Reaching for mental fitness

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The last couple of months have seen an increase in conversations around mental health following the terrible news of the suicide of UCT Health Sciences Dean, Bongani Mayosi. This post has been sitting as a half finished draft for months – ironically because of my own dip into depression. I thought this would be a good time to finish it, as the conversations around mental health open up and as I recover and learn firsthand what it is indeed that contributes to a healthy mind.

Everyone knows about the benefits of exercise. It’s this cure-all thing that can make you happier, improve your cholesterol, give you a healthy heart, make you stronger and generally raise your immunity. (And if you call now, we’ll even throw in longer life!) If we get sick or injure ourselves, we take the time to rest and look after ourselves. But it’s far less common to talk about how we keep our minds fit and functional.

I’m not just talking about doing the weekly crossword to keep your brain ticking over! It’s a very realistic thing that while we’ll brush our teeth to make sure we have good hygiene, we often completely ignore how we treat our minds. We tell ourselves to “get over it”, we avoid reaching out to people, we cover over what we are really feeling and put up the “I’m fine” mask. And slowly, without noticing, this kind of behaviour can result in a sense of isolation, and not being able to cope. The denial of how we feel can often result in depression.

Fitness regimes

“Too many people confine their exercise to jumping to conclusions, running up bills, stretching the truth, bending over backwards, lying down on the job, sidestepping responsibility and pushing their luck.” ~Anon

I don’t know about you, but I can’t say I was ever taught what a mental fitness regime might look like. I can tell you about exercise and fitness, no problem! Press-ups, sit-ups, cardio, strength, agility, and endurance training. Clearly diet would play a part too.

Perhaps a mental fitness regime would be composed of reaching out to family, talking through feelings, doing that crossword, reading about topics that interest you, relaxing, going for a walk, journaling, practising gratitude, and making plans with friends. Perhaps you might even enlist the help of a personal trainer for your mind – aka a psychologist – or take some supplements to help you build strength – aka antidepressants.

As with physical fitness, we are all at different levels, and the way we work is different. So while the component parts of what needs to be attended to remain the same, the makeup of that fitness regime looks different for everyone.

Here are three big components that are important to maintaining the health of your mind:

Community

“No man is an island” ~John Donne

Interestingly enough, I touched on this at the beginning of the year in my article The role of relationships in happiness. Around that time, the UK had just instituted a Minister for Loneliness, which initially struck me as rather absurd – but it dawned on me how isolated modern society has become, with our individualised mindset and the prevalence of technology standing in for face-to-face interaction. But no man is an island – we are all a part of the continent, and we all need each other.

Social interaction reduces our stress levels, helps us to feel supported, often leads to practical advice, and sometimes quite simply lets us know that we’re not alone. Just as an unhealthy diet increases our risk for obesity and diabetes, without community we are much more vulnerable to things like depression, substance abuse, and personality disorders.

Additionally, lack of community can lead to a lack of motivation – and that can show up in something as simple as not being motivated to go for a run on your own, or something more severe, like not being motivated to get out of bed in the morning. Which leads me to my next point.

Motivation

It takes far more effort to start than to continue. Once this is achieved, then the rest is relatively easy.

Why do we do what we do? A quick delve into the roots of the word motivation shows us that it relates back to our motive, which comes from the Latin movere ‘to move’. And indeed, motivation is what causes us to move – either towards something (if there is a perceived reward), or away from something (if there is a perceived punishment).

Sometimes our feeling of wanting to do something only arrives after we have actually set the ball in motion. Because of this strange phenomenon, one of the ways to find motivation is to act as if you are motivated. Not feeling motivated for work? Well, jump out of bed, take a shower, sing, imagine the success that the day will be. It’s a little bit of fake it till you make it, but if that’s all it takes for motivation to catch up, then why not?

It takes far more effort to start than to continue. Once this is achieved, then the rest is relatively easy. And so perhaps we need to work out how to make that first step easier. Building easy routines or rituals that help us to get going can be the start of motivation that allows us to build upon our dreams and achieve the things we set out to.

If you decided to run a marathon, you wouldn’t (I hope!) just enter on race day without any kind of training. That would feel insurmountable. So you start by going for a walk. Then maybe you run 2km. Little by little, you build up the distance, challenging yourself more and more until you are able to run a whole 42.2km marathon. And that kind of achievement feels great!

But what about when things don’t feel so great?

Learning to name the feeling

“Language allows you to abstract yourself from the raw phenomenal feelings, and think about the feelings” ~ Mark Solms

You’ve heard it said that “a problem shared is a problem halved”. It turns out that this is certainly true for our negative feelings. Putting your feelings into words – be it talking it out or writing it down – results in a decrease in emotional distress.

This was discovered using a pretty cool techhnological advancement, called functional magnetic resonance imaging (or fMRI), which allows scientists to look at which parts of the brain light up in response to stimulus. As people talk about their feelings, the amygdala, which registers emotion, becomes dimmer, while the prefrontal cortex, which orchestrates our thoughts, lights up.

Labeling of emotions has also been shown to work in the case of phobias, with studies done on people who have a phobia of spiders, and flying both showing a decrease in emotional distress as people put words to their emotions.

Sometimes people aren’t very good at identifying their emotions, and so tools such as the Feeling Wheel and the Atlas of Emotions have been developed in order to help us better understand and put words to this side of ourselves.

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The “Feeling Wheel”, originally developed by Gloria Willcox, is a useful tool for identifying our emotions. Incidentally, English teachers also love it.

I’ll leave you with this TED Talk by psychologist Guy Winch, where he explores the idea of emotional first aid:

These are just a few of many ways to keep a healthy mind. And interestingly, by working on any one of them, you are probably going to work on the others too. That’s the great thing about fitness regimes.

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