Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Mental Health Fitness

How do you take care of your health?  Your body that is.  What do you either do or know to do in order to have a healthy body? We all know how it works, don’t we? Eat lots of vegetables and some fruit and then take it easy on the carbs, meats and dairy – right? Do 30 minutes of exercise daily, even if it is just walking – right? We have systems set up just for this purpose. From Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig to Curves and Cross Fit, there are many onramps to helping you with your physical health.

But what about mental health? What are the obvious ways to take care of your mind? Your emotional health? How do you manage your moods?

When people talk about dealing with mental health care, usually the first thought is a remedial mental health approach. You know, going to a therapist, counselor or psychologist. But that is more like going to a medical doctor when you are sick as opposed to the gym to make a healthy body even healthier. That is sick care. That is important and necessary, but what is healthy mental health care? What maintains already good mental health that buffers against a dive into anxiety or depression? What is the mental health equivalent to pushups, Pilates and planks?

Just like there are scores of physical exercises for the body, there are scores of mental health exercises for the mind. The remainder of this article is a small sampling of good mental health fitness practices that can improve and maintain good mental health and even turn around some aching mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. For significant anxiety and depression it is best to see a therapist just like when the body has high blood pressure it is best to see a medical doctor.

Physical Health: To some this may seem ironic or counterintuitive; however, the link between physical health and mental health is firmly established in science. Daily exercise and eating right is a powerful influence on the thoughts and emotions of a person. A daily diet of Swiss Cake Rolls and pizza is going to result in weight gain, but it also increases the chances of anxiety and depressed mood. Plus, what regular exercise and healthy eating also does is provide some order to one’s schedule and some restraint to one’s appetites.

Contemplative Practice: Ok, you lost me. Before you quit reading or just skip this one, humor me. All this means is taking time to be alone and pondering something intentional and meaningful. And it can take less than ten minutes. Some people use mindfulness, some use contemplative prayer, some use breath prayer, some use mediation and some use relaxation exercises - there are so very many ways to do this. All of them are good and backed by science. Some of them have a religious or spiritual bent to them ranging from Christian to Buddhist, but many of them have no spiritual impetus whatsoever. What this is NOT is sitting and ruminating on everything going wrong or a special time devoted to worry. That is the OPPOSITE of contemplative practice. What happens in contemplative practice is the breathing becomes deeper and healthier, providing rich supplies of oxygen to the blood. It also calms tense muscles that you didn’t even know were tense. Those muscles might stay tense all day long and go undetected. That’s tiring. Contemplative practices bring rapid calm to the body and mind.

Highlight Strengths. Knowing what you are good at, what your positive characteristics are and what you have that is valuable to the world is incredibly important. An honest awareness of your own assets is neither boastful nor is it narcissistic. How you communicate with and engage with the rest of the world is what makes for pride when it comes to abilities and assets. Some people downplay their strengths and assume that everyone is as intelligent, strong, attractive, funny etc. as they are or that their asset doesn’t count. Often times they do this because they fear being boastful so much that they overcompensate and by default tear themselves down. They interject a constant dose of negative to inoculate themselves against pride. Ironically, that is another more sinister and stealthier kind of pride – false humility. Here are three ways to highlight your strengths without being boastful:
1.       Write them down in short sentences: I am hilarious. Then in your contemplative time just review them and be glad you are the way you are.
2.       Use your strengths often.
3.       In certain settings, when your strength would help, humbly offer to do that task that no one else knows how to do, wants to do, or is not any good at.

Appreciation. This is one of the healthiest things you can do. There are two major categories of appreciation that can really help with mental health fitness. The first is to tell someone how much you appreciate them. When someone does something that benefitted you or when someone is simply just a wonderful person, tell them. From small things to large things, initiating a genuine expression of gratitude means a lot to that person and usually it turns around and means a lot to you. If you can bring a smile to someone’s face because of what they did that made your life better, then you will likely also smile. Endorphins for all. Also, and this one is hard, telling someone you do not like what good you see in them is good for you. It accesses the empathy that soothes angry and bitter soul sores. The second form of appreciation comes when you are actually tempted to compare yourself to someone else. She’s so pretty and doesn’t even try or I wish I was an all-star dad like he is. When this temptation hits, convert the comparison into appreciation. Be glad for the other person and the assets they have. What this does is gets you outside yourself and allows for people to have the advantages they have without it being a threat to your value, meaning or purpose.

Play Inbounds. Life happens and sometimes it is really hard. Frankly, some things about life are impossible. When people are overwhelmed, it can seem like all of life is one ginormous blob of responsibility and knowing where to begin can make a person want to just crawl in bed until the return of Haley’s Comet. Whether life is overwhelming or not, sorting life into two specific categories is a really healthy thing to do. One category is, “Things I have the power to do something about” and the other category is “things I do not have the power to do anything about.” Yes, it is that simple. After doing that, start working on what falls in the category of “things I have the power to do something about.” And to get started, do an easy one first. Take out the trash. Go to the store. Wash the dishes. Just do something you can get done quickly and start the momentum. What to do about the the things that fall into the other category? Some people use that to populate their prayers while other people freely let those things go. Investing energy into something you can't do anything about will wear a person out - fast.

Playing inbounds also applies to what you agree to do. The word, NO, is so hard for some people to say. They like the affirmation they get for being wanted. The problem comes when there is no place to put another responsibility. They have committed to something they may have the ability to do, but not the time. The result is converting some other previous YES into a NO, which inevitably increases stress and anxiety and can even form resentment or regret.

Mental Health Fitness is easily as important as physical fitness. However, we do not live in a culture that values mental health fitness. Mental health is assumed and if it deteriorates, then usually we wait a really long time, until crisis, and then get help - maybe. Many people just suffer in silence. Using mental health fitness practices can create more capacity in your life, help you be better at the things you are already good at and help to maintain and nurture your boundaries. These mental health fitness practices are very introductory, but are a good place to start.