Physical fitness gets a lot of attention, and for good reason — good physical health can prevent conditions such as heart disease or diabetes, and help you maintain a long, independent life. But often neglected is mental fitness — having a healthy and strong mind to allow you to handle the challenges and opportunities that life puts in front of you.
A common thought is that the absence of a mental health disorder means that a person is mentally fit and emotionally well, but according to Rachel O’Neill, a licensed professional clinical counselor, that’s a dangerous misconception. “An individual can certainly experience periods of stress, discomfort, sadness, or anxiety without necessarily meeting criteria for a mental health disorder,” she said. “Mental wellness is a process, and just like physical health, it’s an ongoing process to maintain mental and emotional wellness.”
Unsurprisingly, trying or stressful times can be the ultimate test of mental fitness. When we are winded by a major life event, being able to recover quickly requires significant mental strength and psychological resilience. The benefits of being mentally fit means we are able to use our mental abilities to our fullest extent, allowing us to be more creative, make the most of opportunities as they present themselves, and approach stressful situations more calmly and with less anxiety.
So, what can you do to increase your mental fitness levels?
1. Focus on One Thing at a Time
Multitasking is worn as a badge of honor, but multitasking too much is not healthy. Practice being present. When you are taking a walk, take in your surroundings — the weather, the birds. When you are spending time with friends, really listen to what is being said. Turn off your phone and try to forget the running to-do lists in your head.
“Physical and mental health go hand-in-hand and should not be considered separate, as poor mental health can lead to poor physical health and vice versa,” said Kimberly Leitch, a Talkspace therapist based in New York City.
Like medicine in the treatment of mental illness, exercise can increase levels of serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain. It improves and normalizes neurotransmitter levels, which ultimately helps us feel mentally healthy. Other important benefits include: enhanced mood and energy, reduced stress, deeper relaxation, improved mental clarity, learning, insight, memory and cognitive functioning, enhanced intuition, creativity, assertiveness and enthusiasm for life, and improved social health and relationships, higher self-esteem and increased spiritual connection.
3. Incorporate a Daily “Mindfulness Break”
“Set aside one to two minutes each day to decompress, check in with your body, and assess how you’re feeling,” O’Neill said. “There are a number of great apps that can help you incorporate a structured mindfulness practice or you can simply develop a practice that works for you.”
Just one week of brief daily mindfulness meditation practice has been found to produce significant improvements in attention, energy and stress. Research shows these benefits are more than just subjective: participants of a study experienced actual decreases in stress-controlled cortisol and improvement in their immune system. They also displayed improved visuospatial processing, working memory, and executive functioning — important sets of mental skills that help you get things done faster.
4. Set Aside “Self-care” Time
Give yourself an afternoon or evening to engage in something that you genuinely enjoy doing. It can be exercising, reading, binge watching your favorite show — essentially, make a date with yourself to do something fun that’s just for you.
5. Set Limits and Stick With Them
Living in a success-driven society has its advantages. But it also has disadvantages, like burnout, which is a real concern when you’re trying to have it all: a fulfilling career, an Instagram-worthy time with friends and a happy family life. Remember that it’s okay to say no sometimes. To the extent it is possible, set boundaries within your professional and personal life so that you’re not overextending yourself.
6. Ask for Help
Seeking help is often the first step towards getting and staying well, but it can be hard to know how to start or where to turn to. It’s common to feel unsure, and to wonder whether you should try to handle things on your own.
“But to put it simply, there’s never a wrong time to seek help,” O’Neill said. “Talking with someone about your thoughts and feelings can always help you to gain insight that will likely be beneficial in your life. If you find yourself experiencing periods of stress, or feeling angry, irritable, sad, or easily frustrated, it could be a good invitation to seek out professional help to deal with those feelings.”
Mental fitness doesn’t have to take up a lot of your time. Spending a few minutes on it every day can help you feel better and think more clearly. Remember that relaxation is just as important in a mental workout as the more energetic activities, such as memory exercises or physical exercise.