It’s time to get intentional about our mental health and wellbeing.
1 in 5 Australians have experienced mild to severe mental health issues in the past 12 months. This statistic illustrates why, although important, it’s no longer sufficient to rely on only acute mental health treatment, after the fact.
To work to combat Australia’s deepening mental health crisis, it’s time to start championing proactive, preventative strategies to improve our mental and emotional health. This is where mental fitness comes in. Mental fitness is all about taking a preventative, intentional approach to supporting positive mental wellbeing by developing a set of skills you can draw upon during challenging times.
Much like how physical fitness strengthens your body’s muscles, mental fitness training strengthens your mind by enhancing your resilience and helping you form good thought, language and emotional habits.
To start building your mental fitness, it's important to first understand the pillars that underpin it, and the skills feed into each pillar. Smiling Mind’s Mental Fitness Framework has five pillars that have been shown to support positive mental wellbeing and that can be developed through intentional mental training.
The Smiling Mind Mental Fitness Framework
Let’s take a deep dive into each pillar, explore the skills within each and how they can support you through life’s challenges.
The ability to observe and seek to understand one's own emotions and their effects on your functioning. This includes the ability to tune into feelings, sense inner signals and how those feelings affect you. It includes present moment awareness, attention & focus to thoughts, emotions and sensations, attitudes (mindful mindsets).
Smiling Mind, 2023
Mindfulness is all about being present in the moment. It’s also about bringing a non-judgemental awareness to the thoughts and emotions you experience while in that moment.
Why is this important? Because, it allows you to recognise your feelings, figure out where they’re coming from and why you may be feeling them. The more you do this, the faster you become at recognising changes in your emotions, allowing you to better manage their symptoms.
In the Smiling Mind Mental Fitness Framework, the three major skills that make up the mindfulness pillar are:
Living a fast-paced life is quickly becoming the norm for many of us. Sometimes, to get through it, we work on autopilot and fail to notice the world around us.
When this starts to happen, the skill of intentionally pulling awareness to what you’re doing, who you’re with and how you’re feeling, is so important. Awareness allows you to be more present and actively take stock of what’s going on.
By grounding yourself in the present, studies have shown that you’re less likely to ruminate over past or future situations, helping you to let go of intense emotions and protect your mental wellbeing.
Awareness also overlays many of the other skills. It plays a key role in regulating our thoughts and emotions which is a key part of developing skills in the Flexible Thinking pillar. Evidence also suggests that emotional awareness facilitates better ability to navigate complex social situations and enjoy relationships, and greater physical and mental health.
Attention and focus
Once you’ve grounded yourself in the present, you can more effectively pull focus towards your emotional state. How do you feel right now in this situation? What made you happy? What caused a dip in your mood?
Intentionally focusing on your emotional state throughout the day forces you to slow down, acknowledge and recognise your emotions and their triggers.
Being able to recognise these emotional triggers is something called meta-awareness. With this skill, you’re able to recognise the emotion before the response. This knowledge allows you to act in a measured way during tough or unexpected situations.
The attitude you bring to new situations can drastically affect your experience of that situation. By keeping an open, curious mindset—a beginner’s mindset—you’re already more likely to approach challenges with more mental resilience than before.
Have you ever made a recipe a few times and been disappointed when it doesn't taste exactly the same? With an attitude like a beginner's mindset, you pull your focus to the present dish in front of you and appreciate the flavours regardless of how you were expecting it to taste.
Trying to approach new information without biases is hard. However, by accepting new situations without judgement, studies have found that people experience greater coping self-efficacy than those who are more closed off.
Flexible thinking definition
Flexible thinking can be considered to be the capacity to withstand and rebound from disruptive life challenges. It includes our mindset (preparedness to learn, grow, be curious and know that we can influence ourselves in a positive manner ), our emotional management (the ability to recognise and manage our emotions in order to achieve goals, complete tasks and positively engage with others), and gratitude (a sense of appreciation for others and things around us).
