For most of my life, I’ve been taught my physical wellbeing is important. Throughout my twenties, I followed the advice of doctors, trainers, girlfriends and diet-gurus to keep my body in fair-to-good shape; I exercised regularly, ate the rainbow and non-perfected my downward dog.
Then, I became a mother and my world, that easy life of deciding on dance fit or Zumba, came to a screeching halt. I didn’t have the time or energy to exercise. I ate what I could get my hands on, which was often goldfish-shaped crackers or a yogurt tube. I didn’t sleep regularly for weeks on end, and stretching meant angry red marks across my belly rather than a supple wheel pose.
A year after my second child was born, it wasn’t my physical health that was concerning me; it was my mental health. Motherhood highlighted for the first time the importance of my sanity, full-blown and otherwise. I realized that my body and all of its fitness and wellbeing didn’t mean a whole lot if I was hovering on the edge of depression – feeling worn out, brain-fogged and anxious all the time.
I was twenty pounds overweight, still wearing maternity jeans and had some serious under-eye baggage, but when I looked in the mirror I saw something far more concerning than underarm flab or frizzy hair: I saw sadness, fatigue and apathy.
I’d let my physical fitness go, yes. For that, there were countless gym memberships or offers to watch the baby while I went for a run, but what about the mental fatigue I faced? What was I supposed to do about that sadness, boredom and feeling of restlessness I couldn’t seem to shake?
After some reflection and time, I got serious about developing a solid, sustainable mental fitness plan, focusing on keeping my mind as fit as my body.
The first step in my mental health plan was to get my brain’s blood pumping. Engaging our brains and getting out of mental ruts is like cardio for our minds. So often, particularly as we get older and settle into more structured lives (work, kids, house, yard), life gets pretty routine.
We eat the same foods, take the same route to work, do the same job and have the same friends. There is a lot of comfort and security to this sort of daily rhythm, and it can provide a backdrop of stability that helps us explore other creative pursuits. The problem comes when we don’t actually pursue those other interests. It’s easy to get stuck in a rut, even if the rut isn’t bad or wrong. The rut could simply be the comfort of knowing what’s next, but our minds often need something more.
Learning, developing new skills, and engaging in different experiences all keep our brains sharp and active. According to NPR’s article “Learning a New Skill Works Best to Keep Your Brain Smart,” neuroscientists at the University of Texas at Dallas found that people who learned new skills (rather than socializing or doing nothing new) showed significant improvements in memory and cognitive function. It turns out, the more challenging the task or new activity, the better the cognitive development.
When we get out of our comfort zones and challenge our brains, our brains get fired up. They get stronger and sharper because learning new skills strengthens the connections between the parts of our brains.
A few years ago, after our second cross-country move in ten months, I was feeling pretty low. Life was a series of daily tasks that didn’t challenge me in the least. I felt bored, depressed and foggy. Then, I booked two plane tickets to China and announced that during the school break, I’d be taking our daughter to Beijing for a week. Suddenly, I had to get passports and visas. I had to plan where we’d stay and what we’d do. I had to get us there, through multiple layovers, and once there, I had to navigate Beijing with a 10-year-old.
You know what happened?
My brain felt like it was on fire. I was no longer bored or depressed. I woke up each day with heaps of energy, tackling Beijing’s busy streets, pulling out my rusty Chinese language skills, trying to find my daughter something familiar to eat in a city of street food and crispy duck. I got back home and felt like a new woman.
Noticing how much better I felt and how intoxicating it was to challenge my brain again, I committed myself to learning new skills. I’ve written about subjects I would have never considered (energy security???). I learned to ride horses at the age of 35. I’m currently taking ballet at the age of 42, for the first time in my life.
I stopped thinking the only part of my body that needed a challenge was my heart or lungs, and the effects have been stunning. Not only am I happier, calmer and more engaged, but I feel so much more confident knowing my learning years are not behind me.
The second part of my mental fitness regimen is what I think of as the weightlifting/strengthening part of mental health: mindfulness. Like weight lifting or Pilates, it’s easy to think of mindfulness as less challenging than, say, speaking Chinese, but that mentality is what kept me from really digging into the art of mindfulness for many years. Just like strong muscles are the foundation for better movement in our bodies, strengthening our minds through focused attention is the foundation of our mental wellbeing.
