It has long been intuitively understood that the human mind shares an interdependent relationship with the body, that no matter how we protest and deny it, they are not completely separate systems. Beyond simply controlling the body’s movements, the mind can subconsciously influence bodily health and use the body to draw attention to problems the conscious mind has ignored, whether by choice or force.

Despite colloquialisms of “mind over matter,” our bodies often react with inexplicable illness or discomfort when a problem in the mind goes unaddressed. Invalidated anxiety might cause a rash of hives. Repressed anger might lead to a stomachache or even a cancerous tumor. Untreated depression could worsen symptoms from another source or permanently weaken the body’s immune system. Research has even shown that early childhood trauma creates lifelong struggles with injury and chronic illness. For better or for worse, mental and physical health are woven tightly together.

Knowing this, should not mental health be as high in priority as physical health? What better preventative care could there be for sickness and injury? A strong, healthy mind promotes bodily wellness just as surely as it promotes happiness and personal growth. It is well-equipped to manage emotions; it is knowledgeable, creative, and always actively learning.

But the benefits of mental health move beyond individual wellness. A society of mentally fit people is a peaceful and productive society. Mental fitness strengthens the effectiveness of democracy by keeping its citizens informed, patient, and discerning. It helps its political representatives reach compromise and solve problems creatively. It helps researchers, scientists, and inventors uncover new information to meet evolving needs. Mental health prevents crime and abuse, brings people of diverse backgrounds together, and keeps our communities centered in compassion and gratitude. The importance of mental health is (if you’ll pardon the pun) a no-brainer.

How then, should we take charge of our mental health? Psychiatry and counseling are excellent treatments for diagnosed mental illness but they may not be necessary for preventative mental care. After all, most of us go to the gym to stay fit, not the doctor.

Perhaps a few lessons can be learned from what we already know about physical fitness. These two systems, designed to live cohesively and work interdependently, cannot really be so different from each other. I have seen connections in my own experience and in my observations of the world around me and while these parallels may not be exact, they certainly work as metaphors.

I argue that the five following facts about human bodies provide a compelling framework for understanding how to better take care of our minds.

1.

Low_back_painInactivity leads to stiffness in the body.

Ever wake up feeling like Mr. Roboto or discover new knots in your shoulders after a long day on the couch? Just as too little physical exercise can make your joints feel stiff and your muscles tense, not enough mental exercise can lead to increased tension and rigid thought patterns.

The solution? Exercise your mind! Find ways to practice deduction, analysis, comparison, and imagination. That might mean logic puzzles, board games, creative writing, or intellectual discussion, depending on where your interests lie, but no matter what, it must involve a challenge. It is not real exercise without some exertion!

2.

stretchingExercise without stretching is less effective (and potentially harmful).

Before exercise, the body needs to be warmed up with dynamic stretching to get blood flowing to the active area. Afterward, it must be relaxed with static stretching, to lengthen muscles and promote growth during rest. Not doing so can cause lethargy and muscle soreness, making further exercise painful and difficult. The mind is no different. Dynamic and static stretching permit continued mental growth after mental exercise. Without periodic stretching, mental exercise quickly becomes exhausting and unproductive, falling into redundant patterns, vicious cycles, and emotional distress.

So what does it mean to stretch the mind? Dynamic stretches involve noticing and wondering. Non-judgmental observation and genuine curiosity are forms of mental openness which invite energy to flow through the body and the brain, making you excited to think and learn! Post-workout, the mind needs prolonged mental quiet and relaxation. Ideally, this means meditation or some other mindfulness practice. Being centered in the present moment and gently letting go of thoughts allows the mind to expand, opening itself to new ideas and feelings without fear or attachment. You don’t always have to meditate after doing a logic puzzle or discussing a book, but by spending a little time every day consciously not thinking, you will actually strengthen your mind’s ability to think more creatively!

3.

drinkwaterThe human body, made of 70% water, relies heavily on fluid dynamics for health and survival.

Everybody knows that staying hydrated will keep us energized and alert, preventing headaches and further illness. But while the body needs water intake to survive, it also needs to get rid of water. Motion is the key! Dehydration and water retention are the unhealthy results of poor fluid dynamics in the body. When you don’t drink enough water, your body panics and holds onto the water it already has by limiting fluid excretions. Among other things, this prevents your urinary system from filtering waste from the blood and flushing out harmful toxins before they build up in the body. In this way, the mind works very similarly with emotion.