Smiling Mind, 2023
Flexible thinking is all about being adaptable in your approach to situations, while managing your reactions—even when it’s challenging.
Flexible thinking can be broken down into three main areas:
When presented with challenges or uncertainties, where does your head go? For example, have you ever waved to a friend and they don’t wave back? What were your first thoughts? Did you feel as though they ignored you on purpose? Or did you have a more helpful thought, such as ‘maybe they didn’t see me!
When we think we already know exactly how a situation is going to pan out, or it feels final before it’s even over, we're in a fixed mindset. This mindset can actually hinder self growth, aggravate self deprecating language and cause stress—all major symptoms of mental illness.
By consciously trying to shift to a growth mindset, you open up your opportunities to learn, and allow your brain to generate new, positive neural pathways.
In a growth mindset, you’re consciously choosing to engage with different solutions. You’re acknowledging that learning and dedication can offer more than your biases and, in the process, you become more resilient to change.
Emotional management is all about identifying your triggers and learning to handle their symptoms. Rather than acting in the heat of the moment or avoiding tough situations altogether, you’re able to modulate and react appropriately.
Good emotional management requires a lot of self awareness, adaptability and self-compassion. By building these qualities, you can begin to judge your emotions and actions more clearly, allowing you to be more objective in high-emotion situations.
Practising gratitude can strengthen your ability to cope, your social structures and overall well being.
By regularly reinforcing a positive mindset through active gratitude, your brain experiences more positive emotions and less inflammation. The more you do this, the more easily this state becomes your mind’s default.
The process of building positive relationships and social awareness through empathy (sharing someone’s emotion, taking their perspective) and kindness toward others, compassion to ourselves and others, positive communication.
Smiling Mind, 2023
This facet of mental fitness is all about building and strengthening your relationships. Feeling connected to others and yourself helps you develop a sense of belonging and emotional safety. This leads to higher self-esteem, lower stress levels and generally higher feelings of contentment.
To help you build quality connections with others and yourself, these are the key emotional skills you can develop.
Empathy and Kindness
Choosing to respond with empathy and kindness when faced with tough situations shows others that you’re able to recognise, understand and share their experiences. This builds trust between yourself and others and deepens your connection with them.
This can look like:
- Staying present in the moment
- Listening without judgement
- Validating their emotions
- Being aware of and avoiding entertaining previous biases or assumptions
How you speak to others and yourself is crucial in formulating healthy, strong connections. Choosing to engage with intentionally positive language makes you seem and feel more:
These positive communication habits lead to stronger, healthier connections with likeminded people.
Compassion is rooted in the desire to help—both yourself and others. It often occurs when faced with tough emotions like sorrow or grief.
According to studies, showing yourself or others compassion during these tough times can actually activate the pleasure centres of our brain, lower the prevalence of inflammation in the body, and raise self esteem.
To help you engage with a more compassionate mindset you can:
- Do compassionate meditation
- Dedicate time to quality self-care
- Identify causes you feel strongly about and commit to helping them
- Actively reach out to friends and family and show them support if times are tough
The perceived importance, value and utility of activities. Developing insight to know our own values and strengths, and using them to have meaningful contribution to something outside ourselves.
Smiling Mind, 2023
Finding your “purpose” doesn’t have to refer to a big, grand, world-altering goal. In fact, for most, it’s simply what helps direct your behaviours and actions.
Identifying and actioning your sense of purpose is a vital part of mental fitness. Not only can it help you sleep better, lower cortisol levels and improve your cognitive functions; studies have also found it helps you recover more quickly and effectively from negative situations.
Finding purpose is the second most prominent challenge faced by Australians. In Smiling Mind's State of Mind report (2021, page 24) one in three (30%) Australians referenced purpose as being a key challenge to their mental health.
So what can you do to hone in on and develop your sense of purpose?
Identify your strengths
Identifying and using your core strengths every day has been found to be a key component of developing a more resilient mind.
