We all have available to us a range of psychological tools that can help us with specific domains of life.
Psychological tools are prescribed ways of thinking/behaving that can have positive impacts on a range of outcomes.
An example of a psychological tool is ‘thought defusion’ – originating from the model of therapy known as Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).
Thought defusion is a mental process of subjecting unpleasant/unhelpful/distressing thoughts (e.g. ‘I’m a failure’, i’ll never be loved’) to specific modifications that help us gain some distance from them and not be so readily caught up in them. Modifications include:
- Adding the phrase ‘I am having the thought that…..’ to the beginning of each though
- Typing the thoughts out on a computer and using text tools to change the font, colour and formatting
- Saying the thoughts out loud in a funny or silly voice
- See a few more here – https://www.sydney.edu.au/content/dam/students/documents/counselling-and-mental-health-support/cognitive-defusion.pdf
Thought defusion is taught to people struggling with conditions like depression or anxiety. It doesn’t necessarily reduce depressive or anxious feelings, but it helps reduce the impact of those feelings on the person’s capacity to live a full and active life.
Another example of a psychological tool is active listening. This is a set of actions to put in place when listening to others. It includes paraphrasing, asking questions, expressing empathy, using engaged body language, avoiding judgement, avoiding advice and taking turns. Active listening can be used to build relationships by helping the person we are speaking to feel heard, acknowledged and accepted.
The tool analogy is useful in a number of ways
Just like with physical tools (e.g. hammers, drills, screwdrivers), the tool itself isn’t the outcome or desired end-point. Instead the tool is there to help you move meaningfully towards a desired outcome. Physical tools help you build things such as tables and chairs. Psychological tools help you with learning things (e.g. your degree), having better relationships, solving problems and improving your mental health (just to name a few).
In the world of physical tools, the more diverse a range of tools you have, the more sophisticated and interesting things you can build. If all I own is a hammer, there is much less I can do and build than someone who has a fully stocked tool shed.
The same thing applies with psychological tools. The more psychological tools I know about and can wield, the greater number of situations I can deal with, the more complex problems I can solve. Thus there is value in accumulating and practising the use of different psychological tools.
Tools also vary in their scope of impact. Some tools are useful across a variety of situations. A hammer can be used to assemble or disassemble items, to drive in nails or remove them. It has diverse uses. Whereas a T15 Torx Key is pretty much for working with T15 screws and that is it.
Similarly, psychological tools vary in their scope of impact. For example mindfulness meditation can be used to support a number of outcomes: stress relief, relaxation, self-understanding, enlightenment, better focus and attention and better relationships. It has diverse uses and outcomes. But something like square-breathing has a fairly focused use (grounding oneself before taking action).
You will over your life accumulate a range of psychological tools.
So where does one find such tools?
The good news is that people like me in the wellbeing/mental health space are talking about and teaching these tools all the time. We don’t always call them ‘psychological tools’. We might refer to them as wellbeing strategies, tips, hacks, practices, methods or activities.
A great example is the Greater Good Science Center out of Berkeley. Their Greater Good In Action website is a collection of psychological tools (they call them practices) for bringing positive emotion into one’s life. Closer to home, Be Well Co, out of SAHMRI have the Be Well Plan program (free for Flinders students) which teaches psychological tools and how to apply them in your own life.
The challenge isn’t so much access to the tools, it is about knowing which one’s work for which situations and how to wield them.
Some tools are relatively simple and can be wielded with fairly little training. The tools on the GGIA website are a good example. Most people can wield these tools having only read the brief description on the website. Similarly, the tools in the Be Well Plan can be applied with minimal training.
Other psychological tools are more complex. For example, people with PTSD can utilise prolonged exposure and cognitive processing tools to help treat the condition, but it is likely they will need to do that work with a trained mental health practitioner, as the tools require assistance to learn and implement.
What kinds of tools are relevant to me as a student?
Broadly speaking, I would say there are two sets of tools that are relevant to students.
One set of tools relates to your studies and learning. These are the tools that assist you in doing well academically. The Student Learning Support Service has resources that describe many of these tools. They relate to how to learn, how to think critically, how to write essays etc. We also have a Evidence-based Study Tips document that includes a range of psychological tools for improving your capacity to learn. The Horizon Award program is also a great place to develop skills/tools that will help you transition from study to work.
The other set of tools worth accumulating relate to mental health. These are the tools that help you manage stress, understand and manage your emotions, build better relationships, find meaning and purpose and make good lifestyle choices/decisions. These are the kinds of tools that I talk about through the various channels available to me (blog, self-help guides, Oasis Online, programs like Mental Fitness, Studyology). They are the tools taught in programs like Be Well Plan and the upcoming Healthy Habits Hub FLO topic (coming in 2022).
With these two sets of tools, you have a great foundation for doing well at your studies, but also building the other aspects of your life. The tools that you accumulate during your time at University (and let’s face it, university is a great time to access and build psychological tools) are ones that you will carry with you throughout your life.
How do I know a good tool from a bad tool?
How good a tool is is a function of how well it helps you solve a problem, deal with a situation, fix or build something.
In the everyday world, the usefulness of a tool is based on whether it helps. The ultimate test of a psychological tool therefore is whether it helps you achieve the things you want to do, solve the problems you need to solve. As an example, for some people breathing techniques help manage anxiety and stress (useful tool). For others, they aren’t really helpful for those things and thus seem irrelevant.
In the scientific world, a good tool is one that, when subject to testing, reliably demonstrates that it can be used to achieve specific outcomes. For example, all the psychological tools described on the GGIA website have been shown in scientific studies to predict positive psychological outcomes. All the tools described in the Be Well Plan were derived from a large meta-analytic study of psychological tools and which ones reliably produce different desired outcomes.
Thus there are two questions you can ask yourself. Does this tool help me? Is there evidence that this tool has helped others?
The best tools are those where the answer to both questions is ‘yes’.
Ok, I want more tools – gimme!!
I admire your enthusiasm and I think keeping an open mind to learning about and practising new psychological tools is an excellent stance to take.
But first, take a moment to consider the psychological tools you already have at your disposal.
You’ve already been through stressful events, solved complex problems, built relationships and made difficult decisions. What did you draw on in the process of doing that?
Perhaps you engaged the advice of trusted others (a psychological tool), did a ‘pros and cons’ list (psychological tool), increased your use of self-care activities (psychological tool).
The truth is you already have at your disposal a range of psychological tools that you’ve put to good use. Sometimes it is variable to think back on the challenges you’ve overcome and remind yourself of how you did it and then re-wield those tools for new challenges.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not meaning to encourage you to not pursue learning new psychological tools, but I am encouraging you to not forget the ones you already have.
Use of the term ‘psychological tools’ in my subsequent work
I’ve only recently started using the term ‘psychological tools’ more frequently, but intend to make it a more regular part of how I talk about mental health and productivity.
I also intend to talk more on here (blog) and on social media about the different psychological tools available to us and how to wield them. I am as interested in this process for my own self-development as I am for what it might contribute to yours.
Together we can accumulate and share the tools that helps us build the lives we want.