Mental Fitness - sustaining your wellbeing during life’s ups and downs

 

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For many of us, COVID-19 has increased our feelings of uncertainty and worry, leading us to feel anxious and mentally fatigued. While these are normal feelings to be having during this time, they can increase our mental health risk if left unchecked. That’s where mental fitness – a practical way to build a sense of wellbeing – comes in. Kate Lawrence from Converge International explains how a focus on our mental fitness can help us respond more positively to all that’s happening right now.
Understanding wellbeing and where it comes from

Wellbeing is defined as both feeling happy and living with energy and purpose. But where does wellbeing come from? According to research [Brickman, Coates and Janoff-Bulman (1978) ], there are three main overlapping drivers for wellbeing:

 

  1. Activities (the things you do)
  2. Circumstances (a condition or fact that affects your situation)
Researchers were surprised to discover that wellbeing is remarkably stable throughout an individual’s life. Even when individuals had experienced a “shock” that jolted their wellbeing (a setback or upsetting event for example), they usually reverted relatively quickly to their former wellbeing level.

Wellbeing ‘set point’ theory and the role of circumstances

The common picture of the person who is unhappy because many bad things have happened to them, and the person who is happy because life has treated them well is a myth and not supported by evidence. As a result of this observation, researchers developed the idea of a ‘set point’ for wellbeing, which postulates that there’s a biological control method that actively regulates a predetermined wellbeing level for each person.
The good news is that you can actively improve your wellbeing level by engaging in activities that you enjoy. According to the Broaden-and-Build theory, longer term wellbeing effects are likely through an “upward spiral of greater wellbeing” whereby the positive emotions derived from your activities, equip you with the cognitive resources to discover new ideas and actions. These positive triggers release dopamine (a feel-good hormone) in the brain and this brain reward encourages you to continue with the wellbeing activity.

Understanding which activities can enhance wellbeing
No matter whether you’re a naturally more positive person or whether you find maintaining positivity difficult, there are exercises and activities you can do to maximise your mental fitness. Each person feels energised and more mentally fit in their own unique way because wellbeing is a subjective experience. For example, I might feel energised by spending time with others and my sister might prefer to meditate.
 
Discovering mental fitness and its four domains
Mental fitness is concerned with our habits and is defined as “the changeable capacity to utilise resources and skills to psychologically adapt to environmental challenges to meet psychological needs.” These are your inner resources (how you think, how you manage your emotions, the choices you make, where you put your focus on so you can adapt to what’s happening around you).
The four domains of mental fitness are:
  1. the body
  2. the mind
  3. community
  4. the spirit.
 
The body
Physical exercise: builds resilience, improves sleep, enhances self-esteem.
Nutrition: good nutrition can reduce depression and is associated with better health outcomes.
Sleep: a good night’s sleep improves wellbeing.
Drugs and alcohol: there’s no safe amount.
Top tip:  If you have issues with sleeping, our ‘Sleep Well with Multiple Sclerosis’ webinar contains some useful strategies to help you get a better night’s sleep: www.ms.org.au/sleep-well-with-ms

The mind
Adopting new and intentional goals builds competence, autonomy and connectedness.
Practicing mindfulness aids self- awareness and understanding.
Practising gratitude enhances feelings of social connection and promoting the regulation of stress.
Practising self-compassion can buffer against bad reactions towards negative life events. When we acknowledge how we’ve been feeling, some of those feelings start to dissolve and we feel that things loosen up for us and we can start to move forward.

The spirit
Nature: connecting with nature is a great way to connect with the spirit and lift our wellbeing. Nature lifts our mood (even if you live in a unit and only have house plants, they can lift your mood as well).
Top tip: If you’re feeling really ‘over it’ right now, one of the things you can do is step outside and get daylight. Your brain will start producing serotonin which is a mood stabilising hormone and gets stored in the body. It doesn’t even have to be sunny - if you go outside and get daylight, your brain will produce serotonin.
Purpose: feeling as though you’re able to contribute, that there’s a reason for you to be here, provides a sense of guidance and personal identity.

Community
Social: improving social relationships activates the brain’s reward system.
Giving: Acts of kindness such as making someone a cup of tea, listening to someone talk about what’s on their mind, are all acts of giving.
Top tip: It’s been hard not having social connections the way we’re used to, but if being social is part of your wellbeing strategy, it could be good to think about ways you can connect with community at the moment. Who are your connections? Who have you not talked to for a while that you’d like to connect with?
Get started! Simple actions to improve your mental fitness

Mental fitness is about the habits you have that enhance your wellbeing.
  • Make space for wellbeing during the day
  • Balance regularity with novelty to increase effectiveness
  • Ensure you enjoy the task you’re doing
  • Setting the goal is important
    • Own the goal (habits, routine, ritual)
    • Make it fun
    • Keep a balance (mix it up and make sure you take care of the if domains if you can – remember to broaden and build!)
    • Remember the big picture (wellbeing does go up and down and that’s normal)

Sources:
www.self-compassion.org
“Wellbeing and how to improve it” A white paper from Converge International
 
This article is based on the ‘Introduction to Mental Fitness’ webinar facilitated by Kate Lawrence, Principal Consultant at Converge International. Kate’s knowledge of consulting, instructional design, facilitation and assessment enables her to support others in flexible, impactful, human-centred and solutions-focused ways. To watch the webinar, visit www.ms.org.au/mental-fitness.

If you would like support to address your mental wellbeing, contact our MS Connect team on 1800 042 138 or msconnect@ms.org.au.
 



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