The concept of mental fitness has only emerged in recent years.
The basic idea is that we can improve our mental health by strengthening our mind, just as we can improve our physical health by training our body and providing it with a balanced diet.
What is mental fitness?
By mental fitness, we usually mean feeling good and having positive emotions/feelings about how we think and act.
In other words, negative thoughts and behaviours that cause feelings of sadness, worry and anxiety can be changed, but this requires training – just as you have to train to run a marathon, climb a sixth floor without gasping, etc.
We are all predisposed to certain physical diseases due to our family history and environment. For example, if you have had heart disease in your family, you may choose a healthy diet low in cholesterol and sugar, regular exercise, etc., to maintain your physical health.
The same approach can be applied to mental health. We are all prone to certain mental illnesses depending on our family history and environment. Yet, many of us do not even think of taking steps to maintain or strengthen mental health.
For example, to reduce the risk of anxiety attacks, you can meditate, practise breathing exercises, make sure you get enough and regular sleep, etc.
Just as physical fitness is determined by cardiovascular endurance, strength, flexibility and a healthy weight, mental fitness has four components:
- Emotional – self-acceptance, self-esteem, mental resilience and the ability to manage emotions.
- Social – our family, friends, acquaintances and colleagues who enrich our lives by giving us a sense of community and belonging.
- Financial – stress due to money problems, feeling in control of your finances, being able to cope with financial setbacks and move towards your goals in life and finances.
- Physical – a healthy diet, regular exercise and enough sleep to reduce the risks of developing chronic diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and depression.
Mental fitness includes:
- Cognitive well-being is an individual’s ability to think clearly, process information effectively and keep a sharp and alert mind. This includes aspects such as memory, problem-solving skills and general cognitive functions.
- Emotional resilience reflects an individual’s ability to cope with and adapt to different emotional challenges and stressors. Individuals who are well mentally fit can navigate life’s ups and downs with balanced emotional states, effectively coping with stress, anxiety and other emotional pressures.
- Psychological health is a holistic state of well-being that includes emotional, social and psychological aspects and factors such as self-awareness, self-esteem, interpersonal relationships and a positive mindset that contribute to an individual’s overall psychological and emotional health.
At its core, it’s about keeping your brain and emotional health in good shape. It’s not just about exercising your memory, doing crosswords or taking IQ tests, but doing exercises that help:
- Slow down.
- Improve memory.
The mind-body connection
The link between our body (physical health and well-being) and our mind (mental processes and thoughts) is highly complicated.
However, the idea that mental and emotional states can have a significant impact on physical health and vice versa was already known in ancient Greece (Healthy body, healthy mind) – Plato and Aristotle pointed out that “both intellectual and physical activity are important for a full and virtuous life”.
Here are some aspects of the mind-body connection:
- The mind can influence the body in different ways, causing psychosomatic effects. For example, stress, anxiety or depression can manifest physically, causing symptoms such as headaches, muscle tension, indigestion or even exacerbation of certain diseases;
- The mind-body connection is evident in stressful situations. In response to stressors, the brain releases hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, which can affect various functions of the body. Chronic stress can contribute to long-term health problems such as cardiovascular disease, a weakened immune system and digestive disorders;
- The mind-body connection is also seen through the placebo effect, where a belief can cause real physiological changes in the body. This phenomenon highlights the enormous impact of mental factors on our physical health and well-being;
- Practices such as meditation, which promote awareness of thoughts, emotions and body sensations, have also been linked to improved mental health, stress reduction and positive effects on physical health.
Physical activity also matters a lot – by exercising our bodies, we help our minds. Physical activity increases oxygen flow to the brain and boosts endorphin (happiness hormone) levels. For this reason, it is not surprising that physically fit people also tend to be mentally stronger.
Physical exercise can help us fight depression and gain a more positive perspective on life. It is also a great way to overcome stress, which can harm both our mental and physical health.
Meditation, like exercise, is also beneficial for both the brain and body – calming the mind allows you to deal with problems more calmly and reduces their impact on the body.
How does Mental Fitness work?
Thoughts travel along neural “pathways” in our brains, and if we repeat a certain thought pattern many times, that neural pathway strengthens and thinking (and therefore acting) becomes automatic.
For example – if you always take the same route to work, you will get into “autopilot” mode after some time.
The problem in such situations is that automatic thinking can make us react in ways that are not appropriate in a given situation.
Automatic thinking is based on our brain’s habit of looking for danger to help us survive. It is constantly scanning the environment for threats, and so far, throughout our human evolution, this has been very useful.
In today’s modern world, this “automation” can also trigger thoughts and actions that are harmful to us.
Here are some examples of how an average person and a mentally fit person might react to the same situation:
- Dealing with stress:
- The average person may become depressed or anxious and find it hard to manage stress effectively.
- A mentally fit person shows resilience and may perceive stress as a challenge to be overcome rather than as a threat.
- Facing failure:
- The average person may feel a sense of defeat, experience failure severely and feel demotivated.