For years, my mind was what can only be described as off-the-rails. I felt like a victim to a constant barrage of thoughts coming in and out of my brain all day long. I’d be doing the dishes and thinking about dinner plans. I’d be writing about human trafficking and thinking about vacation plans. Any distraction, however small, could derail my train of thought and suddenly, I’d be researching summer linen dresses instead of doing my intended yoga video. It was chaos.
Then, I learned about mindfulness. Mindfulness is the practice of simply being aware of the present moment, the right now. It takes many forms, and there are various ways to practice mindfulness, but for me, I practice it as I go about my daily life.
I try to focus on the one task at hand, just the one. I do the dishes. That’s all I do. I notice the temperature of the water. I notice the sound as I put dishes in the sink. I slow down and tune in, to the smell of the soap and the feel of the sponge across the countertop. It’s amazing what happens. I take deeper, slower breaths.
My mind slows down, zeroing in on the details rather than going a mile-a-minute and trying to solve ten problems at once all while considering a new haircut.
It isn’t perfect, this newfound practice of quieting my mind and focusing on the moment. My brain still wants to get on the fast-track, but knowing I can bring it down a notch is a huge comfort and invaluable skill.
When I feel my chest tightening or the world closing in, when my brain feels like it’s at max capacity, I don’t take a step back; I take a step in.
I focus. I bring everything back to the moment, tiny as it may be, trivial as it may seem. I think of the dish soap or the cotton sheet or the feel of the wood floor under my bare feet. And just like that, in seconds, the chaos calms; my brain slows down, and everything gets a little stronger because I isolated that beautiful muscle: my brain.
The third prong to my mental fitness plan is probably the most important: rest. So often, in both physical fitness and life in general, we take rest for granted, thinking we can make up for it on weekends or vacations, failing to realize that without substantial downtime, all of our goals and dreams are lived behind a haze of fatigue.
We mistake rest as inactive, when in reality, rest is the most active exercise we can do to keep all of our body parts (inside and out) in top shape.
My rest comes in many forms: from hot baths to daily meditation. The most important rest habit I’ve formed, however, is the most basic. I now get solid, regular, undisturbed sleep.
Before having kids, I took sleep for granted in a major way. Then, with a baby who woke for the day at 4:45, I found myself weepy and full of despair. When I got regular sleep, those feelings subsided, so I got serious about my sleep, realizing I wasn’t going to be the mother, wife, friend or person I wanted to be if I was stuck in a sleep-deprived haze.
I got to bed at regular times instead of staying up late and watching TV or surfing the web. I also woke at the same time each day, no longer sleeping in on weekends. When sleep failed me, during particularly difficult periods and cross-country moves, I began using melatonin to help with bouts of insomnia. Slowly, as I developed a solid sleep habit, my days felt better.
Gone were the foggy hours of sipping coffee and hoping the baby napped a little longer. I no longer felt despair about the future or trapped inside the house. I had the energy and mental clarity to get up, get out and get going, which made all the difference for everyone in my life.
According to the Sleep Center at UCLA, “The quality of your sleep is closely related to how you think, how you act, and how you feel.” Researchers conclude that more than just feeling a little sluggish, lack of sleep can cause us to feel “…frustrated, unmotivated and even have severe mood swings.” This has been true for me. When I made sleep a priority, it gave me the energy, clarity and stable moods possible to explore new interests, focus my energy and engage with the world around me.
The most important lesson I’ve learned through building a solid mental health regimen isn’t that mental health trumps physical health; it’s that one can’t exist without the other. We can’t be fit in any true sense without strong bodies and minds.
Balance, as with everything, is the key. I balance my physical efforts with my mental focus, and in the process, I am able to enjoy life from a place of overall health rather than simply fitting into a certain size jeans or finally perfecting my crow.
BY Amy Phariss - April 17, 2018
Thank you for being here. For being open to enjoying life’s simple pleasures and looking inward to understand yourself, your neighbors, and your fellow humans! I’m looking forward to chatting with you.