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April 22, 2014

Mental Fitness: The Missing Link for Wellness? ~ Eric Walrabenstein

Mental Fitness

Recently we experienced another tragic event: a mass stabbing at a Pittsburg-area high school.

A few weeks ago, yet another mass shooting at Fort Hood.

And before that, a long line of devastating and preventable tragedies of the kind that seem to be becoming more common by the day. The Navy Yard, Aurora, Newtown, Virginia Tech, Columbine: once names that simply brought to mind placid locations across our great nation that, sadly now, conjure devastating memories of unspeakable heartbreak.

So in the midst of all of this, a national dialogue has again begun to emerge. It’s one that, given the questionable mental stability of a great many of the shooters in these events, involves discussions revolving around our nation’s attitudes and policies regarding 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 histories of mental instability?

And on and on it goes…

But here’s a question that I’ve yet to hear:

“What can we do to prevent mental illness to begin with?”

Seems logical.

And truthfully, if we were dealing with an epidemic of flu, obesity, or some other physical malady, prevention would likely be at the top of this list. But strangely, our culture’s attitudes and habits pertaining to mental health differ significantly from those toward physical health.

Consider this.

In the realm of the physical, it’s universally recognized (albeit not always practiced), that if you want a healthy body, you’ve got to do some preventative maintenance: brush your teeth, eat reasonably healthy foods, do some exercise, get enough rest.

Day in and day out we engage in a whole host of chores designed to help enhance the wellbeing and longevity of our physical selves.

In other words, we understand that physical fitness is a precursor to physical health. Yet, in matters pertaining to our mental and emotional selves, we find a different story.

Developing habits to nourish and exercise our mental and emotional selves is not something regularly considered by most Americans. On the contrary, most of our effort aimed at attending to our mental and emotional needs is more about coddling than fitness.

Feeling stressed? Grab a beer with a friend. Sadness got you down? Go see the latest blockbuster at the multiplex. Anxious about work? How about a round of golf?

Rather than increasing our mental capacity to weather difficulties, we medicate ourselves.

We engage in activities to make us feel better in the short run, but without really addressing the root problem—which too often revolves around an insufficient ability to absorb and cope with life’s difficulties.

It’s like addressing your weight gain by removing all the mirrors in the house. Sure it may make you temporarily feel better, but what does it do to really solve the problem?

The truth is it’s an approach that all too often produces what can only be described as free-range, feral minds.

Mental Fitness Defined

To be clear, by Mental Fitness, I’m not referring to the development of knowledge or even mental acuity.

 And this is an important point.

For many of the activities we undertake to develop our minds really have very little to do with Mental Fitness, at least in the way we’re referring to it here.

Examples of activities that don’t dramatically increase our Mental Fitness levels include:

  • The act of digesting data as part of the learning process
  • The exercise of one’s cognitive facility to make the mind more nimble
  • The participation in activities that soothe and nurture the agitated mind and emotions

This is not to say that the above activities aren’t worthy and valuable, for they obviously are vital in our development as productive and happy human beings.

Even so, for the most part they are not directly helping to increase our ability to synthesize a relatively ease-filled experience in the most challenging of circumstances. And this is what is at the heart of the goal of Mental Fitness.

Nowhere ManKey to the understanding Mental Fitness is the notion of capacity. For Mental Fitness is the measure of one’s capacity to weather life’s challenges without being thrown unduly off balance.

It’s the capacity to withstand a layoff, to bear a health diagnosis, or to endure a financial challenge with grace, élan, and a sense of confident calm.

We all know people like this, who seem to be ruffled by almost nothing. A layoff? No problem. An IRS audit? Fine. A traffic accident? No biggie. While everyone around them is sent into tailspins, these folks stay calm, cool, and collected no matter what life throws their way.

So what is it about these people that makes them so well-equipped to cope artfully with life’s challenges?

You guessed it: they have a level of Mental Fitness that allows them to artfully ride out such things. The greater your Mental Fitness level, the greater your mental and emotional capacity, and the greater your capacity for living happily—despite the curve balls life throws your way.

