For many of us, our mental health takes a back seat to our physical health. We are often far more comfortable talking openly about our physical health status & needs than our psychological & emotional experience.
We do things to enable & promote our physical wellbeing such as welcoming strangers into our personal space to massage the muscular aches away; establishing BFF status with our Physios for getting our bodies back up & running/cycling/swimming/Ninja-Warrior’ing; seeking dietary advice, taking supplements, drinking thick, gluggy-green substances labelled “Smoothies”…all with the intention to be our personal best. While these actions can be extremely helpful in promoting our health, allowing ourselves to stop & pay attention to our psychological health just doesn’t tend to hit the top of our to-do list.
From this minute on, consider permission granted to prioritise your mental health!
Our mind muscle is just as important in this fit-for-life journey as our physical health &, just as training for an event requires work, so too does training for this marathon called life. Training the mind muscle, just like any other training, requires effort, consistency & an oft neglected dose of self-compassion.
I’d like to invite you to consider the concept of a Fit-For-Life Toolbox into which, like any toolbox, you can add things you find useful (remember…make good choices!). To get you started, I suggest the following 4 “tools” be considered as integral to the journey towards your whole-being personal best:
- Mindful awareness – practising a non-judgmental, purposeful awareness of our experience of our inner & outer worlds has been comprehensively researched with benefits in stress reduction, calmness & clarity alongside therapeutic applications such as depression, anxiety & pain management.
Get curious & consider the benefits of practising mindful awareness, bringing yourself back to the present moment, centred, starting with just 3 mindful breaths. Be open to the world of right here, right now & develop a deeper, nonjudgmental insight into the you, striving to be your personal best…whatever that looks like in any given moment, on any given day. Jon Kabat-Zinn states that “It is only when the mind is open and receptive that learning and seeing and change can occur”. Seek out a practitioner to assist you in strengthening that mind muscle &, as with any new skill…practise!
- Self-Compassion – while the world could always do with more compassion, it’s the compassion turned towards ourselves that we tend to neglect. Striving for our physical best, training for that next event, being hit with an injury or simply dealing with the day-to-day happenings that life throws at us can sometimes feel like the weight of the world has been dropped onto our shoulders. Yet, we battle on. Telling ourselves that we should be able to cope, do better, be better… “just get on with it”. Well, I’m here to tell you that we are all a part of humanity & we all share the experience of pain…physical, emotional, psychological. Our individual experiences will vary but there remains a common human capacity for suffering…in this, we are never alone.
While many of us can feel quite comfortable practising compassion towards others, it’s when we think about being kind to ourselves that the discomfort arises. We squirm, become embarrassed, feel unworthy or believe our needs matter less. Being told “you matter” or “you’re worth it” is one thing, turning towards ourselves & saying “may I feel peace, at ease, love…” is all kinds of next level compassion.
Practising self-compassion has been linked to enhanced wellbeing, social connectedness, life satisfaction, resilience, motivation & physiological benefits. For a comprehensive yet easy-to-digest analysis of self-compassion, check out Kristin Neff (2011) Self Compassion
3. Exercise: Ok, I hear you saying “duhhh…exercise is already at the top of my list”. What I challenge you to do now, though, is consider your relationship with exercise. Actually…let’s go a step further & consider your relationship with nutrition too. By all means, get advice about exercise & nutrition from the appropriately trained professionals – in fact, I strongly encourage you to recruit a number of people into “Team… (insert name here)”. It is the team of professionals & supportive yet challenging friends, family etc who help us to regularly question & explore what it means to be our personal best.
Exercise is something you do for yourself NOT to yourself
In considering your relationship with exercise, I challenge you to take a look at the language you use when describing exercise, how you relate to the experience of exercise, what it means to you to exercise, the role exercise has in your life.
Too often I hear exercise being used as a form of punishment. For example, next time you find yourself scrolling through your social media feeds, get interested in how often exercise is correlated with calorie consumption. I call it the how-many-burpees-does-it-take-to-burn-off-a-donut phenomenon. Exercise is your investment in you because you know how you feel after doing it.
Exercise is not & should never be a form of punishment
My challenge for you is to get curious about how you’re relating to your sweat sessions & reframe them to allow mental health to take priority. The benefits of exercise are well known, but for the sake of pushing the point home we can see stress reduction, improved mood, increased satisfaction…just reflect on the last time you got a sweat up & how you felt. Runner’s high is a thing!
- The next, & far from final, “tool” I suggest you consider polishing & refining is the personalised team you recruit to assist you along this fit-for-life journey. I’ve introduced this team concept previsouly & feel so passionately about its importance that I’ve given it specific reference here. Whether you refer to your Team or Tribe, reflect on who is already playing a significant role & who you would recruit. Consider professionals, friends &/or family who support, challenge, & value you. Those people you can call upon to help lift you up & give you a gentle push along when you’re feeling like you’re drowning not waving. These individuals, whether they know it or not, are members of your own personalised team. While you tend to consider them when your health has hit critical point or when they themselves are in need, I challenge you to now prioritise you & your needs. Actively raise your awareness of the individuals who, knowingly or not, promote your sense of wellbeing & strengthen your feelings of worth, happiness & love of life. Recruit!
Think about the nurturing, self-caring, self-valuing, whole-being health promoting choices you would like to see turn into daily habits. Remember, healthy choices are habit forming!
For whole-being health’s sake, start prioritising your relationship with your mind muscle alongside your physical health. The human experience is a complex one & our psychological, emotional & physical experiences are entwined in one amazing temple. I refer to exercise as sweat therapy to emphasise the point that it is the whole being we are working with when striving to be our personal best. When we stock our fit-for-life toolbox with mindful self-compassion, a self-valuing relationship with exercise & our own personalised team of professionals & supportive others, we’re off on an amazing journey of continuous self-discovery & personal bests.
Louise is a Psychologist with a special interest in whole-being health & fitness. She is owner/operator of Girls Sweat Too health promotion whilst also consulting through her Private Practice based in Canberra, Australia.