Letting emotion flow through the mind is equally as important as letting those emotions out. Emotion fuels the mind, telling us what we want and who we are. Emotional dynamics, like fluid dynamics, are needed to flush out harmful, unproductive thoughts from the mind so they do not fester and grow.

Unfortunately, emotional hydration is not as simple as drinking water. For one thing, emotions are many and varied while water is just water. We cannot choose what or when we feel. At least not directly. Emotions enter the mind attached to thoughts, trailing behind like the tail of a kite. If thoughts are vehicles on a mental highway, emotions are the hitchhikers, either stowing away unseen in the trunk or loudly transforming humble sedans into cumbersome eighteen-wheelers. To stay emotionally hydrated, we must actively feel our emotions and distinguish them from our thoughts. We must recognize each surge of emotion as different from the thought it arrived with, albeit connected, and embrace that emotion as valid and important, without necessarily embracing the thought(s). This allows emotion to do its job of flushing out thoughts we do not need and leaving behind the ones which inform who we are. Sound easier said than done? Try mindfulness meditation to exponentially enhance your emotional awareness!

Unlike the body, which has automatic systems for waste excretion, the mind requires a conscious effort to let go of emotions. Express yourself! Once you know what you feel, tell someone, write about it in a diary, draw or paint your feelings, scream, dance, sing a song or play an instrument, run as fast as you can, punch a soft object until you collapse with exhaustion, or whatever else works for you. Without hurting yourself or anyone else, let it out completely. Allow the emotional energy to pass through you, in one way or another, and to serve its purpose along the way.

What purpose is that? To keep your mind alert and energetic and to eliminate mental distraction and confusion which poisons creative, productive thinking. Emotionally dynamic? Mentally fit as a fiddle!

4.

nutrition_veggiesMaintaining a nutritious diet counts for 80% of physical fitness.

You have likely heard that in both weight loss and strength training efforts, diet makes up 80% of your success or failure. Similarly, when strengthening and expanding the mind, your diet of information will be largely responsible for how well you think and learn. What are you reading? Which shows do you watch? Who do you talk to and/or listen to most often?

It doesn’t matter whether you are learning from a book or a magazine, a TV screen, or your neighbor’s backyard barbecue. Every idea which enters your mind from an external source is part of your information diet. That includes facts as well as opinions, fictional narratives as well as academic analyses, music and art as well as news and celebrity gossip. Just like with food, some information is simply healthier than others. A steady diet of verbal abuse, gas-lighting, and gossip will not promote mental health and fitness. However, a varied and balanced diet of quality information will provide models and support for mental exercise and growth.

 

 

Depending on your background and lifestyle, controlling information intake may either be easy or difficult. Mental nutrition requires an intentional effort to spend time with open-minded and intelligent people with diverse backgrounds, read materials of literary quality, and educate yourself responsibly with a variety of credible sources. In my opinion, a nutritious diet of information should focus primarily on written or performed narrative drama (as it promotes challenging mental exercise as well as emotional hydration), then on questions and theories in equal measure, then on facts, beliefs, and finally, competitive drama and judgment. This is my information pyramid of balanced nutrition. Within these types of information, variety and quality are also of significance, because it matters how information is delivered, how complex it is, and what emotional weight it carries. Taking all of these factors into account will set you up for success in your mental health and fitness.

5.

Man Portrait Person Traditional Fisherman OldOnce lost, youthful flexibility is very difficult to regain in adulthood.

If you have ever seen a five-year-old put her legs behind her head, you know that the human body is naturally more flexible in youth than in later years. At the same time, physical strength and control are limited in children but grow steadily with age. The same is true of our minds. 

As children, we have enormous mental flexibility. Our imagination and curiosity abound and our quickly firing neurons promote fast learning and high retention. As we grow up, we exercise our mind less often and that mental flexibility decreases, allowing us to settle into familiar thought patterns and unyielding beliefs. Age permits more complicated knowledge and better control over our minds but limits that strength and control to established areas of familiarity. 

What is the lesson? Take advantage of youthful flexibility before it is too late! Mental growth and learning in adulthood is never impossible with enough exercise, but it will take much less exercise if you start young and keep it up steadily throughout adolescence. Poor mental health beginning in childhood is extremely difficult to recover from later in life, but good mental health in childhood that continues steadily into adulthood will maintain mental flexibility even as you age. Increased flexibility in the adult mind will increase strength and control even in unfamiliar territory, making you a better learner, more open-minded, and calmer in the face of change.

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