By Mike Verano
“The part can never be well, unless the whole is well.” Plato
Despite frequent reports of increasing problems with obesity, one could easily make the argument that we are a culture obsessed with being in shape. Home gym equipment, diets of all varieties, an ever-growing list of medical tests and procedures, fitness centers that are open 24 hours—we’re surrounded by tools for keeping our bodies lean and toned.
But when it comes to mental fitness and keeping the mind in shape, things get a little flabby. Although we may focus on hitting the gym everyday or walking around the neighborhood before dinner, less attention may be given to dealing with our worries, fears and sadness. And, like physical fitness, ignoring our mental health can lead to things getting much worse. Before your periodic blues turn into depression, or your occasional worries into anxiety, consider a training program for your psyche and pump up your well-being and train your brain.
Here are some go-to methods for improving mental fitness that will allow you to exercise your right to have a sane life.
How much of your time is spent waiting? Psychological waiting—the mental state of believing that your happiness, fulfillment or sanity lie somewhere off in the future—may be keeping you from a joyful life. Restore your fitness in this area by returning to the present moment whenever you feel your mind spinning off toward the future. Without the psychological pull toward the next moment, we bring the quality of mindfulness—which research shows helps reduce stress and improve self-control—into whatever we do. By simply being mindful of our breathing we can turn distractions into meditative moments, and meditation has been shown to build bigger brains.
Know Pain, Know Gain
People involved in physical exercise are often encouraged to “feel the burn.” When it comes to our mental health, however, many of us feel burnt out and go to great lengths to become emotionally numb. We think, if it hurts, it can’t be good. But the experience of having the very things we are trying to avoid come back to defeat us in the end is called “ironic rebound.” Current research in psychology reaffirms the old psychoanalytical wisdom that facing these hurts decreases the chance that we are haunted by the same old ghosts. So think instead, “What we resist persists.” If you take the time to pause and reflect rather than fight or flee, your problems no longer seem so overwhelming.
Have a Spotter
At the gym, you would never try to lift heavy weights without someone there to act as a spotter. But when it comes to mental health, many of us internalize our problems, and quickly find ourselves under tremendous strain with no one within earshot. Too many people suffer in solitude from mental or emotional burdens, which can be lightened by simply spending time with supportive, caring people. Whether that person is a therapist, life coach, pastor, rabbi or the stylist who does your hair, it’s important to have someone in your corner willing to listen and provide feedback and encouragement.
Flexibility and Balance
Techniques such as yoga, tai-chi and dancing not only aid in physical conditioning but also improve one’s flexibility and balance—important characteristics for mental health, too. “Loosen up” hits at the heart of mental flexibility. People who do well at handling life’s twists and turns have the ability to twist and turn right along with it, freeing up energy that would otherwise be used up trying to stand one’s ground while that very ground rolls under our feet.
Balance comes when we realize that living in a culture of “everything in extreme,” guarantees that our suffering also takes on an edgier quality. When we stop mistaking excitement for happiness, we find pleasures, once only a blur due to our hyper lifestyle, all around.
Just like our physical health, it’s a good idea to have regular mental health check-ups. If the idea of seeing a therapist makes you uncomfortable or wary, you can start with the following self-inventory. If you find that you answer “no” to three or more of the following statements, it might be a good idea to get a second opinion from someone trained in mental fitness.
A Mental Health Self Examination
• Do you feel good about yourself?
• I find pleasure in everyday things
• I’m able to deal with most situations without feeling overwhelmed by emotions.
• I can bounce back after a setback.
• I’m able to forgive myself when I make mistakes.
• I set realistic expectations for myself.
• Do you feel comfortable with other people?
• I am able to consider how other people think and feel.
• I have personal relationships that are positive and fulfilling.
• I am able to trust others and believe that they trust me.
• I have healthy boundaries and do not let others take advantage of me.
• I regularly seek out support from others.
• Are you able to meet life’s demands?
• I address problems when they arise.
• I feel in control of my reactions to life events.
• I feel able to make changes to my surroundings in order to meet life’s demands.
• I do not fear the future.
• I feel I have the resources and energy to take on life’s challenges.
Mike Verano is a licensed therapist and EAP Specialist with REACH EAP & Workplace Solutions. He is also a cancer survivor and, most importantly, a grandfather.