According to positive psychology advocate Dr. Ryan Niemiec, however, our negative bias often means our strengths take a backseat in our unconscious. By intentionally giving these strengths attention, he suggests we can actually increase our long term happiness.
To find your strengths, try exploring the following:
- Ask yourself “What energises me? What makes me feel good?”
This will help you figure out what strengths may be worth continuing to develop in the long-term.
- Think broadly about what you think makes you stand out
Both hard and soft skills can come into play here. Consider how you problem-solve. How you like to communicate. Which character traits you possess that people are drawn to. These are good starting points.
- Getting feedback
Our negative bias often tricks us into belittling our strengths, or in some cases, not recognising them at all. Ask others what they consider to be your strengths and take note of which ones make you feel most accomplished.
Acknowledging and acting in line with your core values is central to settling into your long-term purpose.
Our values can be thought of as guideposts for how we believe a good life should be lived.
To identify your values you can ask yourself, “what’s important to me and how can my behaviours protect and respect those things?”
Behaving in alignment with our values minimises cognitive dissonance, which leads to lower levels of stress and higher levels of positive emotions and self efficacy.
Giving time and effort to others makes us feel better. Studies have shown that contributing to projects, communities, work or relationships that align with our values can:
- Reduce stress
- Improve mood
- Raise self esteem
- Stimulate memory and cognitive function
Consider your strengths and your values—what lies in the overlap? It’s usually in this space you’ll find the most meaningful opportunities for you to contribute and give back.
Physical health definition
Recognition and awareness of the mind / body connection. Understanding that movement, sleep and rest-relaxation-recovery all impact on our physical and mental health.
Smiling Mind, 2023
Our health—both mental and physical—can only be at its optimum if the body is well-rested, well-nourished and balanced. Your body is the vessel to all the skills, thoughts and emotions you’ve carefully trained to keep your mental wellbeing at its peak. So, it’s important that you take care of it.
Your physical health can be broken down into three major parts:
We all know that physical exercise is good for the body. However, movement can be just as beneficial to your overall mental health.
There is no clear research that suggests one type of exercise is more effective than another. Rather, exercise as a whole leads to a range of physiological reactions that result in an enhanced mood, lower stress levels and higher self esteem.
How does this happen? During exercise we:
- Release more endorphins and ‘happy’ neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine
- Decrease our risk of developing inflammatory diseases, which have been linked to poorer mental health
- Activate parts of our brain responsible for learning and stress management, all the while promoting brain plasticity.
Sleep is crucial to all facets of health—physical, mental and emotional. Forming good, structured sleep habits allows your brain to experience every stage of sleep, thus reaping the benefits each stage can provide.
However, sleep is the number one challenge Australians face (43%) when it comes to mental health and wellbeing (State of Mind, 2021)
Ensuring your brain receives enough REM (rapid eye movement) sleep is arguably most important. REM gives your brain time to process emotional information. This includes your day’s:
- Findings (cognitive reasoning)
Without enough REM, studies have found the brain struggles to acknowledge and pull out positive emotional content during this time. What does this mean? You wake up at risk of severe moodiness and feeling generally down, more often.
Rest is important. It’s what allows your body and brain to properly recharge and rejuvenate from what is often our very simulated reality. Without proper R&R, we’re constantly trying to operate on a half-empty tank.
Intentional rest can look different to everyone. But according to studies, the positive effects stay consistent across the board. The benefits include:
- Improved sleep
- Lower cortisol (stress hormone) levels
- Generally reduced experiences of anxiety and depression
If it feels like it’s time to take your mental and emotional health into your own hands, Smiling Mind can help.
The free 30 day Mental Fitness Program is a great way to get started with building your mental fitness. The quick daily activities are designed to help you develop stronger,more resilient patterns that can support your wellbeing and protect your mental health—long-term.
Ready to explore mental fitness with Smiling Mind?