills and confidence, find meaning and purpose  
Satisfying basic needs of social connection, money, intimacy, security Adjust better in life  
Mindfulness (paying attention to all sensory information and thoughts as they come and go) Overall well-being, reduced negative emotions in partners, improve focus and creativity lack of empathy for narcissists, accepting negative personal situations, reduce helping tendencies in self-focused people
Yoga (set of systematic physical exercises which give mastery over the body) Reduce depressive symptoms, reduce stress, anxiety, hypertension, and blood sugar, improve physical fitness  
Astrology (superficial claims of how celestial objects affect behavior) Self-discovery, reducing ambiguity during stress, instant comfort Losing touch with reality, the illusion of control
Positive thoughts Defend against negative experiences, broad mindsets, and perspectives Unrealistic expectations can lead to disappointment
Relaxation & destressing Reduce fatigue, improve daily functioning and efficiency, reduce brain fog and eye fatigue  
Video games (all genres) Improve cognition and mental health Addiction and escapism, some degree of aggression on impressionable people
Planning ahead Reduce anxiety due to uncertainty, improve tolerance for uncertainty Overcontrolling the future and getting frustrated that things didn’t work out
Learning something new Improve chances of adopting new values and ideas into your identity, increase socializing quality, confidence, improve neural plasticity, build cognitive and brain reserve for healthy aging and counter future memory problems  
Psychological richness (seeking varied, novel experiences) Add points to your identity, increase happiness and positive emotions  
Social detox (reducing the amount of social contact and social media use) Reduce overwhelming feelings for highly sensitive people, reduce social comparison Feelings of loneliness
Nature and interacting with animals Improved health, destress, clearing brain fog  
Diet (reducing fast foods, improving nutrition and deficiencies, planning with a professional) Improving energy levels, mood, concentration, and memory Expensive, slow effects, possibly time-consuming
Affirmations (words and actions that make you feel good) Improve self-esteem and self-concept Worsen self-esteem if thoughts are too negative
Habits Simplify decision-making by relying on a healthy autopilot mode, having good behavioral tendencies during stress, make good behaviors easy, reduce the stress of decision-making  
Fake it till you make it (pretending to feel and act the way you think you should and powering through difficult experiences) Acquiring new habits and getting comfortable/confident in anxious settings Impostor syndrome
Hygiene (brushing, bathing, grooming, clean clothes/bed/room, smell) Improved body image and social appeal  
Boundaries (Saying no, expressing what makes you uncomfortable, requesting others to make communication/behavior changes) Limiting interactions, negotiating acceptable terms Controlling others, making others behave according to your needs
Gratitude (expressions of thanking and appreciation) Increase positive thoughts, improve social harmony Too much gratitude may feel impersonal and forced
Journaling (writing down thoughts with or without a goal in a journal) Self-reflection, changing perspectives and priorities Re-accessing trauma and dealing with re-surfaced negative emotions
Muscle relaxation (stretching, specific techniques like progressive muscle relaxation, massages) Releasing tension, lowering stress Complications from improper technique (best to follow a professional guide or demonstration while doing them)
Self-love + Self-forgivness Reduce negative self-talk, guilt, reduce the pressure of constantly being the best according to unrealistic expectations, minimize procrastination by lowering anxiety  
Organizing (digital files, room, priorities, money, existing belongings, desk, fridge, etc.) Improve mood, productivity, feel a sense of achievement  
Digital Detox (reducing social contact via social media, reducing screen and media time) Getting “me time,” reducing eye fatigue, reducing impact of negative news and social comparison FOMO, losing connection with the world/current affairs
Thought-stopping via cognitive defusion (reducing the meaning of thoughts and diluting them) Treating thoughts as just thoughts and not your identity, reduce self-judgment, diluting thoughts which reduces negative emotions  
Cooking Loneliness  
Sunlight Improve mood  
Exercise Improve mood, memory, learning, energy, sleep, body image, control aggression  
Reading Low social understanding Losing time due to hyperfocus
Music (listening and playing an instrument) Improve mood, defend against cognitive loss, assist sleep and relaxation, provide a social glue, reduce negative thoughts, increase sense of belonging, improve focus  
Dance (for fun, and under professional coaching) Improve mood, increase happiness, reduce stress, anger, depression, stress, anxiety  
Sensory Grounding (using senses to feel connected to reality) Zapping out of spiraling and panic attacks, break a negative thought pattern  
Bright and fresh lighting Improve mood, increase feelings of safety Increase alertness when tired
Lighting intensity (reduce) Induce drowsiness and relaxation, increase melatonin Hamper productivity, increase fear
Temperature (increase within limits) Improve mood, improve productivity, reduce loneliness Worsen mental health if prolonged heat causes physical stress
Temperature (reduce within limits) Initiate sleep better, improve overall mental health  
Background speech and noise (reduce) reduce annoyance and stress, improve productivity  
Background speech and noise (increase) Improve focus on easy tasks Reduce focus on difficult tasks, increase stress and distractibility, reduce loneliness
Natural light (increase) Improve mood and concentration, reduce depressive symptoms  
Incense and aroma Improve mood, help relaxation  
Artificial cool lighting Lower day-time anxiety Worsen sleep quality by depressing melatonin
Airiness Improve overall well-being, reduce inflammation  
Environment change (working at a new place, relocating, changing where you hang out, changing the look and feel of your room/house) Un-linking behavioral triggers from habits, changing old patterns, new perspectives, deprioritizing old problems Expensive
Follow the links in column #2 to get more context, explanations, and instructions for techniques

