Prevention is Better than Cure
We talk a lot about mental health; a quick search on google and you will be greeted with page after page of self help guides to help you manage mental health issues. Websites, blogs, magazines, tweets, posts - mental health awareness is everywhere, yet still so many people are struggling in silence and just cannot seem to win that battle or see any way out from the battleground of the mind.
What qualifies me to write a blog on mental health? Nothing! I have no formal qualifications, no doctorate in psychology and certainly not as gentle in approach as Vicky. I can only talk from experience, from the highs and lows of post military service transition and hitting rock bottom after losing everything; living with the torment that comes with the homeless package! I will leave those details for my book – if I can ever find a keen proof-reader!
In my personal opinion, I think we need to look at developing mental fitness, just like physical fitness. Take a look at the wide scope of physical fitness, from general laborer's on construction sites putting in hard graft to elite athletes; our bodies are all different and every sporting discipline requires different training. Compare Chris Froome or Bradley Wiggins to Doreen Yates or Eddie Hall; compare Jessica Ennis Hill to Serena Williams, all athletes, all extremely fit, all different!
We should approach mental fitness like anyone wanting to improve physical fitness because our minds are all different. Give me hammers and chisels as well as a few planks of wood and I will build you almost anything, but don’t ask me to work out long multiplication or any mental arithmetic. It’s taken me…..cough cough…..almost 40 years to have the confidence to write. Then you have people like JK Rowling who can push out novels like sweets off a production line! Our heads are all wired differently, so what one person finds relaxing another may find stressful.
Its only now on reflection that I can look back and see how I developed and practice mental fitness, more so over these last few years. After a prolonged and ongoing response with the BKRG community group as well as delivering on a high-profile project at work; I had to practice what I preached. I decided to take a week off work to put myself back on a mental fitness program! My own military monk like boot camp for mental fortitude. If Vicky allows me to write another blog, I will tell you all about my Military Monk Bootcamp! But for now, here are my 5 top tips for achieving mental health fitness:
Tip 1. The Bicep Curl of the mind - Reading!
Tip 2. You cant out train a bad diet - Mental health diet!
Tip 3. The cardiovascular for the mind - Positive affirmations!
Tip 4. Post workout recovery - Reflects!
Tip 5. Fitness routine - Keeping a journal!
Tip 1. The Bicep Curl
The bicep curl of mental health – Read! Read and read some more! Just like going to the gym and putting in a few reps with the dumbbells, so should you put in the reps with a good book. If your new to reading you might feel tired after it and you certainly will not see any differences after the first session. As with any training, you will need to put in the reps! Consistent repetition over time will lead to results.
Like many, I was cynical about reading. I shamefully confess that I did not start reading regularly until a few years ago. I did not see the benefit, how the hell would reading books earn me extra cash or contribute to the bills? Time would be better spent putting in more overtime was my attitude to reading. Remember we are talking about building mental fitness; reading will develop analytical skills, it will help you see things from a different perspective, it will improve your writing and vocabulary ( there’s the proof, Lesley managed vocabulary!). Most importantly, reading will broaden your knowledge.
When reading a book one evening, a friend turned to me and said “Speedie, relax your face, you’re frowning" And that’s it, I didn’t read because I found it stressful, I didn’t enjoy it, this was something that the 'brainy' folks did. I guess that’s like your first session at the gym, you can look around and compare you first attempt at 5kg on the dumbbell and be disheartened because your not pushing 40kgs like a seasoned body builder. I was the same with reading, I was slow, I often skipped words and if you asked me to read aloud, I would not have been able to string two words together. What I failed to understand was, it's not because I couldn't read, it was simply because I did not have the mental fitness. This was a skill I had to develop like any other discipline, I had to put in the reps consistently over time. If you struggle to read then start off small, even a page a day and choose a subject you like. Try asking friends for recommendations but try and read more than a glossy magazine which is designed, edited, and branded to grab attention.
Give it a try for a few months and you will soon start to open your mind to new concepts, ideas and you might find yourself trying out new things!
Tip 2. Mental Diet
Just like a trip to the gym – you cannot and will not out-train a bad diet! The same goes for your mind. Feeding your mind on spoonful’s of drama, gossip, and bitching and binge eating on negativity. On a subconscious level you are telling yourself that you are not good enough. By comparing your life to others, you are fooling yourself into believing that other people’s lives are so much better than yours. We all know social media is false, yet we continue to feed our minds on a diet of media junk! So, try putting yourself on a social media diet.
Social media is over stimulating, its designed to keep you hooked by using very cleverly designed marketing psychology. Not only is it keeping you hooked, but you are also teaching your mind to read small bite size posts or tweets, a quick dopamine release and you are onto the next post, you are not allowing your mind to settle. Your mind is overactive and over stimulated. You might reply to a comment and get dragged into a social media battle with a troll who is only looking stir up reactions. It's the same as being addicted to chocolate, you keep going for another sweet or another block knowing how bad it is for you, but you want that feel good feeling again.
