Learn the techniques used by people who develop maximum mental fitness.
With around 50% of the population destined to experience some kind of mental illness or disorder, it makes sense for each of us to be as well-equipped as possible to protect and improve our mental health.
After centuries of reactive “treatment” of mental health problems, (more akin to torture, in many cases), there now seems to be a growing awareness that various forms of mental health therapy are at best “hit and miss,” and at worst, actively harmful, with most being no more effective than a placebo.
If we are to maintain our mental health, individually and collectively, we would be well advised to start thinking about mental fitness.
That is learning and practising techniques to make ourselves mentally fitter so that when factors that would otherwise have triggered mental health problems come along, we are better equipped to deal with them.
If you want to develop mental fitness and protect yourself against mental health problems, what can you do?
Here are 21 tips that have worked for other people.
Choose to make your mental health a priority
When people set goals, they are much more likely to achieve them in that area of life. Previously, mental health was not an area of life in which people would choose to set goals. Now that we know how important mental health is to every other area of life, it makes sense to set goals. What might such a goal look like?
“I learn how to improve my mental health, and every day I become more skilled in applying those techniques.”
Get proper sleep
Although we still don’t understand what is going on during sleep, we do know that it is very important to mental health. Sleep disturbance and deprivation are hugely implicated in the development of all sorts of mental ill health. Protecting your sleep time may be one of the strongest steps you can take to develop mental fitness.
If you share a bed with a partner, it is wise to have two separate mattresses, and bed covers. Why? Otherwise, each time one partner moves they disturb the other one, and both can end up sleep deprived.
People who take moderate, well-balanced, exercise are mentally healthier than couch potatoes. Too little exercise can be as harmful, but in different ways, as too much. Finding the sweet spot is best for our mental and physical health.
Connect with others, make time with friends
People who have the best connections with others usually have the best mental health. As humans, we are a social species and seem to function best in small groups where we know, and look out for each other.
If we reach out to make connections, we can make friends and create the kind of mutual support which is very beneficial for our mental fitness.
Give to/ help others
One of the greatest feelings we can experience is from helping someone in an altruistic way; where there is no expectation or even possibility of payback. Helping others makes us feel good about ourselves, and benefits our mental well-being.
Develop an attitude of gratitude
If you are reading or listening to this, you woke up breathing this morning. If you can read or listen to this you have sight or hearing or both. There are so many things to be grateful for. People who have an attitude of gratitude are happier and healthier than those who don’t.
Count your blessing. Regularly create and revise a mental or written list of things you can be grateful for.
Take time in nature
People who regularly spend time in nature, and choose to appreciate it, seem to be mentally and physically healthier than those who do not. A walk in the country, or in a nearby park, by a river or a stream, seems to convey many health benefits.
Learn new skills, or develop existing abilities
People who are absorbed in hobbies, interests or skills development, are happier and mentally healthier. Learning a new skill, or developing an existing skill is very good for our mental health, and for our brain fitness.
It seems to be that if the learning is intense that it makes negative thinking less likely, which in turn improves our mental health.
Listen to your body, harness your body
When we are at our mental healthiest, our bodies and minds are working well together. When we listen to our body, it tells us when things are likely to go wrong mentally.
For instance, if we eat too little, it leaves us weak and malnourished (long-term), which subdues our mood and can lead to depression.
If we eat too much it can leave us feeling “stodgy” and fatigued, as our body seeks to digest the excess food. Long-term overeating leads first to being overweight and then obese, and if not addressed, even to morbid obesity. Each level of obesity increases the incidence of physical and mental health problems.
We seem to have internal feedback loops between mind and body. For instance, when we make the deliberate decision to smile, within a short time we feel happier. How can we harness this phenomenon?
If you want to feel any particular way, enact the physical behaviours usually associated with those feelings. Before long, our feelings follow.
Eat a varied diet
When we don’t eat a balanced diet and are deficient in the necessary vitamins and minerals, it is bound to have an effect on our physical health, which has a knock-on effect on our mental health.
People who eat a minimum of five fruit and vegetables a day, from a minimum of 30 different sources per week, are mentally and physically healthiest, and live the longest.
Avoid toxic “foods”
People who avoid processed foods, and red meats, and eschew smoking and alcohol, live longer, healthier lives, mentally and physically.
Avoid counterproductive self-medication
Thousands of years ago humans discovered that alcohol, and a wide array of other natural chemicals, could alter our psychological states. Since then, large numbers of people have enjoyed such chemicals in a relatively safe and responsible way.
However, for some, people who are trying to remove mental pain, the self-medication properties of those chemicals are so alluring that they overdose on the chemicals to the point of harm. You can see such people in almost every town and city in the world.
