On Mental Fitness

I work in the mental health industry as a high school counselor. The type of counseling that I have encountered with teenagers has changed drastically over the past three years. Students are facing emotional and social struggles that the generations before them never even considered. Anxiety of all kinds, stress and overwhelm, grief and depression, all run rampant in the hearts and minds of young people.

In studying how to best support these students, I have found that the mental health industry is shifting the way we talk about mental wellness. I first came across the idea in the book Future Tense: Why Anxiety is Good for You (Even Though It Feels Bad) by Tracy Dennis Tiwary. Dennis Tiwary is clinical psychologist and researcher who specializes in the gamification of digital therapeutics. Among others in the industry, she is calling for a change in our verbiage from discussing mental wellness to mental fitness.

Why the distinction from “wellness” to “fitness,” you might wonder. Let’s think about how we contemplate physical health and wellness. You probably consider someone to be physical well if they are healthy and free from disease. If someone suffers from an illness or disease, they must be cured of this affliction before they can be considered well. In the same way, our society, over many years and through little fault of its own, has categorized difficulties in mental wellness like anxiety or depression as illnesses that must be cured and eradicated. However, common sense (as well as many scientific studies) show that emotions like worry, anxiety, sadness, stress, depression, etc. all exist on a spectrum and one can never truly be free or “cured” from these feelings. Instead, our desire should be to become mental fit in how we address and use these feelings in our everyday lives.

One might decide that the way we state it is not that important. I would argue that the words we regularly use to describe something do more to define our understand of it than anything else. Advertisement agencies, politicians, news stations, etc. all have lengthy discussions about the best words to use specific situations because they know that a simple adjustment in language alters how a product or issue is viewed. The words we use and especially important when working with young people. Any parent knows that children, from toddlers to teenagers, hear more and pay more attention to what we say than we might like. They are sponges answering the questions in their minds with the words they clean from trusted adults. So why mental fitness instead of wellness?

Consider instead an athlete training to be physically fit. The athlete has an end goal of fitness but understands that there is a long process needed to reach that objective. Training and practice must be consistent and disciplined. Any lapse in the training regimen will force them many steps back in their progress toward the ideal fitness levels. The athlete also knows that there may be pain along the way, but the pain is a signal that muscles are breaking down in order to become stronger. The athlete’s quest for fitness is a journey, with ups and downs, failures and victories. She learns from her mistakes and losses and capitalizes on the triumphs.

We must begin to view mental fitness in the same way. Yes, we will sometimes have ups and downs. There will be emotions that we do not understand or want. However, with the right training, we can learn how to understand our feelings as signals from our bodies and minds of something we need to address. Anxiety indicates uncertainty about the future and helps us to prepare and have hope. Being overwhelmed is an indicator that we need to reassess our commitments to make sure they align with our values. Sadness or depression is a signal that we need to reach out to trusted companions for help. While the feelings will not ever be eradicated, we can learn how to work through them with confidence. We can become mentally fit.

So, I encourage whoever is reading this: One, please have empathy for young people in crisis. You may feel the urge to compare their situation to your own experiences. As someone who works with young people daily, please trust me that the world they are living in is different than anything teenage generations have ever experienced. Two, the words you use are important. Struggles with mental health are in most cases not diseases that need to be cured. They are experiences that can be used to learn how to become mentally fit. We are all on a long journey toward mental fitness.


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