Dr Melane Van Zyl

What is mental awareness? Articles about mental awareness usually explain what symptoms and signs to look out for to get diagnosed with a mental disorder. But what does it mean to be aware of your mind?

First, let us consider what mental illness or having a mental disorder means.
I have seen patients who presented to me for relief of mental symptoms (and often co-occurring physical symptoms) for over 20 years. In the beginning, it was easy. I used the DSM IV diagnostic system and became skilled in making psychiatric diagnoses according to its criteria.

This approach soon started causing some problems. It became clear that there are many variations of Major Depression, Bipolar Mood Disorder, ADHD, etc. Not only did patients with the same diagnosis present differently, but patients also had a personal experience with their symptoms and needed an individualized approach.

So, instead of looking at how many boxes a patient ticks to make a diagnosis, I try to figure out what the patient wants help for. Being aware of your mental state is firstly being aware of anything stopping you from living your life the way you want. The mental obstacles that prevent people are individual and personal; therefore, we need a person-centered approach.

According to the Eastern Philosophies, our minds cause our suffering. Ultimately, the only thing we can control in life is our minds/thoughts, but paradoxically, our minds and thoughts cause our suffering. How do we practically approach this dilemma? Change the way we think with medication or psychotherapy? Or instead, observe our thoughts and let them be and understand that we are not our thoughts?

Since I entered private practice in 2005 and started seeing the same patients year in and year out, I wondered more about what I was missing. Why were some people not getting better? And others recover so well on medication or a specific intervention that it is almost a miracle?

Are people so complex, or are we just pursuing the wrong answers (or questions?)? ECT (electroconvulsive therapy) and now TMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation) can bring relief so undisputable that we are sure there is a biological basis for mental disorders. With the emerging hype about psychedelics comes the hope (and evidence) that psychedelics will be more effective than Cannabis for relieving symptoms of depression. Psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy with ketamine highlights something vital that we have always known- it seems there is a combination of biological, psychological, and spiritual factors at play in treating depression.

Being mentally aware is being able to observe your mind from the outside. This means we must get a distance between ourselves (or rather- our Selves) and our minds. This is the so-called observer state, or the “being” state (vs. the “doing” state).

Our thoughts influence our emotions which affect our bodily reactions. This feedback into our thoughts- you can imagine what a vicious cycle this can be if you have a repetitive negative “story” in your mind (e.g., something terrible always happens, I am not good enough, etc.)

Watch this interesting video that illustrates how important it is to be aware of your thoughts.

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