We hear a lot about physical fitness. Every town has at least one, and probably several, gyms. You see people jogging around town and television infomercials are filled with the latest workout program or gadget to help you get into shape. There is no question that physical fitness is important. But, what about psychological fitness?
Physical fitness can be measured in terms of weight, body fat, muscle tone, strength, flexibility, stamina, endurance, etc. How does one measure psychological fitness? Psychological fitness, or mental health, can be measured to a degree by assessing the levels of anxiety, depression, stress, self-esteem, satisfaction, positive relationships, responsibility and competence, to name a few. Clearly, a person with high anxiety levels and poor relationships is not as psychologically fit as someone with low anxiety levels and rich relationships. And, just as there are ‘workouts’ which improve physical fitness, so too there are exercises, which can improve psychological fitness.
The key characteristic of the mind is thinking. Our psychological fitness is largely determined by the ways in which we think about things. Thinking is often at the basis of anxiety, depression, substance abuse, violence, posttraumatic stress, low self-esteem and poor interpersonal relationships. Learning how to think accurately and effectively is one of the major components in psychological well-being, or fitness. Effectual thinking can promote psychological flexibility, adaptability resilience comfort, ease and composure, all of which are ingredients of mental health. But, what is thinking? And, how do we ‘exercise’ it to make it more fit?
The first thing to recognize is that, to quote Albert Einstein, ‘we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.’ In other words, psychological fitness requires a different kind of thinking than the kind we may be familiar with, especially if we are not psychologically fit. Secondly, we can understand thinking simply from the words of Plato: ‘when the mind is thinking it is talking to itself.’ The first task in any psychological fitness then is to listen to yourself talking to yourself. This may seem silly but it becomes critically important for it is in those simple sentences of our internal dialogue, or ‘self-talk’ where we find psychological fatness or unwell-being.
The content of our internal dialogue is often terribly illogical, irrational, inaccurate, invalid and faulty. But, that doesn’t matter. As the mind hears itself talking to itself in these ways, it accepts what it hears, factual or not, accurate or not. It is up to our critical consciousness to question what we might be telling ourselves and to then make adjustments to more reality based thinking. In other words, we have to begin talking to ourselves more realistically, more accurately, more truthfully. If we happen to fail in some endeavor and then start telling ourselves that we are no good, worthless, incompetent and stupid, the mind says ‘ok.’ But, those generalizations are not accurate. We may have failed in one specific task, but that in no way means we are a complete worthless incompetent failure in life! To fail at one thing does not equate to failing at everything.
Just as being overweight is often a springboard to get physically fit, so too depression, anxiety, stress, anger and generally poor interpersonal relationships can be a springboard to get psychologically fit. And, just as a coach or trainer is helpful in starting out with a physical fitness routine, so too is a counselor or therapist conversant in psychological fitness a good idea.