We do not always have time to deal with issues when they happen, which is why mental ‘parking’ and ‘stacking’ makes sense. We put the issue aside in our minds to deal with it at a more convenient time. Some issues are little and can be sorted straight away, but we sometimes pile them up until a bigger issue is created. Other issues are major and need time to fix, but we struggle to make time to sort them. Unfortunately, big issues can sometimes even get mentally stacked on top of smaller issues that should have been sorted sooner, and it all comes crumbling down when we least expect it. Just like clutter can make a house look messy and unattractive, a cluttered mind can be difficult to live with. It affects productivity, happiness and our ability for good decision making. How do we cope with so much information and emotional stimuli during busy periods of our lives? Having gone through a very stressful house move while working as a doctor in a pandemic, I would like to share some tips I found helpful over the past few months.
Keep short accounts - Being aware of triggers for our mental health is a very good place to start. We are all products of our experiences and relationships so far. It is even more important to be aware of this when dealing with close friends, colleagues and family that we see often. If something triggers negative emotions, keep a short account and deal with it as soon as possible. This might mean saying straightaway how you feel, so people know not to talk to you like that again, or reducing contact with people or scenarios that persistently pull you down. Stacking such little negative things can lead to catastrophic breakdowns where you even struggle to explain what really happened.
Build intentionally - Stacking is okay when you build intentionally. Focus on the positive and build on that. It is amazing how well people remember the wrongs done to them and forget about the good. If you are going to do mental stacking, try to be intentional and focus on the good stuff. Remember that the ‘annoying’ husband you complain about was the one who stood by you through the difficult times, bought your lovely ring and lovingly puts your children to bed most nights. Choose to remember that your ‘lazy’ boss is the one who had sleepless nights to start the business, goes to meetings you would hate and bears the risk of any losses. If you add a small negative block on top of solid positive blocks, it is very unlikely to spoil the relationship or cause problems. Also remember that any stacked negative blocks should be dealt with eventually, through good communication, reflection, forgiveness and empathy.
Sort in order - I have found that the most stressful times of my life were when I tried to focus on the little things when larger issues remained unsolved. Buying a new tap for my kitchen sink does not solve the problem of having no flooring in my lounge to allow me to relax after a busy day at work. In the same way, buying flowers for Valentine’s day does not take away the need to talk about serious marital problems. If the major issue is sorted, the minor issues look even smaller. Interestingly, what may be a minor issue to one can be a major issue to someone else, so remember that it is your mind and your choice. Sort in order of what bothers you the most. Sometimes it is very uncomfortable to talk about some issues, but they need to be dealt with sooner rather than later to avoid mind clutter. It is also wise to remember that timing is important. Saying the right thing at the wrong time can worsen the problem. It is okay to have a mental stack while waiting for the right time to talk, but stay in control of your stack and don’t let things get overwhelming before you take action or seek help.
If you are going to play the mental stacking game, make sure you are winning. And if it all crumbles, take time to clear the stack, recover and start again - one day at a time. We will all have difficult days, we will all have things that are best left unsaid, but we can all try to keep short accounts and look after our mental health. Peace of mind is priceless and should not be taken for granted. Be kind to yourself and lay those burdens down.
Dr Afiniki Akanet is the author of Life Without Coffee (Choosing Happiness Over Stress) and 2020 Year of Plenty.