Just like a diet, if you give it all up at once, you will crash and end up on a social media marathon scrolling and scrolling to satisfy your minds craving. Try coming away from social media at least 1 hour before bed and if you can, try and apply that rule in the morning for the first hour or more. Do this for a week and notice how better you feel and sleep. Give it time, again like putting in the reps at the gym, consistency over time leads to results.
Tip 3. Positive Talk
If reading is the bicep curl of mental health, then positive self-talk is the cardiovascular workout. Yep, positive self-talk is what is going to build the stamina! Its going to set the pace and tone for your day so, if you want a good day, start it by positive self-talk! If you combine this with a social media diet you can fill those social media blanks with positive affirmations. Aristotle said, you are what you repeatedly do, therefore, excellence is a habit! (Yep, Lesley is quoting greek philosophy, changed times)
Positive self-talk is what is going to build up your self-belief, your self-esteem, your confidence. A recent book I read by Jay Shetty ‘Think Like a Monk’ gives the reader the following exercise: write down the top 10 things you hate about yourself, now read them to a close friend or family member and as though you were accusing them of such self-beliefs. Would you do it? Of course not, because it would be mean, it would destroy their confidence, you would ruin their day, week and possibly their month. You can’t believe negative things about yourself and expect to live a happy life. Replace all negative talk with positive self-talk consistently over time and the results will come!
If you feel a bit stupid talking to yourself then go on to YouTube or any podcasting platform and find positive affirmations, listen to them 2 – 3 times a day when going about your business. If you have earphones, even better. If you want to see better results, try setting the alarm clock 30 minutes early and when when you wake-up listen to positive affirmations through your headphones and snooze for another 30 minutes! If you want to increase the reps try repeating the playlist again at night, if need be, go to bed 30 minutes earlier. Try it for 1 week - you will see results.
Tip 4. Reflect
Just like a good workout at the gym, you will need to factor in a post work out recovery time. Again, this is the same for the mind, after any mental stressors positive or negative try to factor in time to reflect. If you have just presented a high-profile project to the team, reporting financial results to the board, or you have just watched a great movie, whatever it is, give yourself 5 or 10 minutes afterwards for reflections. Let your mind process things and settle before going on to the next project. Over training a muscle will lead to injury, the same goes with mental health. Are you over doing it with the TV spending hours and hours on the sofa, over doing it at work, spending too much time on one subject, facing obstacle after obstacle and not finding any solutions? You need to mix things up and allow the various parts of your head to rest just like you would do with different muscles.
Reflection lets you look at events when you are not under the stress of the situation or filled with the emotions of the event, you can look at things more analytically, build perspective, and allow your mind to make sense of it. If you have spent 2 – 3 hours working on a project or researching a subject, think about switching to another activity, perhaps something a bit more practical or creative. For me, I enjoy walking and cycling, these are good opportunities to reflect and make sense of things. When I am in the workshop tinkering with wood, the hours just pass without a care in the world. Often after those periods of mental rest you will be much more focused for the next task at hand.
If you’re working from home due to COVID_19, try setting ‘do not disturb’ appointments into your calendar especially after intense conference calls. If you can, take 5 – 10 minutes to go for a light walk or just open the window or door and get plenty of fresh air. If you can’t leave the house for any reason maybe you could try sitting in a different room, grab a coffee or tea and just chill out for 5 – 10 minutes. You might think that you cant afford the time to take the extra breaks but, by letting your mind settle you’re allowing it to prepare for the next task. Just like a walk to the water cooler between exercises, it allows you to refresh and refocus, ready for the next exercise.
Tip 5. Keep a journal
Like many seasoned gym-goers, they keep a log of their workouts including the reps, the weights, the running machine times and so on. Keeping a gym log allows the person to track performance and gives them the visibility to assess and adjust workouts which are no longer benefiting them. A journal does the same for you. Its more than just a few pieces of paper with a list of emotions scribbled down. A journal can be anything you want it to be, it can include thoughts, opinions, ideas, emotions, plans for tomorrow, plans for next week, it’s up to you really. My journal resembles an artist’s sketch book, its filled with cuttings, newspaper clips, doodles, random quotes (from greek philosophy) and at one point it was my fitness tracker; although I am sporting the lockdown body at the minute!
A journal will help you understanding why you’re feeling what you’re feeling, it will help you spot trends, it will help you map out plans and ideas; it can help you keep a list of inspiring quotes, motivation, it can be whatever you want it to be. But most importantly, like any athlete it will instill a little discipline and order into your mental fitness routine.
Grab a pen and a notebook and you have a journal! At first, writing down your thoughts and whatever comes to mind might be strange, you might even be uncomfortable, seeing your honest words might be painful, but all discipline hurts at the beginning – well, that’s what my corporal in basic training told me. After a while you will start to journal more, and you will start to feel a sense of ownership over your emotions. I am going to say it – there is freedom in discipline, I can hear my old sergeant major echoing from the parade square! Journaling is a great tool to add perspective to situations and help you map-out plans and ideas. – go for it!
Folks, that is only 5 tips to help build up mental fitness, like any sporting discipline there are so many ways to get fit and there are so many ways to develop mental fitness. These are just my top 5 that I can reflect on from my experiences