The statistics have been everywhere: 1 in 4 of us will experience mental health problems in our lifetime. Whether that’s daily stresses and strains or something that’s more intense, it can happen to any of us and inevitably does.
In recent years, the stigma surrounding mental health has (very slowly) begun to lessen. With sportspeople, celebrities and other high-profile individuals stepping forward to share their personal stories and struggles, it’s created a trickle-down effect that says it’s okay to talk about our mental health – after all, just as we all have physical health, we all have mental health. But despite this, we fail to put what we know works into action and actually help ourselves feel better.
It’s not like we don’t know what works to make us feel better.
Thanks to science– we actually do know what works to help. Research scientists, doctors, experts, and psychologists have decades worth of knowledge and experience of what works to improve individual mental health– so, why are so many of us still suffering and feeling the weight?
Well, even though many people know that we need to eat fruit and vegetables and exercise to feel physically better, we still end up sitting on the sofa obsessively thinking about interactions that we can’t change and wondering why we don’t feel great as a result or why we keep looping around to those same negative thought patterns.
We need to take action
Knowledge isn’t enough – we need to take action and put that knowledge into practice on a daily basis. This goes for standing up to our self-deprecating thoughts and negative bias, just as it does for slowing things down and taking in the present.
Similarly to why we maintain a healthy, balanced diet and regular exercise to prevent physical health problems, we need to take the same approach to our mental health. We need to put in place thinking strategies we can rely on, so when we’re feeling overwhelmed, we know exactly what to do to make ourselves feel better. So often, feeling calm and secure is just a matter of perspective.
That is the fundamental purpose of mental fitness: to build the mental strength and resilience you need, so you’re in a better position to deal with challenges when they come your way.
Now, although the term mental fitness might be relatively modern, only becoming a household term in the last few years, the concept itself has roots in ancient belief systems.
The practices that we think of when we think about improving mental fitness are things like mindfulness, meditation, journaling, exercising and getting in touch with the slower pace of nature. These are tenets commonly found in ancient belief systems such as Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism and more, wherein happiness, harmony and enlightenment are prized above all else. The premise behind it is simple– if you can strengthen your mind, you’ll be able to manage your thoughts better so you feel stronger, happier and more confident in your day to day life– no matter what struggles may be facing you.
But the thing is if you want to feel better, it’s not enough just to know the theory behind mental fitness. You have to take action– small steps every day to actually make changes that grow into sustainable, positive lifestyle and perspective changes.
At this point, it’s important to remember that actively practising mental fitness doesn’t mean that you ignore the negative, ignore the bad and become one of those people who is upbeat 100% of the time. That’s not realistic and it’s not a healthy way to live and behave, otherwise we simply ignore all the bad and failure to process the lessons that often come from adversity to prevent future pain and discomfort. What we can take away from this is an ability to cope and manage whatever comes our way.
Too often, we find ourselves struggling to deal with little things: when we’re feeling at our lowest ebb, it’s hard for us to find the motivation to make positive interventions, everything just seems that one step too far. It’s because we’re so overstimulated by the modern world, so overwhelmed sensorily, that our brain struggles to cope with these stresses and strains.
Up until very recently, mental health was considered to be something fixed, permanent – determined by factors outside of our control. But now we know, your mental and physical health is something you can work on. In fact, our minds and bodies are actually two sides of the same coin.
Understanding thought patterns
The human brain is amazingly adaptable– it’s constantly changing its internal wiring as you experience new things. Which means, if you know how, you can actually work on changing your thought patterns to help you become more confident, calm, happy and secure. This is the process known as our brain’s natural, inbuilt neuroplasticity.
For example, if you think anxious, worried thoughts all day, you will very quickly become an expert in negative thinking. But if you pause, take a breath, and decide to consciously do the opposite, you will naturally arrive in a calmer, more positive place, and you’ll be in a much better position to cope with a stressful situation. It may sound simple, but it’s true. If you change the way you think, you can change the way you feel.
So, if you focus on actively practicing calming, relaxing, positive habits, such as those that inform the basic principles of mental fitness, you’re rewiring and strengthening those positive, more resilient neural pathways in your brain that are ultimately going to lead to you feeling better for longer.
