Friday, 1 January 2021

Book Review: The Mind Workout

Book Review: The Mind Workout

Review By Casey Douglass

The Mind Workout

My Obsessive Compulsive Disorder really came to a head when I was about ten years old. Thirty years later, it’s still my constant companion. Like most people tend to do, I’ve tried all manner of approaches to deal with it, from perspectives that tackle it head on, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) to others that try to lessen the symptoms in various ways. Mark Freeman’s The Mind Workout: Twenty steps to improve your mental health and take charge of your life combines a variety of approaches to improve the reader’s mental health. None were wholly new to me, but Mark’s way of knitting them together seemed to come at just the right time.

A month before I purchased Mark’s book, I picked up Jonas Salzgeber’s The Little Book of Stoicism. It must be about the fifth book I’ve read on Stoicism, a philosophy that I find compelling in many ways. The aspect that really sank into my mind on reading this particular book, was the concept of treating everything that happens each day as training. The idea behind this is that it lowers the stakes of things, making them easier to accept and to deal with. Pretty much the opposite to how OCD feels, treating so many things as life and death. That really resonated with me at that moment, even though it’s something I already “knew”. I recommend The Little Book of Stoicism.

Okay, you’re probably wondering why the second paragraph of this review talks about a wholly different book to the one mentioned in the first. Am I some kind of maverick reviewer who likes wasting your time? Not at all. I mention the “everything is training” idea, as it was shortly after I read that book that I discovered Mark’s The Mind Workout. The Stoic training idea so neatly went hand in hand with what Mark writes and teaches, it was a pleasing coincidence. Here were two books telling me the same thing in slightly different ways, one in Stoic terms, the other written by someone who used to be bedevilled by his OCD too! Many years ago, I came across Mark’s Acceptance Field Guide, so his writing wasn’t unknown to me. The Mind Workout expands on the topics he raises in that book wonderfully.

One of the core elements of The Mind Workout is revealed in the very first line of the introduction: “If you don’t run, it’s not weird if you can’t run”. I also enjoy a later quote: “If you avoid sweating, eventually everything makes you sweat. If you avoid anxiety, eventually everything makes you anxious.” One of the ways that Mark teaches the reader about mental health is to draw comparisons with how we build physical fitness and strength. We wouldn’t expect to be able to walk into a gym and pick up the heaviest weights from day one. He points out that, when it comes to our mental health, we need to have this kind of mindset too. He cements this idea by pointing out that how we use our minds during the day, the normal, “inconsequential” things that we do, all build up to get us into the mental difficulties that we might struggle with down the line.

One of the first exercises Mark gives the reader is to practise not checking their smartphone. Now this is by comparison to other things, a low stakes, low grade checking behaviour. Sure, urges are involved, habit, and uncertainty, but unless you are waiting for a ransom call linked to the kidnap of a loved one, it’s not likely to be fraught with super-strong emotions. Mark teaches that how we deal with uncertainty is the key to so much of our problem, and that by dealing with tiny uncertainties well, we can train our brain so that it might handle larger uncertainties more skilfully. Even not checking your phone when the urge arises begins this training, and after all, if you can’t handle the uncertainty of what you might be missing with a phone check, how are you going to live with some of the really “charged” uncertainties that life inevitably throws your way? This is us picking up the small weights at the gym, to start our journey towards those bigger ones at the edge of our vision.

I’ve known for a long time that once I give into an obsession and do some kind of controlling behaviour to make the anxiety go away, I’d be beset by further obsessions later. These might be related to the initial fear, or even in some wholly unrelated area, but it would still be like poking a hole in your tent in the rain, it just lets more misery through. What I didn’t do though, was to look at how the most mundane, boring actions of my day, all contributed to how I got to my current state of tizzy. Another of Mark’s exercises is something he calls “Taking a Compulsion Journey”. You sit with a bit of paper, draw a sweeping line, and write the compulsion you are struggling with at the far end. This might be endlessly scrolling down social media, wanting to keep checking the door is locked, that kind of thing. You then work your way backwards from performing the compulsion, writing down the events of the day, how you felt about them at the time, working backwards in time, maybe even all the way back to getting up in the morning.

I felt besieged by some mild compulsions one evening. I sat down and completed this exercise to see what might have fuelled my state of mind during the day. Wouldn’t you know it, I found three or four instances earlier in the day that seemed to get me to that point, moments where I checked something boring and unnecessary, moments where I was uncertain about something I’d written... Seeing the compulsion journey laid bare, I could acknowledge that it was little wonder that my mind was giving me new uncertainties to solve and battle with at the end of the day. I really appreciated the view it gave me, and it helped me to see that on the days that I managed to live with the small uncertainties, by evening, I wasn’t so frazzled.

Mark has a whole host of exercises in his book and they are all useful for peeling back the veil of how your mental health works. Another of the key points he makes is the importance of finding out which Values are most important to you and being guided by them in your life. Values are like a constant direction that you decide to move in, like saying that you want to head East with a compass and setting out in that direction. You never reach “East”, you just keep going in that direction. They are not goals, although they can be used to help form healthy, meaningful goals too. One of my guiding Values is Creativity, so I always try to ask myself if a certain action will be aligned with that Value. Mark says that it’s important to move towards the things we want in life, rather than only taking action to simply move away from the unpleasant things we don’t want, such as anxiety. He says that Values help us to deal with the tougher times, because we already know where we want to be heading, and they stop us from sliding back to what we already know, the behaviours that keep us in the cycle of struggling. This is what Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is all about, and even though I’d read a few books on it, once again, Mark’s presentation really helped me.

Wow, this review is getting seriously long! I will round things off by saying that Mark’s honest descriptions of how his own mental health affected him were incredibly relatable. In the chapter Stop Checking, he describes the daily battle he had with leaving his apartment, his fears of carelessly leaving something in a dangerous state that would burn the building down. He describes his stove, the way the knobs could pop off and then you wouldn't know, when you put them on again, if it was actually set to high or low... Even to how, when trying to check if it was off, he would look at the top and assess if he could see the hob was glowing (it was electric). If it wasn’t he’d worry there might be a fault, that it might just be broken, and that something is going badly wrong inside... This goes on for a number of pages, and I felt I could have written something similar about some of the ways my own mind throws up fears, uncertainties, and the things it wants me to do to try to resolve them. You really can start out by worrying that the light is turned off, and end up thinking that you're living in a house that will burn down the moment your back is turned.

The Mind Workout is a book that I highly recommend to anyone suffering with their mental health. It isn’t just aimed at one condition, beyond the human condition and how our brains work that is. Mark also does plenty of videos on YouTube and Twitch streams, where he continues to elaborate and to explain the ways that we can start to head in the direction that we’d most like to in life. It’s also a great chance to see a wall of post-it notes that aren’t being used by an exhausted detective trying to track down a serial killer. I swear that’s how most post-its I see on screen are used these days. Mark’s have interesting mental health tidbits on them. He also loves tea, cookies and doughnuts, which always seems to lighten the tone when they are mentioned.

I’m still struggling, but I feel that more has fallen into place by reading Mark’s book and listening to his online chats. One day at a time...

Book Title: The Mind Workout: Twenty steps to improve your mental health and take charge of your life. (Released as You Are Not A Rock in the U.S/Canada).

Book Author: Mark Freeman

Publisher: Piatkus

Released: June 2017

ISBN: 978-0349414539

RRP: £13.99 Paperback / £5.99 Kindle.