- A mentally fit person recognises failures as a normal part of life, learns from them and maintains a positive outlook on future possibilities.
- Handling criticism:
- The average person feels offended and tries to defend themselves, which can trigger negative emotions.
- A mentally fit person accepts constructive criticism, sees it as an opportunity for growth and is open to feedback.
- Adapting to change:
- The average person finds it more difficult to adapt to change, feels uncomfortable and tries to resist it.
- A mentally fit person accepts change, sees it as an opportunity for personal and professional growth and adapts more easily.
- Maintaining Focus:
- The average person is easily distracted and may find it difficult to concentrate for long periods.
- A mentally fit person can stay focused for long periods, manage distractions effectively and concentrate on specific tasks.
- Building and nurturing relationships:
- The average person may have difficulty understanding the point of view of others, which can lead to unnecessary conflicts.
- A mentally fit person communicates effectively and is able to put themselves in other people’s shoes, which contributes to positive relationships.
- Approaching Challenges:
- The average person perceives challenges as obstacles and may feel helpless in the face of them.
- A mentally fit person perceives challenges positively – as an opportunity for personal and professional development.
- Coping with Uncertainty:
- The average person experiences anxiety and stress.
- A mentally fit person is calm, adapts quickly to changing circumstances and actively seeks solutions.
As you can see, people with good mental/psychological fitness have an easier and more interesting life.
The good news is – that we can train our minds – to become more efficient, more stress-resistant and live more fulfilling lives.
Mental fitness training
Mental fitness training includes activities and exercises aiming to improve cognitive ability, emotional resilience and general psychological well-being.
Here are some techniques that can promote mental fitness:
- Mindfulness meditation (improves concentration and emotional stability, reduces stress). Pay attention to the present moment without judgements or evaluations – just go within and focus on your feelings, thoughts, emotions, and the environment around you… Meditation practices such as breathing or body scanning exercises can help you get to know yourself.
- Cognitive training (improves cognitive abilities, memory and problem-solving skills). Engage in activities that stimulate cognitive function, such as crosswords and memory games.
- Physical exercise (improves mood and cognitive abilities, reduces stress). Regular physical activity is associated with improved cognitive function. Activities such as walking, jogging or dancing can have a positive impact on mental health.
- Lifelong learning (mental stimulation, personal growth, increased knowledge). To stimulate the mind and encourage continuous learning, give new things a try – try new dishes, new ways of doing everyday tasks, enrol in courses, travel…
- Journaling (better self-awareness, handling emotions and reducing stress). Write regularly about your thoughts, feelings, emotions and experiences. Reflecting on the day or expressing gratitude can also be part of this practice.
- Positive visualisation (improves emotional well-being and self-confidence, motivation and resilience to stress). Imagine successful outcomes and positive scenarios. Visualisation can also be used to set goals and promote positive thinking.
- Social contacts (emotional support, sense of belonging, improved well-being). Spend more time with friends and family, engage in social activities and keep in touch with fellow study mates, and work colleagues…
- Breathing exercises (help reduce anxiety, and improve concentration and emotional well-being). To promote relaxation and reduce stress, practise deep breathing exercises such as diaphragmatic breathing or box breathing.
- Express gratitude (improves mood, increases resilience to stress and creates a more positive outlook on life). Acknowledge and appreciate the positive aspects of your life and express gratitude for them (to yourself, God, family, colleagues…).
- Yoga and Tai Chi (reduces stress, improves flexibility and concentration). Engage in mind-body practices such as yoga or tai-chi that combine physical movement, breathing exercises and self-awareness.
- Sleep hygiene (Improves cognitive function, emotional well-being and overall mental health). Develop healthy sleep habits, including a consistent sleep schedule and a relaxing bedtime routine.
- Therapeutic techniques (personalised support, improved emotional regulation and coping skills). With the help of a mental health professional, try therapeutic approaches such as cognitive behavioural therapy or mindfulness-based therapy.
Exercise builds strength and increases our body’s ability to handle everyday physical stresses. In turn, targeted mental training improves our mental capacity – our ability to manage, recover from and prevent potential mental problems such as stress, anxiety and depression.
Mental fitness is essential for maintaining brain and body health, especially as we age.
There are a variety of mental exercises – from active ones, such as learning new songs or playing games, to relaxing ones, such as breathing and visualisation exercises. Schedule them into your daily calendar, just like going to the gym – your mind and health are worth it.
A little more about visualizations.
When you go to bed after a long day, your body starts to rest, but your mind doesn’t always follow.
A sense of calm can often be achieved through imagination – visualising a peaceful scene or place. This practice can relieve tension in your body and mind by stimulating neuronal activity in a less dominant part of your brain.
The less dominant part of the brain is the area that controls feelings of self-confidence and optimism. When you think about something other than your daily worries, you increase activity in the neural structures of this area of the brain – improve your emotional well-being and calm your mind.
Be physically and mentally active – read, dream, joke and enjoy life!
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