Claim Your Own Mental Fitness

What is mental fitness?

Mental fitness is indeed “that six-pack of mental abs that keeps you on top of your game through thick and thin. It’s the belief you can climb any emotional mountain that looms in your way. It’s the savvy that propels you through the rockiest social hurdles with confidence. It’s an inner deep self-trust.” That’s how I described it on the back of the book. However, there’s more that could be said to define just what it is.

Let’s clarify one source of confusion, the difference between directly caring for your brain through specific exercises and the skills you can develop to improve the functioning of your mind. and numerous other brain-stimulating exercises have become popular to fend off the effects of aging or to make your brain operate better. This kind of exercise is like weight-lifting or jogging to get your body fit. Core strength, bulging biceps and sharply defined muscles in your legs don’t guarantee you’ll win a marathon or a tennis match. An active brain with better connecting neurons won’t deliver you mental fitness.

Mental fitness is the term I’m using to describe the deliberate and persistent effort to prevent unnecessary fight-or-flight reactions. You need to choose habits which help you remember daily and hourly that your life is almost never threatened by whatever nasty event comes along to trigger you. Most of us feel our bodies engage numerous times each day to protect us from threats that our bodies can’t help solve. With mental fitness your most-evolved brain part will limit your less-evolved brain parts’ tendencies to signal your body into fight-or-flight. Consider what options your body has: it can punch somebody out or yell or run away. How does this help when you’re caught in traffic, you can’t find your keys or you’ve lost your purse?

Athletes have benefitted from recent discoveries about how our bodies can be strengthened and healed. Mental fitness can be possible for more people with the emerging detailed knowledge of the brain gleaned from functional MRIs and other brain studies. But most of us can already begin to claim our own mental fitness. Let’s consider an example of how you can do this.

In the website background about me I referred to how I got panic attacks and severe insomnia when I had to face my divorce and raising my son alone. I mentioned my belief that, since I’d worked so hard “to get my life right,” I shouldn’t have to endure this situation. I’d nurtured this belief for years, that if I worked hard to do what I understood to be “right,” I’d have freedom from pain like that in my family as I grew up. Probably you can already see the holes in this theory.

At twenty-seven I was devastated by my divorce. Devastated because I thought I already knew what living right was and had done that. Devastated because I had no Plan B if my ideas were wrong. I was aware that I expected I could earn my happiness and security, but I didn’t realize how much I had counted on this. I was turned upside down by the seventh toxic belief, that it is unbearable if you work hard for something and are not rewarded as you’d expected. Once I actually looked at this, I could see that many people all around the world work their hardest with worse consequences than I faced. Reading the newspaper I could see that unfairness abounds. Why should I be so upset?

It took some work for me to accept what had happened even after I’d considered others’ situations. I can actually still feel some resentment, but without the fight-or-flight reactions that threatened to disable me. So I began the difficult process of “shrinking” my expectations. There were several toxic beliefs triggering me mostly into “flight,” with my panic and insomnia, but also some anger (“fight”) that I didn’t want to admit. I struggled to identify the impact of them all and overcome their triggering as fast as possible. Doggedly seeking mental fitness for myself, my son and the other people in my life, I gradually found my way to it. My book, Claim Your Own Mental Fitness, would have been a tremendous help to me and I hope it can help anyone else who needs to travel out of mental anguish. It distills the work of many others into a readable program.

But mental fitness is also great for just improving your ability to enjoy your life and relationships, even when you aren’t suffering much. It’s good to have a body that isn’t in pain, but it’s a joy to have one that’s strong enough to let you pursue activities you love. The same goes for your mind; there’s more joy when you can do new and challenging things with others, because you have the skills and confidence to express your best self, most of the time.

Why must you claim mental fitness?

Mental fitness, like physical fitness, requires that you claim it. Most of us can assume we have mental or physical health until some discomfort forces us to focus on our condition. But the term fitness involves a deliberate, thoughtful and long-term approach. It requires that you actively study and train to attain an improved state. You might even go to a gym, purchase special workout clothing and hire a personal trainer to become physically fit instead of just healthy. Likewise, to become mentally fit, you must find ways to train your mind to cope better than average. You could hire a life coach, take classes and find books that teach you how to make your mind work more effectively to cope with life. The main thing is that you decide to take charge and claim your fitness.

