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Each year around 1 in 4 people will experience mental health challenges. Over the course of our lifetimes, nearly all of us have mental health challenges, and, frankly, those who claim they do not, are demonstrating that they do. That is a bold statement. Let’s substantiate it. Everyone faces adversities, and we can all be knocked off balance by factors outside our control. Restoring balance after a setback is a mental health challenge.
If we accept that we can be destabilised, we accept that our mental health can be impacted by events. In turn, accepting that our mental health can be adversely affected, it makes sense to have in place techniques and support to ensure maximum mental fitness in anticipation of life’s ups and downs.
Note that phrase: mental fitness. Every athlete develops their physical fitness to improve performance in their chosen field. They also work on their mental fitness for the same reasons. They know that if their mental fitness lets them down, their physical fitness doesn’t matter. In wider life, the same is true for the rest of the population: our mental fitness is hugely important. It prepares us to help others, add value, seize opportunities, and keep going through adversities.
In almost every workplace, people develop understanding and learn skills and techniques to enable them to perform what is required to add value. If we do the same in the area of mental fitness we can live happier, more fulfilling lives, and deal better with life’s inevitable adversities. If we become informal mental fitness coaches to those around us, and those around us become mental fitness coaches to us, together, we can maximise our mental well-being.
The techniques and skills that improve mental fitness are becoming increasingly understood. One of the most useful things we can do to create and maintain mental fitness is to talk. Rarely do phrases emerge in a language and become widespread unless they have strong resonance with huge numbers of people.
‘A problem shared is a problem halved,’ emerged and is in common usage because it contains much truth. Just talking about a mental fitness challenge can lead to all sorts of positive outcomes. For instance, by expressing a mental fitness challenge to someone trusted, we can often find that they too, have or had that experience. They may know of a solution. If no solution to the challenge is possible, they may have figured out how to live with it, or accept it. Or they may know someone for whom any or all of the above are true.
Quite often when we talk about a mental fitness challenge, we find that the way we are framing it is making it feel worse than it is. A simple reframing can change how we feel. ‘Thank goodness I didn’t get that promotion; I had time to help my kids get into university.’
When is it time to talk? Anytime we are feeling negatively impacted by events or circumstances, or having negative thoughts or emotions, or we are behaving in ways that we know are not what we would want. Anytime we sense that our mental fitness is not what it could be.
Time to talk means finding someone who can listen. How can we make sure that there is always someone available to listen, when it is time to talk? By being the person who listens to others, others are more likely be the people who listen to us. By developing that aspect of our friendships. Real friends want the best for the people they care about, they listen to each other, they empathise, they help each other solve problems, they take time to talk.
When we take time to talk, we find that for most mental fitness challenges there are similar ways forward: we eventually find a way to solve the problem, change our perceptions about it, or they way we interpret it. Talking helps us to unblock and harness our own resources, or plan how to acquire the necessary resources. Talking about mental fitness helps us strengthen our mental fitness.
We all face mental health challenges, and facing them together, benefits everyone. If we move to the next level of mental fitness, we can be ready to face mental health challenges when they come along. Even better, with well-developed mental fitness, something that would otherwise been a challenge, we deal with it comfortably.
Giving someone the opportunity to talk about their mental health challenges could be the best thing you can do for them, and when the roles are reversed, it could be the best thing for you. We tend to become what we think and talk about. If we think and talk about mental fitness, we move towards it. People who have the highest levels of mental fitness, as with those who have the greatest physical fitness, have deliberately developed that fitness.
Some with great mental fitness have developed it in the furnace of adversity, others in the line of fire. Armed forces across the globe have made the move towards preparing their staff to stay mentally fit in the face of events that would otherwise presented serious mental health challenges. That does not mean that staff are not destabilised by events, it means they are less negatively impacted than they would otherwise have been.
Mental fitness does not make us immune from mental health challenges; it equips us better to deal with them. If someone wants to run a marathon, they train for it, build towards it, acquire new skills and techniques.
Of all the ways that help us develop mental fitness, taking time to talk is among the most effective ways to start.
Professor Nigel MacLennan runs the performance coaching practice PsyPerform.