The concept of a “mental health gym”
I’m a big believer in going to the “brain gym”: taking steps to actively (and proactively) maintain my mental health. Mental fitness is vital for all of us, wherever we may fall on the mental health/mental illness continuum. We exercise or go to the gym every day (or we try to, at least!) to keep our bodies fit, but what do we do for our minds? We need to give just as much attention to our mental health as our physical health.
There are many types of physical exercises that we can do to stay physically fit: jogging, weight lifting, cycling, team sports, and yoga, to name a few. Just as we engage in these exercises both to stay fit now and to keep our bodies healthier for longer in our old age when they are more prone to breaking down, I do the same with mental “exercises” to maintain my current mental health, and prevent future mental illness when my mind might be more prone to getting sick.
What is a mental health gym?
What do I mean by going to the mental health gym? I mean engaging in brain exercises that will help keep you sane – these include wellness activities, positive social engagements, and all the usual aspects of maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Check out these ideas and see which activities you already engage in, and which you may need to pay more attention to:
Take your medications as prescribed.
Get enough sleep every night. (For me, 8 hours minimum works best.) This is when your brain – and body – works to heal itself.
Meditate daily. (I use guided meditations: YouTube has an endless selection, as does the free mobile app called “Insight Timer.” Experiment until you find a voice and music that soothes you.)
Exercise regularly. (See my blog post about “The power of exercise”.)
Reduce stress by minimizing your exposure to stressful events and relationships. (Easier said than done, often, but it’s something we can all learn to do better.)
Eat healthy food.
Avoid alcohol and other drugs.
Maintain social contact.
Develop a positive attitude: try to consciously feel grateful when something good happens in your life. At the same time, rather than viewing a negative event as “This bad thing happened to me” (victim mindset), try to reframe it to “This thing happened for me” (growth mindset). This empowering shift in mindset will enable you to find a learning experience within any supposedly ‘negative’ event and will stop you from feeling like a victim of the events in your life.
Check in with yourself regularly: schedule some me-time to evaluate how you’re feeling, how your week has gone, what events you handled well, and what ones detracted from your mental fitness. Find solutions to do better next week, and congratulate yourself for the things you did well.
If you’d like to explore these ideas further, these and other related points are discussed in detail in Appendix 3 (“Self-care for stability”) of my memoir, Mad Like Me.
Mental fitness and self-care
For all of us with bipolar disorder, self-care is a crucial part of working towards or maintaining recovery. And I mean disciplined, committed, almost fanatical self-care!
I didn’t used to take care of my mind at all – I didn’t know I had any reason to: I had been mentally healthy all my life and believed I would blissfully continue on that way! I worked looong hours, neglected my sleep, and often overextended myself both in my business and in my social life, and that’s why I got sick. Now – after going through hell and back with the beast that is bipolar, and thankfully coming out on the other side – I value my hard-won mental stability so highly, I take no chances. So I go to the mental health gym every day, and I don’t allow myself any ‘cheat days’ because I know what the cost may be.
In a teaching session that I ran for nursing students a couple of months ago, I concluded with this: “Please, don’t take your own mental health for granted. Go to the ‘mental health gym’ every single day, or you could end up like I did: on the wrong side of the thin line that separates mental health from mental illness.”
To your mental health and fitness,