Mental fitness requires an approach like a professional athlete, where physical exercise is just the beginning of what makes him excel. Instead of the assumption that you’re mentally healthy and that’s all you need for your life, no matter what terrible things come your way, you prepare to engage life like a mental marathon. You begin to get a high from coping better with that horrid co-worker or toxic sister or frustrating computer problem. You feel excited that you didn’t get a panic attack when you would have during similar times in the past. And you know just what you did to have that victory. You’re proud of what you’ve overcome or what new challenges you can now tackle. Once you’ve mastered the skills you need to keep yourself growing, life looks sunnier.

Mental fitness is something you must claim, not something that just happens to you. If you have a fully functioning brain and had mentally healthy parents, you had a head start. But you need to learn what makes you tick in order to be mentally fit. When, not if, life dumps pain on you, you’ll be able to avoid reacting with mental illness, just like the physically fit person fights off cold and disease better than one who’s just getting by. You’ll even be able to turn many tough situations into opportunities to grow more mentally fit, just like the runner jumping a higher hurdle.

Why isn’t mental fitness training widely available?

You may notice that, while we accept times of physical illness as an ordinary part of life, we don’t look at mental illness with anything like the same acceptance. Mental illness is used only to describe states of the mind as severely out-of-kilter as bodies with terminal cancer or advanced heart disease. Often mental health is the state people assume describes their minds until their functioning and comfort are impacted enough that others notice and express concern, if not fear. Mental illness prevents you from being yourself. It may lead you to harm others or neglect your responsibilities before you recognize it. It often leads to shame for you and your family and blame from others. These effects have helped create individual and general social denial of mental illness except in the most extreme cases, like schizophrenia and severe bipolar disorder.

Mental fitness training has become more available, I believe, because of recent advances in the ability to study the brain in action with scans and functional MRIs. These have allowed scientists to identify differences between normal and impaired-functioning brains. For example, Daniel Amen’s brain scans allowed him to demonstrate how the brains of people diagnosed with attention deficit disorder led to their disorder. The prefrontal cortex is significantly less active for them, leading to poor concentration, poor impulse control and decreased ability to manage their feelings or affairs.

Treatment, which had been based on trial and error, can now be administered systematically. Medication to activate the cortex and training to help people compensate for their brain’s lack of focus has begun on a large scale. Teachers now don’t have any excuse for claiming a child with this disorder (especially when accompanied by hyperactivity) is just spoiled. The shame and blame is greatly reduced for these kids and their families and they feel more hopeful about help.

Mental health is the state people automatically claim. We generally don’t welcome suggestions that counseling might help us cope, because that places us in the dread mental-illness category. We need to define a middle ground where we can talk about mental health like we talk about physical health. For example, ‘personal growth’ is one term that’s been used to talk about the process of improving mental health. Then we can begin to discuss the state of mental fitness which, like physical fitness, people are proud to seek and claim its rewards for themselves.

What would a mental fitness gym look like? There would have to be different rooms for various needs for concentration. Some would be quiet and painted in calming shades of green or blue with soft lights and individual study centers. Others would offer music for those wanting to have their favorite sounds to soothe and inspire them, along with opportunities to vary the lighting or décor. Others would face out on a forest or a garden and allow people to wander or sit outdoors. All would provide comfortable and flexible seating with computer access to resources for exploring new ideas or techniques for how to work better with their brain-body connection.

Beyond the physical setting, other supports would be needed. Guides would be available to answer questions or offer counsel. They would lead groups for focus on a particular skill or to help members practice their skills in relating to others. There would be medical specialists who are trained to integrate mental fitness training with the least medication needed for those whose brains aren’t supporting their work. There could be a nearby physical fitness gym to provide the stimulation that facilitates the functioning of our brains for invigorating breaks. Shame wouldn’t be on the program.


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