With Mental Health Awareness week taking place in May, my thoughts turn to a question that I have asked myself and others a number of times; what does good mental health actually look like?
If I asked you to visualise good physical health, you might think of someone on the cover of Men’s Health or Women’s Health magazine. The person probably looks toned, strong, bright eyed with clear skin and shiny hair. But what springs to mind when I ask you to visualise good mental health? How clear is the image that comes into your head? If the image is hazy, it’s unsurprising that we often find it hard to actively manage our mental health and put together a plan in the way we would if we were aiming to run a marathon or lose 5kg in weight.
Physical health as a metaphor for mental health
Our understanding of mental health is continually evolving and no-one can claim to understand it fully. The human mind is an incredibly complex phenomenon and neuro-science is regularly presenting us with new insights into how it works. We often talk about mental health in terms of abstract concepts, which is perhaps the reason we find it hard to come up with a clear image of good mental health.
I find it helpful to simplify the way I look at mental health by making it tangible, using physical health as a metaphor. Ross Edgley (fitness guru, author of The World’s Fittest Book and first person to swim all the way around Great Britain) talks about the five cornerstones of physical fitness, which are: strength, speed, endurance, flexibility and skill.
So let’s take each element of physical health and use them to help us better understand what good mental health, or mental fitness, looks like:
While physical strength is largely about developing muscles to deliver physical power when needed, mental strength is about resilience, otherwise known as mental toughness, or the ability to bounce back when life throws us curveballs. Resilience enables us to protect ourselves against experiences which could be damaging or overwhelming, helping us to maintain balance in our lives during difficult or stressful periods of time.
Mental strength is also underpinned by self-esteem or self-worth. Feeling positive about yourself is critical to being able to handle life’s ups and downs, pushing through obstacles, overcoming fears and committing to stretching personal goals. In other words, resilience and self-esteem are core components of personal power.
Physical endurance is all about the ability to keep going even when things feel tough, monotonous and painful. This is clearly an important component of good mental health too, as many of us will experience times when life seems relentlessly hard or more tedious than we feel we can cope with. According to research by Felicia Huppert, Director of the Wellbeing Institute at the University of Cambridge, vitality and optimism are both key attributes of good mental health. Both are vital to our ability to stay positive about our lives and about the future, even during difficult circumstances.
According to psychologist Martin Seligman, meaning and purpose are also critical components of mental health, providing much needed fuel for the mind when things get tough and we question whether what we’re doing is worth the effort. Without a sense of purpose, it’s very hard to find the motivation to make lemonade when life serves you lemons.
Being physically flexible is about adapting to the physical environment to achieve a particular task, such as scaling a climbing wall. Mental flexibility is similar, and refers to our ability to cope with and manage change and uncertainty, which are unavoidable parts of modern day life.
In Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP), one of the key principles is that ‘the person with the most flexibility controls the system’. This means that people who are flexible in the way they think have the best chances of getting the result they want. People who enjoy good mental health tend to be very aware that they always have choices about how to respond to a certain situation. They don’t get too rigid about a particular way of doing things, because they realise that things can change, and that change brings opportunities to do things better. Mental flexibility is about rolling with the punches, learning from change and pushing yourself to act on new possibilities.
Speed in the fitness world is about how quickly you can achieve a task whilst executing it with good form, whether it’s kettlebell reps or the 200m hurdles. By contrast, speed in the context of mental health is not about going as fast as you can, it’s about slowing down and even pausing. We tend to be so busy that we rush through life without taking a moment to appreciate what we have, and to reassess our priorities in life. This is where mindfulness and gratitude come in, both widely accepted as being hugely beneficial to good mental health. Taking the time to be in the present and deliberately notice the emotions and thoughts we’re experiencing has been shown to promote good mental health.
Physical skill is about the ability to execute the task safely, effectively and consistently, drawing on a range of capabilities such as co-ordination, balance, agility and power. Looking at research into the skills that underpin mental health, it’s social skills and connection that come out as being most important. Humans are fundamentally social beings and the ability to maintain good relationships with other people and play a role in the family, workplace, community, and among friends helps to build a sense of belonging and self-worth. This includes strengthening relationships with people close to you, as well as broadening your relationships in your community through supporting others, which has been shown to boost mental wellbeing.
So what would a ‘mental fitness’ programme look like?
We all know that the mind and body are intimately connected, so it will come as no surprise that many of the things we need to do to achieve good physical health are the same as the actions we need to take to secure good mental health.
- Nutrition – the right balance of nutrients is vital for good mental and physical health. Nutrition expert Patrick Holford has identified the nutrients that are most important to brain health, such as Omega 3 and 6 for learning, memory and mood, the B vitamins for cognitive functioning and magnesium for mood enhancement. Identifying allergies is also important to both your mental and physical health. If you have been suffering for a while with physical symptoms that don’t have any obvious cause, it might be worth getting an allergy test from a certified provider to identify foods or substances that could be draining your physical and mental resources. Find out more at https://www.foodforthebrain.org/
- Exercise and training – training your mind towards peak mental health is as important as training your body. It takes focus, dedication and planning. Why not put together a mental fitness programme for yourself which focuses on the elements of mental health that you most want to improve, whether it’s mental strength, endurance, flexibility, speed or skill?
- Recovery and recreation – taking time out to do something that you really enjoy gives your mind much needed time to recover and replenish its resources, just as a rest day from physical activity is important for muscle recovery and regeneration. Ring-fencing time just for you to do something that brings you joy, relaxation or a sense of calm will help to maintain your vitality and zest for life, which are so important for mental endurance.
- Sleep – ensuring you get enough quality sleep is vital to mental and physical health, as this is the time when your mind and body get to recover from the trials and tribulations of everyday life. Review your sleep hygiene and night-time routine to make sure you have a quiet mind and a relaxing physical environment.
- Get social – social connection is so important to mental health, yet it can be easy to become isolated from genuine contact with others as we rush from one transactional interaction to another. Take the time to really talk to your friends and consider volunteering work.
How can life coaching, NLP and hypnotherapy help you to get mentally fit?
A good life coach will act like a personal trainer for your mind. They may use NLP and hypnotherapy to help re-programme entrenched thought patterns that are limiting your mental flexibility or diminishing you mental strength. They may help you to work on social skills that will help you to maintain healthy relationships with key people in your life. And they can help to paint a picture of what good mental health means for you, and then work with you to put together a programme to build the mental strength, endurance, flexibility, speed and skill you need to live your happiest, healthiest life.