Many of us are dedicated to building muscle and strength with the aim of improving functionality or performance, protecting us against injury or even just helping us look and feel our best. We may try to build strength work into our day or militantly follow a program dedicating our precious spare time to resistance or weights training. But how many of us take the time to think about how we build our mental strength or fitness and build habits into our day? What does Mental Fitness mean to you? It could mean waking up feeling positive and hopeful about what the day has in store or grateful for the day you have had. It could mean feeling energetic throughout the day and having the skills to manage your own stress and anxiety. It could mean having the headspace to recognise and achieve your potential or developing skills to cope with a change in your life. Or it could mean dealing your depression when times get tough. Being mentally fit can ultimately help keep you engaged and enjoying everything life has to offer. With one in five of us suffering a mental health illness throughout our life and suicide rates continuing to rise, we can all benefit from taking the time to work on our mental fitness. Like our physical health, there is no one thing you can do, it is combination of small strategies and decisions that help YOU be mentally fit. This month is mental health awareness month and we look at some of the key steps you can take to be mentally fit and HEAD STRONG.
Why do you do what you do? Living a meaningful life where you feel like you are working towards something you value and find purposeful can have a significant positive impact on your mental game. When you are cognizant of what matters most to you, it can help keep other frustrations and stresses in perspective and improve your coping skills. We appreciate that this is easier said than done; many of us are so caught up in the daily grind that we have lost sight of what we are working towards and why. Take a moment to reflect on what you do in your day that makes you feel valued and purposeful. This could be your contribution in a team meeting, delivering outstanding customer service, reading a bed time story or cooking a great meal for your household.
Mentally strong people are grateful for all that they have which helps them keep life in perspective and combat any daily stressors that come their way. Research supports the power of gratitude; practicing gratitude helped Vietnam War veterans reduce their rates of post-traumatic stress and contributed to the resiliency of victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Gratitude reduces a multitude of negative emotions from envy and resentment to frustration and regret which can all contribute to feelings of depression. It can also help to apply a gratitude mindset. For example, many of us start to feel stressed, anxious or depressed at the thought of our ever expanding ‘to do’ list. Instead of thinking about all the things you’ve GOT to do, think about all the things you ‘GET’ to do and feel your mood and motivation lift. Ideally, gratitude should be a daily practice and could include thinking about or writing down one to two things you are grateful for each day. To put the last three suggestions into practice, this month think about the one to two things that you are grateful you ‘got to do’ each day because it helped you feel valued and purposeful.
In an age where we are hyper-connected digitally, we are losing the ability and desire to really connect with the people in our lives. We may have less meaningful, fulfilling, face-to-face interactions throughout our day crucial to developing or maintaining the relationships that support positive mental health. In fact, research shows we are facing a loneliness epidemic and this includes our workplace with many people more comfortable connecting through their devices than in person. Be honest, how often do you send an email, text or digital message because it’s “easier” or because you are too tired to pick up the phone? This coupled with the fact many of us are either required to work longer hours or are choosing to prioritise other pursuits means we may feel we lack the time and energy to connect with the people in our lives. Keep in mind that everyone can find value and purpose in connecting and being there for your family, friends and colleagues. A simple conversation or phone call can also really help to lift your mood and improve your day. Your support networks can also provide a sounding board to talk through any issues, put life in perspective and offer help when times are mentally tough. What are you doing to connect with your workmates during your work day and the important people in your life after work? As a first step why not try having a face to face or phone conversation with them instead of emailing or digital messaging.
We know that everything is better after a good night’s sleep and research demonstrates that poor sleep is linked to mental health problems such as anxiety and depression and it’s a nasty two-way street. Being stressed, anxious or depressed can make it difficult to fall asleep or disrupt your sleep. Unfortunately, our modern lives are full of sleep disruptors such as our exposure to digital screens, caffeine, sugar or processed food and a lack of movement or exposure to sunlight. To build mental fitness, this month try to prioritise your sleep and address some of the sleep disruptors in your life. Allowing yourself at least 7.5 hours of uninterrupted sleep ensures your brain has the best chance to help you function at your best and combat those feelings of stress, anxiety and depression.
When you are feeling low, stressed or anxious you may find you either lose your appetite or crave more caffeine, sugary or processed foods… anything you think might help you feel better. Again, these foods and beverages aren’t going to help you build your mental fitness in the long term. Our mood and mental health is largely based on the health of our brain, and the food and beverages we choose to fuel it with. Our brain is a hungry organ consuming around 20 percent of the body’s metabolic energy. So it makes sense that we need to consume the right amount of energy, several vitamins, minerals, fats, and antioxidants to help it function at its best, and the only way to authentically do that is with real food. The best diet for optimal mental health is a nutrient-dense, anti-inflammatory, real food diet. Essentially, you eat a daily variety of fresh or frozen vegetables, fruit, starchy vegetables (sweet potatoes, potatoes, pumpkin), nuts and seeds, and plenty of healthy fats such as, olive oil, avocado, coconut oil, and fatty cuts of meat and fish. Try to minimise your intake of highly processed, inflammatory foods such as sugar, refined carbohydrates, some dairy products and seed- based oils, such as canola oil. For more information read the article, Key Nutrients for Your Brain.
When you’re feeling stressed, a bit low or depressed, sometimes the last thing you want to do is haul yourself to the gym, out for a run or off for a spin class. Often you lack any interest for the activities you normally enjoy or are part of your every day routine. However, this is the time where you need to move most, even if it is just a gentle 20-minute walk outside; the movement and fresh air can help to lift your mood. Simply put, exercise improves mental health by reducing anxiety, stress, depression, and negative mood and by improving self-esteem and cognitive function. The mental benefits of movement have a neurochemical basis reducing levels of the body's stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. It also stimulates the production of endorphins - chemicals in the brain that are the body's natural painkillers and mood elevators. Movement also provides time out from your daily stressors to help put these in perspective or the thinking time to plan, process or strategise how to tackle something on your mind. You will also get bonus mental health benefits if you are moving outside and get to connect with nature at your local park, beach or forest. Some people may find the social connection from participating in sport or exercise with a group or buddy can also help to lift their mood. The key is to pick activities that you really enjoy that are easy and convenient for you when you are feeling a bit low, stressed or anxious. If you are starting out, then set small achievable goals for yourself. It’s also important to choose an exercise that doesn’t add to your stress levels, for more information read, What Exercise Is Right For You?
Just like our physical fitness, building your own mental fitness will need a combination of strategies and this article doesn’t cover everything that you may find helpful.
If you do wish to seek some professional advice or are concerned about your own or someone else’s mental health in your life then there are a range of helplines available in New Zealand.