During a recent mental health awareness session, one of the participants made an incredibly compelling appeal. "Would we all not be much better served if we moved away from an absolute focus on mental health and more towards a much broader focus on mental fitness?", they most passionately suggested. The suggestion was not only borne out of the negative connotations associated with the term "mental health" or "mental illness" but for the genuine and positive connotation that "mental fitness" represents. They also suggested that, as with our physical bodies, our minds appreciate a little proactive exercise - to keep us fit - regardless of where we all sit across the extremely broad mental fitness spectrum.
So, below are a few helpful tips and ideas shared over the session, discussed over conversations, or gained via research - to help support and enhance our mental fitness.
A little less caffeine and alcohol
Studies have shown that a lack of sleep can increase the likelihood of stress. For instance, a recent World Economic Forum article suggested that "sleeping just 16 minutes less than usual" could impact work performance - the next day. Another study found that poor sleep could lead to experiencing more stress. Research has also established a link between alcohol or caffeine intake and quality of sleep.
The suggestion was not necessarily to do anything radical (such as complete abstinence from coffees, teas, coca cola or alcohol) but to ask ourselves, "can we live with having just a little less than we currently have?" - in order to improve sleep patterns and our general well-being.
Every little - lifestyle change - helps!
A few moments in the moment
There can be little doubt that yoga can be calming, mindfulness can be soothing, and meditation can be pacifying, but most of us struggle to engage with any of these - with any regularity. However, evidence suggests that just having a few stretches - for a few minutes - a day can make a tangible difference. There are also really cool Apps - like "headspace" - that not only come highly recommended but make meditation more accessible and a good night's sleep more achievable.
Try a little more exercise than you already do
With over 20 million people in the UK physically inactive, a BBC article once asked "should exercise be compulsory at work?". But exercise does not have to mean a trip to the gym or even anything overly strenuous.
Just standing up - perhaps on the train, on the bus or at work - instead of sitting, could be incredibly helpful towards both physical and mental fitness!
Other suggestions could include walking to the train station (rather than getting the bus or driving), walking halfway up the stairs (and perhaps getting the lift or elevator the rest of the way up), standing or walking around while on the phone, and walking to get some lunch (rather than lunch at one's desk).
There is also evidence to suggest that prolonged - gentle - activities (such as doing the dishes, cleaning or light gardening) could be more beneficial than short bouts of intense exercise (such as going to the gym or going for a run).
Get - and use - a stress bucket
Not all stress is bad for us. A little stress can actually drive and increase productivity. In fact, according to a study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology by researchers at the University of Toronto, a little stress at work can improve performance, help meet goals, and increase productivity.
However, stress can be most disruptive if it becomes overwhelming - and so, it could be helpful to employ the stress bucket as an extremely powerful tool for contemplating and management stress. The traditional approach considers that stress inducing things cause stressful waters to flow into the bucket (until it fills up or potentially overflows), whilst stress relieving things cause stressful waters to flow out of the bucket.
An alternative analogy is presented by the Pamela Minelli strategies. It suggests filling ones' bucket with resilience building or stress reducing goodies - whilst stress inducing baddies cause the goodies to drain out of our buckets. This analogy, therefore, suggests that the more good stuff - such as sleep, nutrition, and exercise - we stuff our buckets with, the more resilient we would be.
Embrace a black dog
Lots have been written about Winston Churchill's Black Dog and of his challenges with depression. However, it is the sense that he - effectively - "embraced the black dog" that has fascinated most about this powerful story and ideology. An article by the Mental Health Innovators extends these thoughts and discusses do's, don'ts and practical tips for "living with a black dog".
Perhaps taking things even further, Jessica Gimeno suggests that people diagnosed with depression - or other mental health issues - have to learn to live with it. In her TedX talk, she shares the techniques she's learned to help her get stuff done while depressed - suggesting that practice makes perfect.
When these work stress & mental fitness tips fail
So, there are lots of handy things we can do to increase our mental fitness and reduce the risk of developing - or worsening - mental illness. However, if ever in any doubt, it is absolutely essential that we do speak to our GPs, healthcare professionals or other confidential helplines.