Mental fitness: The missing link to wellness?
We recently experienced another tragic event: a mass stabbing at a Pittsburgh-area high school. Just a week before that, there was another mass shooting in Fort Hood. And before that, a series of devastating and preventable tragedies that seem to become more common by the day. Navy Yard, Aurora, Newtown, Virginia Tech, Columbine: words that once simply conjured up peaceful places across our great country that, unfortunately, now conjure up devastating memories of untold heartbreak.
In the midst of all this, the national dialogue has started to take shape again. It’s one that, given the questionable mental stability of many shooters at these events, involves discussions about our nation’s attitudes and policies toward mental health.
Are we doing enough to treat the mentally ill?
How can we better screen people for mental illness?
How can we keep guns out of the hands of those with a history of mental instability?
And so on…
But here’s a question I haven’t heard yet: “What can we do to prevent mental illness in the first place?”
It seems logical. And truth be told, if we were dealing with a flu epidemic, obesity, or any other physical disease, prevention would be at the top of the list. But strangely enough, our cultural attitudes and habits regarding mental health are fundamentally different from those regarding physical health.
In the physical realm, it’s generally accepted (though not always practiced) that if you want a healthy body, you need to do preventative maintenance: brush your teeth; eat reasonably healthy food; exercise; get enough rest. Day in and day out, we engage in a series of activities designed to help improve our physical well-being and longevity.
In other words, we understand that fitness is the precursor to physical health. However, in matters concerning our spiritual and emotional nature, we find a different story.
Most Americans don’t consider habits to nourish and exercise our mental and emotional beings. On the contrary, most of our efforts to meet our mental and emotional needs are more about pampering than physical fitness. Are you feeling stressed? Grab a beer with friends. Sadness let you down? Watch the latest blockbuster. Worried about work? How about a round of golf?
Instead of increasing our mental capacity, we are medicating ourselves. We engage in activities to make us feel better in the short term without really addressing the underlying problem of not being able to take on and deal with life’s challenges. It’s like preventing weight gain by removing all the mirrors in your house. Sure, it may make you feel better temporarily, but what does it do to solve the problem?
The truth is, it’s an approach that too often produces what can only be described as a free-living, wild mind.
Certain mental preparations
To be clear, mental preparation in this context does not refer to the development of knowledge or even mental acuity. This is an important point. Many of the mental activities we do to develop our minds have very little to do with mental preparation, as discussed here. Examples of activities that do not significantly increase our level of mental preparedness include:
Data processing as part of the learning process
Using cognitive capabilities to make the mind more agile
Participating in activities that calm and nourish a troubled mind and emotions
This is not to say that these activities are not worthwhile and valuable, as they are obviously vital to our development as productive and happy human beings. However, for the most part, they do not help to increase our ability to synthesise relatively easy-to-fulfilling experiences under the most difficult conditions. And cultivating this effortless experience is the heart of mental fitness.
The key to understanding mental fitness is the concept of ability. Mental fitness is a person’s ability to withstand life’s challenges without being unduly thrown off balance. It’s the ability to endure a layoff, endure a health diagnosis, or face financial challenges with poise, elegance, and a sense of confident calm.
We all know people like this, who never seem to get angry. Redundancy? No problem. An IRS audit? OK, good. Traffic accident? No mind. While everyone around them is excited, these people remain calm, cool, and collected regardless of life’s situations. So what is it about these people that makes them so well equipped to handle life’s challenges skillfully?
You guessed it: they have a level of mental conditioning that allows them to artistically ride out such things. The higher your level of mental fitness, the greater your mental and emotional capacity and ability to live happily despite life’s twists and turns.
Clearly, this immunity to being overwhelmed by life’s ups and downs comes more naturally to some people than to others. And it’s true, some people seem to be born with a natural ability to handle life’s challenges artistically; that is, they are gifted with a higher than average level of mental preparation. But-and this is very important-this in no way means that the level of mental preparation of a person is fixed.
Again, we can take clues from the physical realm. The same goes for our innate fitness levels. Some of us are natural-born athletes, others are something else. Although we humans come in all shapes and sizes and physical abilities, no matter what a person’s natural fitness level is, we can ALL benefit from exercise, improve our fitness and live healthier, happier lives .
And so it is with mental fitness.
This means that we are neither victims of our natural level of mental fitness nor of circumstances. Remember, the higher our mental preparation, the easier it is for us to remain undisturbed by the inevitable difficulties that life throws at us. So it paves the way for greater happiness and contentment in good and bad times.
And just as importantly, developing yourself in this way can serve as an important part of the health of our communities. Physical fitness helps prevent physical illnesses. Mental fitness helps prevent mental illness. It is a simple means to improve the well-being of all of us.
With this understanding, the problem becomes increasing our mental preparedness—our ability to remain mentally and emotionally intact in ever-changing circumstances, especially situations that have historically thrown us off balance.
How can I increase my mental fitness?
So, all of this begs the question: “How do we increase our level of mental fitness?” Surprisingly, it’s easier and simpler than you might think, and it’s actually not that different from how we build more fitness!
Think about it. To increase our physical abilities, such as the ability to lift weights, you must physically challenge yourself. To lift more weight, you need to lift more weight. Strength increases when you consciously lift just a little more weight than you feel comfortable with. If you can lift 80 pounds easily, lift 85. Once you can lift 85 without difficulty, move up to 90; and so on. You stretch your weight lifting capacity by always lifting just a little more than is comfortable and staying on top of the burn.
The same principle applies when you work to expand your mental and emotional capacities. Here, too, the call remains the same: do a little more than is comfortable and stick to the burn. But to expand our mental and emotional capacities, rather than the necessary physical weight to provide the resistance necessary for growth, we need difficulty or challenge.
Here’s the thing: Life’s challenges, the ones that usually make us dizzy, are to our mental fitness what weights are to our physical fitness. These are challenges that can be used to increase our ability to calmly face life’s challenges, but only if we see the possibilities for what they are.
I would confess. There are many more nuances to effectively increasing our level of mental preparedness than this simplistic explanation. However, the premise is still valid. And I know this from experience.
You see, my life’s work is to help people cultivate optimal mental and emotional fitness. Over the years, I have seen thousands of people create peace and fulfillment, even in the midst of torrents of frustration and challenge. The tools I’ve chosen are drawn from the ancient wisdom of yoga (tapping into the lesser-known spiritual and emotional aspects of the practise beyond just yoga poses and breath), but that doesn’t mean they’re the only tools you can use for this.
Is this focus on mental fitness a silver bullet? Will it end mental illness and completely prevent future murders and other similar tragedies? Not far. The truth is that mental fitness cannot completely eradicate mental illness any more than physical fitness can completely eradicate physical illness.
We will always need treatments, facilities, and trained professionals to meet the needs of those affected by mental illness. As we do for those who are physically ill.
But if we could take steps to reduce the incidence of such diseases by even 5, 10, or 20 percent, wouldn’t that be worth it?
The appeal here is to look at the enormous impact that improving physical fitness has had on reducing physical illness. And then focus on using the same principles to increase our mental fitness to help reduce the incidence of mental illness as well.
While the true impact of such a move is unclear, it seems clear from where I sit that we owe it to the victims and families of these senseless tragedies to at least try.
Eric Wallrabenstein is the founder of Yoga Pura and is one of the most sought-after authorities on the application of yoga techniques for self-healing and empowerment in the country. As an author, speaker, and mind/body health teacher, E is renowned for making the ancient wisdom of yoga practical and applicable to people from all walks of life.