Working out regularly requires commitment, patience and an understanding of the processes you’re putting your body through. Working on your mental health, writes Jamie Broadway, should follow the same approach.
Poor mental health is a complex issue with no simple solution. Exercise, despite its many benefits – including placating anxiety and depression – is no miracle cure. However, a lot can be said for approaching mental health in the same way we approach physical fitness.
Our attitudes to training – as outlined in the 10-step guide that follows – can help us better understand the processes behind improving our mental health.
1. Success Is Not Immediate
We all remember our naivety when we first stepped foot in the gym: delusional thoughts that we’d have athletic physiques after a few sessions. We soon realised that wasn’t going to be the case, because fitness requires hard work, perseverance and dedication.
The same applies to mental fitness: no-one should expect to be rid of the symptoms of poor mental health by visiting a therapist once.
“It’s a gradual improvement,” says PT and psychotherapist Andrew Keefe, “whereby the more you attend, the better you start to feel.”
However, as he and many therapists will tell you, things can actually seem to get worse at first, because…
2. Emotions Are Like Muscles
If you haven’t worked out for a while, the day after returning to the gym is going to be a sore experience. Our feelings function in much the same way. Unfortunately, due to the social construct of stoic masculinity, we tend to bury and negate our true emotions, causing them to waste away just like unused muscles.
According to Keefe, “When going to therapy your emotions get a workout, because you call on deep-seated feelings that may not have seen the light of day for years.”
Therefore, when we finally allow ourselves to feel again, it can be a sore and painful experience. But over time, with the right training, we build up the strength to deal with the emotional suffering.
3. There’s No One Size Fits All
You wouldn’t exclusively train chest if you wanted to build your legs. Nor would you steer clear of aerobic exercise if you wanted to improve your endurance. Physical training requires us to identify our weaker areas and create tailored routines to work on them.
Likewise, as psychotherapist Nick Blackburn says, “Mental ill-health has a variety of causes – pressure at work, self-image, addictions, relationship or sex problems and so on – and these can manifest in different ways, from persistent thoughts or depression to physical symptoms, requiring personalised training programmes.”
In short, what works for one person won’t work for everyone. And progress can’t be predicted, as it varies from one person to the next.
4. Heavy Weights Should Be Respected
Light weights exert less stress on the body, so you can crank out more reps before muscle failure sets in. These lighter weights are akin to our everyday stresses – deadlines, meetings, minor disagreements – that we can put up with for a long time. But occasionally we’re faced with more stressful situations – break-ups, abusive relationships, insolvency – that deeply affect us.
“At some point, you have to learn to put those heavy weights down, because your body won’t take it anymore,” says sports performance coach Adam Bracey. “It’s about doing something, hopefully healthy, that will distract your mind.”
If you don’t – and continue to lift these weights that are far too heavy – the inevitable will happen: injury.
5. Injuries Need To Be Treated
If you had a bad knee but continued to run, the injury would eventually get worse and descend into something more serious. As Keefe says, “You need to stop, see an osteopath or physio, and follow a rehab programme in order to build yourself up again.”
Mental injuries have to be addressed in the same way. Unfortunately, though, many of us try to disregard painful emotions – an unsustainable short-term fix that merely masks the problem. To truly recover, you have to accept your injuries and seek help, whether through seeing a therapist or just starting to talk about your emotions to those around you.
6. Supplements Are No Quick Fix
You can drink all the protein shakes you want, but if you’re not actually putting in the hard graft in the gym, you won’t see any real results. It’s the same with turning to medication for mental health.
“Medication can make therapy easier to attend, but ultimately if the issues aren’t talked through, the problems are likely to remain once a person stops taking the medication,” says Raoul Lindsay, a counsellor who specialises in cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
Please note, it’s important to make a distinction between mental health and mental illness, because certain mental disorders can only be efficiently managed through medication.
7. It’s A Three-Way Thing
Physical fitness is a three-way relationship between your training plan, nutrition and rest. We know that by neglecting any of these, we won’t reach our true potential.
Bracey says that’s similar to general wellbeing, which is a balancing act between physical, mental and social health. He envisages each of these as the three legs of a stool: “If you have poor physical health, that leg will be shorter, so the other two legs, mental and social health, will end up taking more stress and strain.”
By being aware of these three factors, you can seek to safeguard and improve your mental health.
8. Performance Should Be Tracked
It’s always helpful to monitor progress when doing any form of physical training. It allows you to log your achievements, track growth and stay focused when you’re in doubt. Likewise, journaling can serve as an aid for your mental health: helping you to recognise healthy habits as well as triggers.
“In moments of depression, journaling can be good, as it helps put you back on the map,” says psychotherapist Nick Blackburn. “However, when it comes to anxiety, be wary that it doesn’t end up putting more pressure on yourself through obsessive monitoring.”
9. The 80/20 Rule Can Help
If you want to lose body fat, it’s no good doing 40 minutes on the treadmill, then picking up two Big Macs and a milkshake on the way home. Similarly, attending therapy on Monday, before getting into fights and taking drugs every other day of the week is going to be counterproductive.
“It’s all about lifestyle,” says Keefe, “and an unhealthy lifestyle can contribute to your depression or anxiety.”
You can’t expect to see any positive changes to either your physical or mental health without overhauling your unhealthy habits outside of training.
10. There Are Drains And Radiators
When you work out with a mate, you might become more committed to your routine, feel more motivated and ultimately see better results. However, there are also times when we find ourselves around toxic individuals, who interfere with our routines and tell us we’re doing it all wrong, damaging our self-esteem.
For Bracey, people can be classed as “drains and radiators” – some people drain the life out of us and lower our mood, while others help and support us, warming our souls. It’s important to identify and stick with the latter.