Clearly, this immunity to being buffeted by life’s ups and downs seems to be more naturally developed in some people than others. And it’s true, some people seem to be born with a natural ability to artfully weather life’s challenges—that is to say, they are endowed with a higher than average Mental Fitness level.

But—and this is crucial—this in no way is to say that one’s Mental Fitness level is fixed.

Again, we can take clues from the physical realm. For the same is true of our innate physical fitness levels. Some of us are natural born athletes, while others are anything but.

Despite the fact that we humans come in all different shapes and sizes and physical abilities, no matter what one’s natural level of physical fitness is, we all can benefit from exercising our physical selves—and improve our physical fitness and live healthier, happier lives.

And so it goes with Mental Fitness as well.

This means that we are not really victims of our natural level of mental fitness, nor of our circumstances.

Remember, a greater level of Mental Fitness enables us to remain undisturbed by the inevitable difficulties that life throws our way. So it paves the way for more happiness and contentment—in good times and in bad.

And just as importantly, developing ourselves in this regard can serve as an important component in the health of our communities as well. Physical fitness aids to stave off physical illness. Mental Fitness aids to stave off mental illness.

It’s a simple means to enhance the wellbeing of us all.

With this understanding, the problem becomes one of increasing our Mental Fitness levels, our capacity to remain mentally and emotionally undisturbed in more and varied circumstances, especially situations that have historically thrown us off balance.

So, this all begs the question:

“How do we increase our Mental Fitness level?”

Well, surprisingly, it’s more simple and straightforward than you might think, and truly is not all that different from the way we build more physical fitness for ourselves.

Think about it. To build our physical capacity, for example your capacity to lift weight, you need to challenge your physical self. To lift more weight, you need to lift more weight. Strength builds as you slowly and deliberately lift just a bit more weight than you’re comfortable with. If you can easily lift 80 pounds, lift 85; once you can lift 85 without difficulty, move up to 90; and so on.

You’re expanding your capacity for weight lifting by always lifting just a bit more than is comfortable and by staying with the burn. The same principle applies when you’re working to expand your mental and emotional capacity. Here, too, the invitation remains the same: do a bit more than is comfortable and stay with the burn.

But for the expansion of our mental and emotional capacity, rather than needing physical weight to provide the resistance needed for growth, we need difficulty or challenge.

Here’s the thing: life’s challenges, the ones that typically throw us into a tizzy of anger or frustration, are for our Mental Fitness—like the weight on the barbell is to our physical fitness. They are challenges that can be used to increase our capacity to calmly weather the challenges life brings—if only if we can see them for the opportunities they are.

I confess. There is much more nuance to effectively increasing our Mental Fitness levels than is presented in this simplistic explanation here. Nevertheless, the premise remains sound. And this I know from experience.

You see helping people to cultivate optimum mental and emotional fitness is my life’s work. Over the years I’ve seen thousands upon thousands of people forge lives of great equanimity and fulfillment even in the midst of the torrent of disappointment and challenge that life has thrown their way.

My chosen tools are drawn from the ancient wisdom of yoga (tapping the lesser-known mental and emotional aspects of the practice beyond mere yoga postures and breath), but that is not to say these are the only tools that can be used to this end.

Is this orientation toward Mental Fitness a silver bullet? Will it end mental illness and completely stave off future killings and other such tragedies?

 Not by a long shot.

For the truth is that Mental Fitness can’t completely eradicate mental illness any more than physical fitness can totally end physical illness.

We will always have a need for treatment modalities, facilities, and trained professionals to address the needs of those who have slid into mental illness—just as we do for those who are physically ill.

But if we could take steps to reduce the incidence of such illness even five or 10 or 20 percent, wouldn’t it be worth it?

The invitation here is to look at the tremendous impact that forging greater physical fitness has had on reducing physical illness. And then orient toward employing those same principles as a means to increasing our Mental Fitness to help reduce the incidence mental illness as well.

While the true impact of such a movement is uncertain, it seems clear from where I sit that we owe it to the victims and families of these senseless tragedies to at least give it a try.

 

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Apprentice Editor: Amanda Fleming Taylor/Editor: Rachel Nussbaum

Photo(s): Mike Shields

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Eric Walrabenstein