To frame it in a different way, it’s the mental equivalent of stretching before working out so that your mental muscles don’t get strained or injured when something intense or stressful happens. Physically, it doesn’t matter if you’re injured and returning to exercise or you’ve been physically healthy all your life – you still stretch and you still cool down. So, it doesn’t matter if you struggle with poor mental health, if you’re fortunate enough to have never had any issues with your mental health, or anywhere in between – actively practicing mental fitness can help all of us become more positive, resilient, confident and happier.
With the resounding scientific and spiritual evidence behind the practising of mental fitness, it’s time that we explore how we can implement these activities into our daily lives and make those meaningful, positive changes to our neural network, therefore making us more positive and resilient for longer.
Digital mental health and mental fitness interventions and apps have been growing with popularity and effectiveness over the past few years and offer a location-independent option – something that in the mental health sphere is difficult to come by.
Let’s take meditation apps for an example.
Meditation apps have surged in popularity, amassing a cult following and celebrity endorsements. It seems the simple action of taking a short amount of time for yourself, to sit quietly and reconnect with the present, has an almost addictive quality – in a highly positive way.
This is because being present, slowing down and taking time for you is a reprieve for your brain – you’re freeing it from the daily overstimulation we all face. Inside the brain, this pleasant break is accompanied by an instant hit of dopamine, the pleasure hormone. This little burst of pleasure is designed to nudge us to repeat a behaviour, in the hope of achieving the same ‘good’ result. It’s what we call a positive feedback mechanism.
But this is just one facet of the mental fitness sphere: meditation, mindfulness, journals, adapting your thinking patterns and perceptions, resilience, training, physical activity and just slowing down and taking in the present – these are all ways in which we can train our mental fitness.
The power of the dopamine loop
Your habits are a dopamine-driven feedback loop– your brain remembers good experiences, and pushes you to repeat them. When our dopamine surges, so does our motivation to act.
This is how your brain chemistry nudges you to make mental fitness an integral part of your lifestyle – you just have to get started and your neurochemistry will help to build a routine – but the crucial thing is, you need to take action and keep repeating those actions so your positive neural pathways strengthen. Repetition is your friend here.
Using tech to build positive habits
Technological interventions can help enable us to continue onwards with these positive habits using nudges which are popular within behavioural science. These are pieces of tech like persuasive emails and push notifications along a predetermined timeline that reminds the user to take action at regular intervals. One of the most well known examples of this is the Duolingo owl, who is renowned for guilt tripping users into learning languages. So much so, hundreds of memes have been made.
The thing is, because these kinds of reminders play into our base instincts and emotions as humans, they’re extremely effective, and the majority of the time we’re unaware that they’re even at play. Until now, these kinds of behavioural science nudges haven’t existed in the mental health space, instead being used by FitBit, Peloton and Apple watches in the more physical health arena. However, a new mental health and fitness intervention, Leafyard, has combined this neuro-hacking science and combined it with everything we know works to improve our mental health and our mental fitness.
What this means is that you don’t have to rely on our external motivation to make a difference to our moods and habits. As the majority of us will realise, when we rely on our external motivation, things don’t always get done. Procrastination sneaks in. But by putting off the actions that are going to help us feel better long term, we’re setting ourselves up for the fall.
Mental fitness means that these healthy actions and habits are already in play.
You’ve already built up these positive neural pathways, dopamine loops and coping mechanisms so that when something difficult or troubling happens, you already have the processes in place to deal with it rather than spiraling out of control.
If we deal with little bits of adversity in a positive way every day, like getting cut up in traffic, or getting caught in a downpour without a coat, or forgetting your key fob for the office, you’re creating the building blocks of resilience and positive thought patterns that are going to serve you well when that adversity gets bigger. It’s inevitable that we’re going to have struggles in our lives, having good mental health is all about how we deal with those struggles and actively training our mental fitness helps us to get there.
One final thing: you may be thinking ‘I’ll get to this at some point’ or even ‘sounds great, but I don’t need to start practising mental fitness today’.
But the truth is, we can all benefit from building our mental fitness– it’s just about learning how to better manage your thoughts and feelings in order to live a happy, more fulfilling life. Don’t wait until you need it to make a start– the right time is right now. You’ll find it’s one of the best decisions you ever make.