Mind games

Men­tal fit­ness is just as im­por­tant as phys­i­cal fit­ness, and be­ing ag­ile in our minds is cru­cial to both our ca­reers and our re­la­tion­ships, writes Danielle Bar­ron

The Irish Times Magazine - - GET ACTIVE; MINDFULNESS -

What is fit­ness? It is some­thing of an all- en­com­pass­ing term, one with a plethora of dif­fer­ent def­i­ni­tions. Per­son­ally, it comes down to what a Nazi- es­que spin­ning class in­struc­tor said to a pur­ple- faced me some years ago – “fit­ness is the abil­ity to re­cover quickly”. De­spite be­ing about to fall off the bike, this suc­cinct ex­pla­na­tion stuck with me.

But what about men­tal fit­ness? This term is be­com­ing in­creas­ingly pop­u­lar as the un­der­ly­ing bi­o­log­i­cal links be­tween phys­i­cal and men­tal health are more clearly un­der­stood. When we are winded by a ma­jor life event, be­ing able to re­cover quickly re­quires sig­nif­i­cant men­tal strength and psy­cho­log­i­cal re­silience. But how do we achieve men­tal fit­ness, and can we avoid los­ing it?

Dr Mark Rowe is a GP and ex­pert on well­be­ing wis­dom and holis­tic lead­er­ship. Au­thor of the best­selling book A Pre­scrip­tion for Hap­pi­ness, he as­serts that men­tal health is not sep­a­rate from over­all health and well­be­ing; rather it’s a key in­ter­con­nected com­po­nent.

“As far back as 1948, the World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion ( WHO) de­fined health as more than the ab­sence of dis­ease but a state of com­plete phys­i­cal, men­tal and re­la­tional well­be­ing.” This means that, just like our bod­ies, our brains will ben­e­fit from reg­u­lar train­ing, says Rowe.

“We can train our brains to do just about any­thing – we have that fa­cil­ity. I like to use the term ‘ psy­cho­log­i­cal fit­ness’ to re­mind us that, just as with our phys­i­cal fit­ness, we can train our brains to bet­ter meet the needs of our lives.”

It isn’t just all in our heads – the brain is re­mark­ably plas­tic, mean­ing it is ca­pa­ble of change and devel­op­ment. “With neu­ro­plas­tic­ity, we can grow and de­velop new brain cells. Your brain can re­wire and re­mould through­out your life­time.”

So what’s the men­tal fit­ness equiv­a­lent of a couch potato?

Rowe says there are a num­ber of rea­sons as to why some­one might lose men­tal fit­ness; some of these we have con­trol over, while oth­ers are com­pletely out of our hands. It can be af­fected by life­style fac­tors, such as lack of qual­ity sleep, al­co­hol con­sump­tion, poor diet, in­suf­fi­cient ex­er­cise and/ or a seden­tary life­style. Our ob­ses­sion with tech­nol­ogy also doesn’t help – con­stantly check­ing our phone, email, and so­cial me­dia is be­hav­iour Rowe de­scribes as “toxic” to our men­tal health.

Un­sur­pris­ingly, try­ing or stress­ful times can be the ul­ti­mate test of men­tal fit­ness. “Ma­jor in­ter­per­sonal stress, such as a se­ri­ous ill­ness in one­self or a close fam­ily mem­ber, un­em­ploy­ment, be­reave­ment, or the loss of a key re­la­tion­ship, can also im­pact our psy­cho­log­i­cal re­silience.”

Rowe is there­fore a strong ad­vo­cate of be­ing “proac­tive” when it comes to psy­cho­log­i­cal health.

“If there is one thing that we can be sure of in life, it’s that the next chal­lenge is al­ways around the corner. On top of this, we all in­habit a highly me­di­ated world in which we are bom­barded with vast amounts of in­for­ma­tion, much of which can be dis­con­cert­ing. We rely on our psy­cho­log­i­cal health to help us process and man­age these com­plex­i­ties, and to do so in such a way that al­lows us to con­tinue to take care of our­selves and our loved ones re­gard­less of what life throws at us.”

Ge­orge Bernard Shaw said “those who can­not change their minds can­not change any­thing”, and ac­cord­ing to Rowe, we nat­u­rally lose men­tal fit­ness as we age, and keep­ing an open mind is es­sen­tial for main­tain­ing it.

“It is an un­for­tu­nate re­al­ity of life that many peo­ple, as they get older, tend to be­come en­trenched in their ideas and be­liefs. It is hugely ben­e­fi­cial for our psy­cho­log­i­cal health to main­tain a spirit of open­ness and cu­rios­ity to the world around us. This open­ness to learn­ing, trans­lates into a greater abil­ity to for­give, and to a greater abil­ity to let go of, and move on from, dif­fi­cult pe­ri­ods in your life. Ed­u­ca­tion [ can] im­prove your psy­cho­log­i­cal health, in­crease your po­ten­tial for hap­pi­ness, and pro­vide you with the tools to trans­form your life.”

For many of us, the source of much of our day- to- day stress is in our jobs. A 2015 sur­vey by in­ter­na­tional hu­man re­sources

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