There are many ways to protect and enhance our mental fitness; drugs and alcohol do neither. Yes, they offer a temporary escape from the undesired mental states, but that respite comes with a heavy price; increasing loss of the ability to change state without the use of chemicals, and the steady destruction of health.
Find ways to experience awe and wonder
People who find awe, excitement, and passion in any field are and remain mentally healthier than others. There is something in the process of seeking and finding awe that seems beneficial for our mental health. Whatever it is, we can all benefit from it.
Find ways and reasons to experience joy and laughter
“People who laugh together stay together,” is well-known in the psychology of successful relationships. Laughter also boosts our mental health. To improve and maintain our mental fitness it is great to laugh.
We can find laughter in many ways. There is comedy on many radio channels, online videos, on TV, and in various forms of print media.
Once you start looking, you can find comedy almost everywhere. Even laughing at our own ridiculousness can improve our mental fitness.
Avoid toxic people
Everywhere you go there is a small percentage of toxic people. Those who need to harm, control or diminish others in order to feel any sense of worth.
Get them out of your life ASAP, and if you can’t, minimise your contact with them, and take the psychological equivalent of a refreshing shower after you get out of their presence.
Toxic people will damage your mental health. How can you tell if someone is toxic? You feel bad anytime you have anything to do with them, yet you feel good after interactions with almost everyone else.
Focus on the here and now
Countless generations of thinkers have advocated “focus on the here and now.” Why? Because the only time you exist is here and now. Dragging up and dwelling on the past can only harm us. Pulling imagined fears from the future into the present, likewise.
Live in the here and now. Critics of “here and now living” claim that to ignore the past is to be blind to its lessons, and blocking out future threats is negligent.
Of course, such criticism is a deliberate distortion of what is being advocated. No sane person is saying we should not learn from the past.
We are saying learn from it, don’t dwell on it. Neither is anyone rational claiming that we should ignore real and present risks that may be emerging. We are saying plan for them, not live in them, or in dread of them.
Become aware of your thoughts
When things go wrong, or we are subject to an injustice, we are prone to engaging in what is known as “rumination,” that is, looping over and over again in our minds the negative thoughts of the harm that has been done to us.
Rumination can be addressed after we become aware of it. The more aware we become of our thoughts the more we can decide whether or not those thoughts serve or hinder us.
Choose your thoughts wisely, work towards mastering your thoughts
After awareness of thoughts comes the journey towards mastery. Once we can see the positive or negative effect that any thoughts can have on us, the next step is to deliberately choose our thoughts because of the effect we want them to have.
None of us is responsible for the random thoughts that fire off in our minds. We are responsible for those we choose to dwell on and amplify.
People with the highest levels of mental fitness have come close to total mastery of their thoughts. It is a tough journey, but well worth taking if you want to be mentally fit. Indeed, mental fitness may be at least partially characterised by mastery of thoughts.
Become aware of your emotions
Alexithymia is the inability to process or make sense of emotions or distinguish them from physical feelings. Learning to read and make sense of our emotions is essential for good mental fitness. Our emotions send us all sorts of useful signals and can protect us in many ways. For instance, we can determine when we are in the presence of toxic people by listening to our emotions.
The more physical sensations we have, and the more intense they are, the harder it becomes for us to read our emotions. For instance, when we are hungry, tired, in pain, dehydrated, wet, or cold… it can be almost impossible to feel any positive emotion.
Out physical feelings overpower and determine our emotional state. The more we can learn to distinguish between physical and emotional feelings the better for our mental health.
Choose your emotions, and work towards mastering your emotions
Ultra-high achievers and emotionally advanced people take another step; they go from being able to read and learn from their emotions to be able to also control and create the emotions they need to achieve what they want.
Imagine being able to feel any way you wanted, any time you wanted. Most of us will never reach that nirvana, but we can become mentally fitter by learning to better choose the emotions that help rather than staying with the emotions that harm our mental health.
Set yourself mental health goals, and develop fitness habits
As with physical health, if we want to become fit, we set goals, decide on methods, and put the time in, while learning from our experiences.
To become mentally fit, and give ourselves maximum protection from the events and circumstances that could damage our mental health, it is wise to work towards mental fitness, to create a mental fitness programme.
Your mental fitness programme could draw on the technique in this article, the techniques that have been used by people who, set themselves mental fitness goals, and became mentally fit.
The journey to mental fitness is not about making ourselves invulnerable, it is about giving ourselves the best chance of staying mentally healthy, for as long as possible. If you’re struggling with your mental health in York Region, seeking support from CMHA York Region can be a helpful step towards improving your well-being.
Professor Nigel MacLennan runs the performance coaching practice PsyPerform.