These are not the best of times for many of us. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, approximately 4 in 10 adults reported symptoms of depression or anxiety during the pandemic, up from 1 in 10 in 2019. Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) noted that 20.3% of adults sought mental health treatment in 2020 (with some 66 million Americans receiving in-office therapy). Indeed, more than three-quarters of Americans agree that mental health is just as important as physical health, but that doesn’t mean a lot of us are doing much about it.
According to American Psychological Association, we in North America are facing a national mental health crisis that could yield serious health and social consequences for years to come. Two in 3 adults (65%) say the current amount of uncertainty in our nation has them anxious and frazzled. Factor in economics and the fragile state of the planet and you have a recipe for considerable mental stress.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Not if you proactively create your own mental health gym and approach your mental well-being the same way you do your physical fitness. That is already happening. Mental health gyms are cropping up across the US and Canada dedicated to reframing the idea of working on mental health as exercise– rather than therapy– to help us feel more comfortable in our skins.
Celebrities like Charlamagne the God and NBA star Kevin Love go to centers where there are classes, support sessions, exercises, or one-on-one treatments designed to help members learn emotional fitness techniques for everyday mental stability. No, they’re not a replacement for one-on-one therapy; more of an adjunct to or a warm-up for working with a mental health professional. This is a great idea, but facilities like these aren’t in every community or at a price point everyone can afford, so why wait for one to open in your neighborhood?
Here are some of the principles behind mental gym fitness that you can put into practice in your own home. Remember, building mental strength is not so different from building physical strength. Consistency is key. Training a few minutes a day can help you be more creative, more productive, and more resilient.
- Thought Control: Recognizing a thought for what it is – just a thought – is an important first step in freeing yourself from the trap of believing everything that pops into your head. Ask yourself—is there some other way to think about this troubling thought? Can I reframe it? Sometimes getting some distance from a negative thought helps diminish its power. Running it by a trusted friend (or two) is another way. Remember, the typical brain processes 6,000 thoughts a day! Another way to take it off the table is to move from mind to movement and physically e engage in exercise.
- Be Mindful: Pausing for 5 (even better, 10) minutes of mindfulness daily is a break any of us can take. Close your eyes, turn off your phone, notice your posture, pay attention to your breath, and focus on the surroundings. Research tells us that mindfulness calming and healing for both your body and your psyche.
- Get Smart(er). Take a non-credit course online in physics, coding or astronomy, or something that seems above your intellectual pay grade. Try learning a new language as you drive to work or take an in-person art or crafts course at your local community center. Stretch your brain. Become a continuous learner. As a bonus, you are also positively stimulating your emotional IQ.
- Intercept the emo spiral: putting an emotion under the microscope (before you act on it or succumb to it) gives you a chance to pause and to feel it. You are also contextualizing the emotion to better understand how exactly it came about. Is this a reaction to a thought you had? If so, use your unemotional thinking skills to reframe the thought. Getting together with a compassionate friend to discuss the emotions, stress, and troubling thoughts that send us into unnecessary spirals can help. Forming a regular support group with friends can also provide a place to safely talk about feelings, says the National Mental Health Association.
- Pen to paper: writing can have a profound effect on your psychological and mental health. Pick a topic and write from the gut about your emotional experience, no holds barred. And no worries about grammar, structure, and spelling. See what rereading it the next day and the day after that brings up. It may reveal you to yourself in a whole new way. See how the tone changes over the days and weeks.
- Laugh, cry, smile, and be awed: seek out some uplifting films to inspire you to make your own life a journey instead of a daily trek. Check your streaming service for ideas or get advice from your local librarian. Invite a friend who needs a push in a better direction to join you for movie night.
- Lights out: according to the National Sleep Foundation, sleep quantity and quality have an enormous impact on the feelings that lead to your behavior. Sleepers who get between 7-9 hours of sleep a night report less anxiety and depression. Proper sleep hygiene calls for a dark quiet room, preferably without your cell phone, and a few hours between your last meal and turning in. A little meditation to set the stage for falling off can’t hurt.
- Say Thanks! You can physically alter the makeup of your brain (and the resulting behavior) by practicing gratitude. Nothing formal is required; just keep a gratitude journal and write a couple of lines per day in appreciation of the life you have been given.
- Get Physical: According to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, working out improves mental health by reducing anxiety and depression, and improves self-esteem and cognitive function. Just walking qualifies, as does gentle yoga, jumping rope, or lifting cans of soup in the kitchen. No gym rat routines required.
Last but not least: For the trifecta of emotional cognitive AND behavioral health – consider the “F Factor”—Friends and Friendship! According to the Mayo Clinic, adults with strong social connections have a reduced risk of many significant health issues, including depression, high blood pressure, and obesity. Adults with meaningful relationships and social support are likely to live longer than their less social peers. Once a week, pick up the phone (texts and emails are too impersonal) and call an old friend, a neighbor, or an acquaintance you would like to have as a friend. Just to chat. You’ll both get a boost!