Five tips to achieve mental fitness and strengthen emotional wellbeing
Simple everyday actions can help maintain and improve your mental health, writes author Mark Freeman, who has developed approaches to strengthening mental and emotional wellbeing based on his own recovery from anxiety and depression.
I always thought mental illnesses were for other people.
Even when I believed somebody was trying to poison me, or I’d wait in front of the hob to make sure it didn’t spontaneously ignite, when I’d avoid knives because I’d see myself stabbing somebody, or I’d spend an hour rewriting a short email because I was afraid I’d upset the recipient, I didn’t see anything wrong or irrational with what I was doing. I had reasons for everything. By the time I got help, I was drowning in anxiety, depression and horrifying thoughts.
Not only did I learn, at that point, that I actually was one of those people that could struggle with mental illness (because I have a brain), but accessing effective therapy also shattered another myth I’d taken for granted: that mental illnesses are always chronic.
I don’t struggle with mental illness anymore. I don’t deal with any of the countless compulsions that consumed my life. There were no wacky gimmicks to get to this point. I had to change ways of thinking and behaving that I’d practised my entire life. I did that through learning skills in therapy and then continuing to work on my own and expand on those skills. I learned how to experience stuff in my head and make choices aligned with what I actually care about in life.
Maintaining and improving mental health is easy to explain, but doing the exercises and sustaining those changes is challenging. With physical fitness, we’ve got gyms, free workout videos, countless magazines devoted to specific exercises — so many supports to help you change. But I realised when I was doing therapy that we don’t have the same supports available for mental health. Therapies like Exposure &
Response Prevention, Acceptance & Commitment Therapy, or Dialectical Behaviour Therapy are incredibly effective if you follow through on the exercises. Doing that is as gruelling as any weightlifting regime.
After experiencing what was possible with therapy, but seeing these support gaps in the system, I started to fill the gaps. The role I’ve taken on is similar to that of a personal fitness trainer, but for mental health. It’s a role that’s been missing: people dedicated to the practice of mental health and fitness in their own lives, who can share that experience with others. And I’m going to share some of that experience with you now, with a few basic exercises and concepts I wish I’d learned much earlier in life. You can practise these this summer. Especially if you’re still trying to shake off the darkness of winter, these can help with learning the skills to get things moving again:
Start the day offline
Approach the first thing you do as a training exercise for how you want your brain to behave that day. If you wake up and immediately grab your phone to check messages, flip through the news, open a dating app hoping somebody messages you — don’t be surprised if your brain behaves that way the rest of the day. It’ll always be distracted, throw up uncertainties for you to check, worry about being liked, etc.
Learn how to keep your phone beside your bed, but choose to do something else when you first wake up. You can get started on this practice tomorrow morning.
Don’t wait for motivation
Chasing feelings is a big component of what gets us stuck in mental health challenges. When we’re struggling, it’s all about chasing certainty, relief, safety, reassurance, and even things like motivation. It only leads to more anxiety, more uncertainty, and less time and energy for the things we care about.
Your brain is going to tell you that you don’t feel like going out with people; you don’t feel ready to do important things you’ve been putting off. Don’t listen to your brain. Feelings, like motivation, come after you do things you enjoy, not before.
I trapped myself in a cage because I believed I couldn’t do things if I felt anxious or depressed. But the way to improve our mental health isn’t to avoid experiences, it’s to learn how to have them. You wouldn’t expect somebody to get into great physical shape by avoiding sweat or exhaustion. Improving physical fitness is about progressively pushing into challenging experiences while developing new skills. The same is true with mental health. This summer, find things you care about but often avoid because of thoughts or feelings. Practise having those experiences while doing things you care about.
Focus on supports, not distant goals
How often have you declared that this summer will be the summer that everything changes? And then it doesn’t. That often happens because the goals we pursue are actually the outcomes of the goals we need to be pursuing. We’re trying to cross the ocean without first building our ship. Instead of pursuing a goal, like getting into great shape, pursue a
goal like cooking healthy lunches every Sunday for the week ahead.
A goal like that is a key support for getting into shape and you can achieve it every week. It keeps success close. Take any lofty goal and distil it into support activities you can do this week.
Talk about where you’re going
If you don’t know how to swim and end up in the ocean, you’ll struggle. If you sign up for swimming lessons after that, you don’t have a drowning disorder. You’re learning how to swim. But with mental health, for some reason, we love to stick illness labels on people, even after they’re learning the skills to overcome challenges. You can ditch those labels.
You’re learning how to speak in public, to embrace uncertainty as you build healthy romantic relationships, to cook a meal for your friends while accepting whatever fears your brain can throw at you. Not many people will support you drowning, but there’ll be many more willing to help you learn new skills. Talk about the skills you want to learn.
The Mind Workout by Mark Freeman is out now, priced €19.60. Mark is co-founder of the online mental health community EVERYBODY HAS A BRAIN. See www.markfreeman.ca for more information