Prioritising Mental Fitness in 2023 – Once the festive period has passed, there is normally a focus on the New Year – ‘New Year, New Me’ is a phrase regularly heard. For many, the New Year is seen as a time for resolutions which have a health focus. Usually these are centred around the body with commitments to adopting new workouts or healthy eating plans.
Goals which seek to improve our fitness can have a hugely beneficial impact on our health and wellbeing, but we tend to prioritise our physical fitness over our mental fitness and as such many of us are missing the opportunities and benefits that good mental fitness can bring.
Gosia Bowling, emotional wellbeing lead at Nuffield Health, has shared expertise on how to enter the New Year with a focus on holistic wellbeing – with advice and guidance for setting goals for both the mind and body.
What is ‘mental fitness’, and why do we need to set goals for it?
Mental fitness is the ability of EACH one of us to reach our full potential, to be true to ourselves leading a connected life of meaning and value, able to withstand the challenges we face along the way.
Firstly, it’s important to recognise what ‘mental fitness’ is. If we ask ourselves what ‘physical fitness’ is, we’re usually able answer with some knowledge. We know that physical fitness involves our body’s health and well-being and our ability to be active, engage in our work, daily activities, sports, and movement. We also usually know the steps we can take to promote our physical fitness, such as good nutrition, activity levels, exercise, or strength training.
When we start to think about our mental fitness, the same questions can be harder to answer. When thinking about mental health we often automatically go to the experiences of mental ill health, and start to think about stress, low mood, or anxiety rather than how it might feel to be ‘mentally fit’; to thrive or reach our full potential. It can also seem harder to know where to start when it comes to planning a mental fitness regime which works for you.
Given that good mental fitness can bring us so many benefits, it’s important that we understand what it is and why we should be prioritising it.
It involves cultivating an awareness of how we think, behave, and feel. As we grow in self-awareness and understanding, we can start to change unhelpful thoughts and behaviours by practicing new more helpful habits.
How to plan a mental fitness programme for the New Year
The New Year provides us with the opportunity for a new beginning, a chance to start afresh, letting go of our unhelpful, and self-limiting, behaviours or beliefs about the past and about ourselves.
When starting to think about your mental fitness goals, it can be really motivating to have a clear idea of what you are working towards. It’s important to set achievable goals which align with your values and greater sense of purpose. A good starting point is to identify healthy coping techniques which can act as a strong foundation for building mental fitness.
Healthy mental habits
Be kind to yourself; Self-kindness is important for our mental wellbeing. We spend more time with ourselves than anyone else and how we relate to ourselves has a huge impact on how we feel. Self-compassion plays a vital role in our mental well-being, can act as a powerful antidote to many mental health difficulties. Research shows that being encouraging and kind to yourself is more likely to help you achieve your life goals than being harsh and critical with yourself.
Think about your thinking; Our thinking in any situation can be helpful or unhelpful and this will have a big influence on how we feel. We often treat our thoughts as if they are facts, but just because you think something, doesn’t make it true. Just because something feels scary for example, it doesn’t always mean something bad will happen. When you notice a change in your mood, ask yourself, “What was I thinking about just before that?”. Was the thought helpful or unhelpful? Is there a different perspective I could take which is more helpful? Focus on your strengths and achievements rather than your flaws.
Stay connected; Relationships are so important for our mental health. Think about ways to make sure you keep in touch with friends and family, especially if you’re feeling low or unmotivated. You should especially reach out to those who make you feel positive and energised. Think about joining community groups around shared interests. This can make it easier to develop meaningful relationships where we feel a sense of belonging an acceptance. Network, share resources and look out for each other. Knowing you have each other’s backs can be a huge comfort.
Take time out for self-care; It can be easy to spend time looking out for and supporting others. But it’s also important that you take enough time out to support yourself. It doesn’t need to be for hours, finding moments throughout the day can also work. ‘You can’t pour from an empty cup’. Self-care can help to enhance your energy levels, be restorative for your health, reduce stress and give you a greater capacity to withstand the pressures of life.
Recognise the link between mental and physical fitness; There is a strong interconnected link between mental and physical fitness. Getting the basics in place like keeping active, sleeping well and eating healthily can make a huge difference to your mental health. Being active can improve your physical wellbeing, but it can also help you maintain a healthy mind. People who exercise regularly have better mental health and emotional wellbeing, and lower rates of mental ill health. Exercise can help relieve feelings of stress by releasing anxiety-reducing chemicals and giving you a mood-lifting dopamine spike.
Find out what works for you. If you don’t enjoy running, forcing yourself to pound the pavements everyday may support physical goals, but not necessarily your mental fitness goals. The greatest benefits are often seen in those who go from doing nothing to doing something. You don’t have to be an athlete, everything you do counts. Even a short burst of 5–10 minutes of brisk walking can increase your mental alertness and lift your mood. Try different things to work out what activities give you the best mental boost.
The DREAM framework
Once you have got the foundations of healthy mental habits in place you can start to DREAM by using this framework as a guide for developing new mental fitness goals. We refer to the ‘DREAM’ framework when looking at ourselves, as it provides the tools for self-reflection and recognition.
Direction: Have goals to look forward to
Resilience: Adapting to challenge and finding ways to bounce back
Emotions: Listen to your emotions and understand what they are trying to tell you
Acceptance: Get to know and love your authentic self. Be comfortable with who you are
Meaning: Live in alignment with your meaning and purpose. Be part of something bigger
Any type of goal can be a journey – and not always the smoothest one! Having an awareness of the DREAM framework will help to avoid completely giving up or remaining stagnant, as it not only allows you to recognise the ‘here and now’ but also gives you an overview of what the bigger picture/result is to keep you on track.
If you’re new to setting mental health related goals, here are some examples that can be incorporated into our everyday lives.
Take time out to plan: Rather than having one giant goal, why not break it down into small, achievable milestones? At the start of the year, have a goal in mind, you could then break this down into monthly goals, and each month into weekly. This is a great way to set time for yourself to reflect and review on the previous month or month ahead
Keep a thought journal each day: This will help you to become aware of your inner thought process, as well as notice and work with unhelpful thoughts
Set yourself daily positive affirmations: Start your day with an intention like ‘I am enough’ or ‘My mental health is a priority’ – you can find lots of inspiration for these online and on dedicated apps
Acknowledge your personal milestones: It’s all well and good setting goals, but make sure you take time to recognise and celebrate when these have been achieved. Reflect on how they happened, how they made you feel and how you can now develop from these (if you so desire!)