Common mental health problems and the best tools to use for them

Problem Solutions
Low self-esteem, self-worth, and confidence 1. Positive affirmations
2. Skill practice (any)
3. Social support via encouraging friends, family, and mentors
4. Reduce social comparison
5. Avoid the constant chase of productivity and wellness
6. Build achievements and qualities you value
Low attention and confusion 1. Improve diet and nutrition
2. Relaxation exercises
3. Work-life balance
4. Background music and multi-tasking (low for complex tasks, high for boring/easy tasks)
5. Setting small, precise goals and tasks
6. Note-taking + planning
Poor memory and forgetfulness

1. Sleep
2. Correcting vitamin/mineral deficiencies
3. Exercise
4. Skill practice
5. Mindfulness (acknowledging what you observe)
6. Relaxation exercises
7. Connecting with nature
8. Avoiding emotional suppression, which fatigues the brain
9. Putting your to-remember things in words and repeating them out loud
10. Practice memory tasks & games
11. Musical training

Depressive moods 1. Sunlight
2. Social support via encouraging friends, family, mentors 3. Fun and leisure activities
4. Exercise
5. Getting out of the comfort zone
6. Psychological richness (increase novelty + variety in life)
7. Hygiene/self-grooming
8. Yoga
9. Balanced diet with micronutrient corrections
10. Music listening + making
Negative and intrusive thoughts 1. Sensory grounding technique to snap out of negative thoughts (HowTo: notice 5 things you see, 4 things you hear, 3 things you touch, 2 things you smell, 1 thing you taste)
2. Meaningful activities that occupy attention
3. Cognitive defusion techniques like speaking out your negative thoughts very slowly or very fast till it feels meaningless
4. Working on psychological needs like safety and intimacy, healthy social engagement
5. Accepting reality for what it is
6. Connecting with nature
7. Positive thinking
8. Express gratitude
9. Reduce social comparison
10. Distraction via music, media, hobbies, and games
11. Rewording thoughts (internally and out loud) using 3rd person pronouns (he/she/them)
12. Word repetition: Repeat your trigger words very fast for 30 seconds; this makes them lose their power.
13. Slo-mo thoughts: Verbally slow down your thoughts so much that they feel silly
14. Write your thoughts but focus on something else: You can write/type your thoughts and focus on beautifying your handwriting and speed of writing or typing.
15. Do a digital detox to reduce triggers for negative thoughts (news, other people, social media)
16. Music (listening or making), podcasts
Identity crisis Working on 3 components of identity:
1. What you are and what you can do (professional and physical identity)
2. How you relate to others (your role in society)
3. What you want to do later in life (what gives you meaning and purpose)

 

All 3 components of identity are needed to avoid a mid-life crisis. Lacking one component makes us over-express the other parts of identity. So lacking a professional identity might make us heavily rely on relationships and spiritual/political identities.

Bursts of anger 1. Healthy communication to solve your concerns
2. Dance + music
3. Exercise
4. Relaxation techniques
5. Digital detox to avoid anger triggers
6. Think in basic emotions like feeling good or bad instead of the specific details of what angered you
Unmotivated and tired 1. Psychological richness (variety of experiences)
2. Finding meaning and purpose in life
3. Changing the nature of work
4. Hobbies
5. Building relationships
6. Increasing feelings of safety, money, better sleep, better food
7. Setting goals for relationships and work
8. Rectify vitamin, mineral, and hormonal deficiencies/abnormalities
Panic attacks & anxiety 1. Relaxation techniques, emotional regulation techniques
2. Breathing techniques
3. Sensory grounding
4. Talking to someone you feel safe with
5. Progressive muscle relaxation
6. Exercise and general physical movement
Brain fog 1. Immerse in nature
2. Healthy diet
3. Correcting vitamin and mineral deficiencies
4. Healthy work-life balance
5. Fresh air, managing disease
6. Digital detox
7. Exercise and movement
Loneliness 1. Physical warmth via soup, coffee, tea, bathing, snug clothing, warm beddings
2. Use podcasts, music, books, and TV shows to find some relatability and indirect company
3. Improve social skills
4. Mix in a crowd with concerts, fests, games, sports, gym
5. Adopt a pet
6. Reach out and make plans
7. Accept plans that come your way
Guilt 1. Self-love and self-forgiveness
2. Rational thought about what you’ve done wrong or IF you’ve done anything wrong
3. Letting go of unrealistic expectations
4. Committing to do your best but accept imperfection in a reasonable way
5. Avoid lying and deception
6. Ask for forgiveness when you’ve made a mistake and offer to make things better
Lack of meaning, purpose, and joy 1. Engage in hobbies where you progress while having fun
2. Build your identity
3. Keep certain goals for the near and far future
4. Take a moment to appreciate what gives you joy (list it)
5. Talk to people and help them achieve a vision they have
6. Set up a business, do art, create music, manage a team
7. Invest time and effort in people you truly care for
8. Get out of the comfort zone and seek variety and novelty (psychological richness)
Follow the links to get more context, explanations, and instructions for techniques

This is talking about the tools. In a new article, I’ll talk about 4 very basic approaches to mental health. You can start your healing journey right there and use any of these tools when you experience specific problems.

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