Five reasons mental fitness makes sense
For many of us, Mental Health Week 2019 was an opportunity to reflect on "where we are at". As we emerge into a new week and the times ahead, I suggest we look beyond mental health. Not because focusing on mental health is a bad thing - rather because it's not giving us the positive change we've been looking for.
The increase in mental health awareness over the past decade has been fantastic, but are we simply more aware of the statistics and problems, without really understanding the causes or the solutions? I would like to see us shift our focus - so that we start to look deeper at the factors that lead to mental illness arising, and then start to empower ourselves and each other with the practical ways we can build our psychological wellbeing.
As I mentioned in my previous blog post "Snapping out", I've been spending some time this year bringing together my knowledge of wellbeing and psychology, from an academic research perspective as well as from personal experience. This synthesis of practical know-how has resulted in the following overview I call mental fitness:
When we lack the elements outlined above, we are at greater risk of disconnecting from ourselves, from other people, and from our world in a way that leads to apathy, isolation and mental illness. On the other hand, when we are enriched with each of these components, we become more mentally fit and experience greater wellbeing, productivity and connection.
So how does mental fitness differ from mental health? Here are my top 5 distinctions, and why mental fitness makes so much more sense in our current world:
1) It's about optimisation. Good health is good... but not great. If we are mentally ill, working towards better mental health makes sense, but this might not be our best self. It can be all too easy to coast along and just be ok with being ok, but when life throws an unexpected challenge your way it's a much better idea to be the fittest you can be. Mental fitness helps us to optimise ourselves and shifts us from good to a higher state.
Mentally ill → MENTALLY HEALTHY → MENTALLY FIT
2) A proactive approach. No matter what your current state is, you can be proactive about your mental fitness. You do not have to wait until you have a crisis or are experiencing mental illness to work on your mental fitness. By exercising your mind in a deliberate, regular way, you will build up your internal strength, flexibility and endurance, just like somebody who regularly goes to the gym to build up their physical fitness.
3) Positive language. Face it, whenever we hear the term "mental health", what we are often referring to or thinking about is mental illness. Therefore the old terminology is still wrapped up in stigmas and causes us to focus on the negatives. By introducing new language around "mental fitness" we can empower ourselves and each other to focus on the positive, proactive steps to take towards better psychological wellbeing.
4) Inclusivity. Illness and fitness are not mutually exclusive. You can be a super fit athlete and still come down with a virus. It's the same with mental illness and mental fitness - you can be super fit yet still experience an episode of anxiety or depression, and that's ok. In fact it's totally normal. Unfortunately mental health has often been seen as a binary all-or-nothing phenomenon, like you're either mentally ill or you're not. Understanding our wellbeing in mental fitness terms helps us understand that we don't have to fit neatly into one category. The cool thing is that whether we're talking about the mind or the body, the fitter we become the less likely we are to get sick, and the quicker we recover when we do become unwell.
5) Fitness is ongoing. Just like with our bodies, there is no end point to mental fitness where we just stop. It's not like elite athletes reach a point where they say "oh there we go, I'm as fit as can be, now I'll stop working out". They keep training for their sport or event! The event we all share is life - so mental fitness is not about seeing your psychologist for six visits and then saying "there, I'm done". It's an ongoing process of exercising your mind for continual improvement, or at the very least maintaining your fitness.
I'm really looking forward to sharing more of my thoughts, experiences, ideas and mental fitness exercises with you over the coming weeks. In the meantime, head over to our Downloads page where you can find a pdf of the above mental fitness model with an explanation of each component.
Bek Smith is a psychology educator and group fitness instructor who is passionate about uniting the worlds of physical and mental fitness together. Check out her TEDx talk titled "What if mental health is just a starting point for mental fitness" which was published on September 30, and feel free to share the link and / or this blog post with others who could benefit from a fresh look at mental illness and mental health.