Thin Slicing your way to a good day!

I was looking through some of our past posts on Heads Up Teens a couple of days ago, and let me just say Wow! That’s a lot of advice! We’ve encouraged burning candles, meditation, watching movies, and even making ramen. I don’t think I’m alone in wondering what exactly am I supposed to do? There are so many strategies to try and live the most mentally healthy life possible that it’s a bit daunting to think about which I should be using. Ironically, that’s pretty much the opposite of how self-care practices are supposed to make one feel, so today I’m going to try and clarify (from my own perspective, of course) how you may want to go about acting in the best interest of the three-pound pal in your head (aka your brain… sorry).

I’d say it’s both natural and implied that I’m interested in human psychology as a contributor to a mental health blog. One of my favorite books on the subject, however, has very little to do with emotions, neurotransmitters, having a healthy thought space, or anything of the like. Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking” instead focuses much more on the behavioral psychology and a niche aspect of human decision making. The foundational concept of the work, thin slicing, is a term used to describe how we humans can take our many experiences and, often subconsciously, find patterns that we can use to guide our present actions. 

For example, let’s say you’re talking to a friend, and as you’re saying something they begin to simply “look confused” despite not having explicitly said so. This is thin slicing at work! Ever since you were a wee little kid, you’ve learned to read the movements of the dozens of muscles in the face, body language, movements, etc., and associate them with various interpersonal reactions. You’ve been training this skill for so long, it probably feels like something all humans are just born with (cases of autism can provide a counterexample to this claim). Another example I’ve noticed myself is in the SAT. After having done multiple practice tests (shout out to Khan Academy!) I’ve started to pick up on the trends of the questions, how they’re styled and what answer choices to expect even before having read my options. Another way to think of thin slicing is as a mental equivalent to muscle memory. Just like a batter in baseball can instinctually swing their bat at a moving ball in an instant, accounting for multiple aspects of proper technique, you and I can subconsciously alter our actions in order to account for certain stimuli based on a coagulation of all our experiences.

So where am I going with this? Just how you can thin slice your thousands of experiences observing peoples’ facial expressions to quickly empathize with emotions and after dozens of monotonous College Board passages you can gain an edge on an already fast-paced test, it’s also possible to pick up on which mental health strategies work best for you. By putting in a bit of effort to try things out, your brain will find the strategies that appeal to it most and work most naturally for you. Subconsciously, you can develop an instinct on how to act according to how you feel. For example, something I tried out early during quarantine was cold showers. I only gave them a go because I needed something to wake me up in the morning (as if first-period calculus wasn’t exciting enough!). However, it became a bit of a habit on its own with time. I didn’t realize how significantly they’d become a part of my life until I stopped them, realizing how their absence negatively impacted my mood. 

What I think is great about thin-slicing is that you just have to put yourself into experiences where your mind can learn, and seamlessly in small but impactful ways, your behavior can change as well. I think it’s possible to naturally develop an intuition towards how to act, accounting for changes in your mental health and then acting accordingly in routine. Maybe after trying to make your bed in the mornings, you’ll begin cleaning up your room whenever you feel stressed out. Or perhaps if you give a go at exercising you’ll feel an impulse to go for a walk or run in order to blow off some steam. To use me as another example, when you’re feeling low you might get the proper impulse to take a nice nap. Just by trying different things, cultivate a lifestyle of non-effort to care for yourself, where you can let your body and mind comfortably guide you on how to best care for them.

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