Mental fitness is a term that gets thrown a lot these days, especially now during the COVID pandemic. It seems like everyone is struggling with something, and having strong mental fitness feels more important than ever.
But what does it mean to be mentally fit?
In psychology, mental fitness is loosely defined as creating a state of positive well-being and learning to cultivate awareness of how we think, behave and feel.
Increasing mental fitness has tons of benefits, such as:
- Becoming more aware of your thoughts so they don’t control you
- Increasing your ability to focus and concentrate on tasks
- Building the resilience to deal with the ups and downs of life
- Being able to confidently respond to a situation in the moment (rather than hours later after you’ve had time to think through your response)
- Learning to focus less on negative emotions and the challenges of your life, and more on what’s going well
Just like we need to exercise our muscles in order to become physically fit, there’s a lot we can do to become more mentally fit, too.
One of the main ways to build mental fitness is to create a habit of being more mindful.
In The Confidence Gap: A Guide to Overcoming Fear and Self-Doubt, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) expert Russ Harris describes mindfulness as a “mental state of awareness, openness, and focus.”
“When we are mindful,” he writes, “we are able to engage fully in what we are doing, let go of unhelpful thoughts, and act effectively without being pushed around by our emotions.”
You might think of this as meditation, or even as “turning off the mind.” But mindfulness and meditation are different; in meditation, you typically sit with your eyes closed and focus on your breath, how your body feels, or even the sounds around you. Mindfulness, on the other hand, can be practiced anywhere, in any situation.
Practicing mindfulness involves learning to be present and aware. You can be mindful of anything—for example, the colors in the sky and the trees around you, the warmth on your skin as you sit outside in the sun, or the words of someone you’re having a conversation with.
By becoming more mindful, you’ll notice that you’re less reactive, more able to bounce back from surprises and setbacks, and more confident in your general ability to deal with life.
Want to “exercise” your mind and improve your mental fitness? Here are a few suggestions:
Build in periods of mindfulness throughout your day. The easiest way to start doing this is to add mindfulness to habits you already have. For example, take a few minutes to do a body scan and connect to your breath before getting out of bed each morning. Or take a moment to savor the taste of your morning coffee as you take your sip.
The more you practice being mindful, the easier it becomes. If you notice yourself getting caught up in your thoughts, you can gently turn your attention to the present. This way, you start to build it in naturally throughout your day.
Meditate regularly. I know people who meditate for half an hour or more every single day. I am not one of them. Even sitting down to five to ten minutes of meditation is challenging for me.
But meditating has a whole host of benefits, including building the skill to become aware of your thoughts (rather than be controlled by them), improving focus and concentration, reducing anxiety, enhancing self-awareness, and so on. Meditating regularly for even just a short amount of time each day can supercharge your mental fitness.
There are a lot of different styles of meditation. The best thing to do is to experiment and find out which you connect with the most. I’m a big fan of Sam Harris’s Waking Up app, which has guided meditations that are around ten minutes long. If you can’t do ten minutes, even a few minutes a day can make a difference over time.
Keep a gratitude journal. Paying attention to what you’re grateful for trains your brain to look for the positive rather than always focus on the negative. Aim to write down at least ten things you’re grateful for every single day.
They don’t have to be big things — even small things such as fresh blueberries, laughing at a funny joke, or connecting with a friend for coffee count. Try and look for new things each day, and don’t just repeat the same things every single day.
Keep track of your small wins. Just like keeping a gratitude journal, the practice of keeping track of your wins trains your brain to look for what you did well instead of focus on all you’ve done wrong. Try journaling your wins and anything you did well (no matter how small) at the end of each day.
Train your body. You can’t be mentally fit without being physically fit and healthy, too. Physical and mental fitness are intertwined. Exercise, sleep, and good nutrition will go a long way to increase both your physical and mental fitness.
What’s more, when you train your body, you’re training your mind, too.
Teaching yourself that you can do difficult things in the gym helps build confidence, increases mental toughness, and builds resilience. Becoming more comfortable with the feeling of being uncomfortable sets you up to take on more of life’s challenges.
As a result, the mental skills you build in the gym will carry over to the rest of your life, as well.
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” — Viktor Frankl