Understanding Mental Health > Mental Fitness

Strengthening Your Mental Fitness

Have you ever driven the same route and upon arrival felt like you got there almost on autopilot? That is similar to how thoughts and actions travel along neural pathways in our brains. When we repeat a certain thought or action many times, that neural pathway is reinforced, and the thinking can become automatic. When it comes to thought or action patterns that are causing us trouble (anger, aggression, sadness, hopelessness), we can learn what our routes are and what pathways we're inadvertently reinforcing. Too often, we are acting, speaking, and thinking automatically when troubling decisions or stressful events come our way. However, trying out a new mental fitness routine can help reroute these pathways to better serve us and our mental health.

Try a new mental fitness routine

Being physically active releases those feel-good endorphins, dopamine, and promotes the expression of brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) that can enhance your sense of well-being and reduce stress. Consider making time for your physical well-being by sticking to a healthy sleep schedule, picking nutritious meals, or taking part in stress management techniques such as meditation or yoga.

Find a resilient role model that you feel is mentally strong, this could be a friend, family member, or even a co-worker. Spend time with them and learn how they respond to challenging situations in their life. If you feel comfortable, ask for advice on difficulties you're facing.

Learning through adversity or failure is key to training your brain for the next challenge in your life. If you can recognize, accept, and aspire to grow, you’re inadvertently helping yourself for future situations. This is called strengthening your growth skillset. For example, purposely identifying something that you could fail at – like trying a new recipe or skill –and testing your ability to be agile in the process. Practicing failure will allow you to be mentally nimble and regulate your brain’s flight or fight response when challenges come your way. 

Having a realistic optimism means you confront, rather than avoid, the situation you may be in. You can think of this as the converse of learned helplessness which is a state in which a person feels powerless to change a stressful situation on their own. This requires reframing your outlook and could be aided by stress management techniques such as meditation or functional or adaptive mental health techniques.

Help to remind yourself of the meaning of your life and the lives of others through purposeful activity. By actively pursuing a purposeful activity you can inadvertently help reset your thinking. For example, participate in a community event that has a common purpose or goal rather than passively scrolling social media or a newsfeed.

Keeping up with your mental fitness routine takes time and discipline. If you don't feel you're making progress — or you feel like the weight of trauma is getting heavier and lasting more than a month — consider learning about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and talking to a mental health professional.

Understanding Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatments

Hi, I'm Dr. Monica Taylor-Desir, a community psychiatrist at Mayo Clinic. And I'm here to talk with you about post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD, what it is, what causes it, and how to manage it. Dealing with your own PTSD or helping a loved one can feel overwhelming. Understanding the basics is a good first step toward recovery.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a mental health condition that can happen after direct or indirect exposure to a traumatic event. Trauma includes things like a natural disaster or a pandemic, a serious accident, war, rape, sexual or domestic abuse or violent assault. You may have PTSD if you experience post-exposure symptoms for more than a month. Exposure includes direct experience, witnessing the event occurred to others, learning that a loved one experienced trauma or repeated exposure to traumatic events.

PTSD symptoms may be persistent or triggered by something you see, hear, or experienced. Symptoms fall into three categories. Intrusive memories, such as recurring distressing memories of the event. Flashbacks, nightmares, avoidance, such as not thinking about the event, avoiding situations that remind you of the trauma, or leaving situations because you feel anxious. Another category is changes in physical and emotional reactions, such as being easily startled or frightened, an increase in drug or alcohol abuse, having trouble sleeping or concentrating, becoming easily angered, or having aggressive behavior, experiencing overwhelming guilt or shame, or having negative changes in thinking.

PTSD is different from stress or trauma. It doesn't go away with time, or self-care. It affects your ability to function and enjoy life. If you are experiencing PTSD, you are not alone. 6% of the population will experience PTSD. 12 million adults in the US have PTSD annually. 8% of women will develop PTSD, versus 4% of men. The good news is, PTSD is treatable and recovery is possible. If you're uncomfortable talking openly to a loved one, that's okay. Look for online resources, a support group, or ask a healthcare provider for a PTSD assessment.

Psychotherapy, peer support networks, coping techniques, medication and complementary treatment like animal-assisted therapy and acupuncture can reduce symptoms. If you or someone you know is having difficulty coping with trauma, these interventions can make a huge difference. It's never too late to get treatment. No matter how long ago the trauma occurred. Coping with PTSD is a process that takes time. Be patient with yourself or those you are supporting through PTSD. Looking for more information about PTSD? Visit mayoclinic.org. We wish you well.

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For most people PTSD symptoms cause noticeable problems in day-to-day activity.

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Mayo Clinic Connect

Connect with others like you for support, practical information, and answers to your questions about mental health issues or caring for someone with mental health concerns. Ask questions and get answers.

If you or someone you love is having suicidal thoughts, seek help. Contact your primary care provider or mental health professional. If this is an emergency, call 911 or your local emergency number. In the U.S., call, text, or chat the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 (formerly the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline).

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