By Aaron Short, Licensed Professional Counselor, Nationally Certified Counselor & Mindfulness Teacher
There I was, 11,000 feet above sea level with the treeline at my back and 3000+ vertical feet of barren rock face and switchbacks in front of me. Being at this elevation brings with it beauty that is hard to describe and always breathtaking… but today it was all lost on me. I was too busy noticing my lungs and legs screaming at me as well as the growing nausea that had begun as my physical exhaustion took center stage.
You see, summiting Pikes Peak, “America’s Mountain”, was a goal I had set for myself a year earlier when I moved to Colorado Springs, CO and saw the beautiful mountain presiding over the town from the west. I felt compelled to summit, and laid out a plan to be fit enough to do the round trip, 13 miles up and 13 miles back… but as Robert Burns once wrote, “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” I had not stuck to my plan, I had not exercised as I should have when I had the time, I had not put in the effort to better myself while I could. I was not prepared to do this climb today. My ego and fear of failure compelled me forward and now, when it mattered most, my fitness was not there to rely on for the remaining miles. Perhaps this sounds familiar to you…
A quote attributed to Sun Tzu, “Sweat more during peace, bleed less during war” – we think of this as advice on physical preparation, and it certainly is, but I would argue that an equally important aspect of this is our mental preparation – our mental fitness.
Mental fitness, resilience, optimization, self care… these buzzwords are making the rounds and can even cause a reader to turn off when they come across them. Please don’t, this matters for you and for those you love. The life you want is on the other side of the effort it takes to increase your mental fitness, and there are clear ways one can do this. These four are simple actions you can take to improve your mental fitness that do not take an extreme amount of time and are easily integrated into your daily life.
Mindfulness and Meditation – 10 minutes a day
There are a host of apps, books, and tutorials on mindfulness and meditation to draw from. You might find yourself a bit overwhelmed by the volume of what is available. Please start easy with basic audio guided meditations on Youtube. The intentional act of grounding yourself and starting your day off in this manner results in profound benefits of increased calm, emotional control, clarity of thought, and increased intention in action and word over time.
Reduce Screen Time and Minimize app Usage
Poor sleep from bright screens confusing your sleep pattern and a hijacking of your dopamine system (from the reward without effort found in various apps) results in a host of negative effects, far too many to get into now (but feel free to explore the work of Dr. Andrew Huberman for information around this subject). By minimizing screen time, especially in the evenings, you can increase the quality and length of your sleep. Additionally, by minimizing your use of apps (especially those designed with a dopamine element in mind such as Instagram and Facebook) you will regain some control of your dopamine system and as a result, your enjoyment of tasks requiring effort will increase. The implications of this in regard to confidence, mood, and motivation are obvious.
Do Hard Things Regularly
Along those same lines, you should undertake things that are difficult, that cause your body and mind to work hard. This can be exercise, large work projects, yard work, even solving a puzzle. You have hormones in your body designed to help with this (namely dopamine and testosterone) by making hard work feel pleasurable. Give those hormones a chance to do their job, and give yourself the opportunity to feel their effect (as well as the pride that comes with accomplishment). Each difficult task you undertake is a victory, successful or not, due to the reality of it increasing your mental fitness. You prove to yourself that you are capable and willing to engage by doing so, and you are more likely to have the strength and resilience to overcome future obstacles both physically and mentally.
Read and Write Daily
Reading extends your ability to focus, activates many parts of your brain that might not be regularly engaged, and increases your ability to visualize (a useful skill when intentionally exploring a problem or considering different actions you might take in a mindful way). Writing or journaling is a highly beneficial method for processing your experiences, understanding your emotional responses, exploring ideas, and expressing gratitude. Daily gratitude journaling can be as simple as listing 3 things you are grateful for each day. Through reading and writing you are caring for yourself, caring for your mind, minimizing our negative bias, and strengthening your ability to express your emotions. The end result of daily journaling is a deeper understanding of and greater ability to advocate for yourself, and a more accurate perception of reality
Calmer, clearer, more intentional, more confident, more capable, more aware, and more in control than ever before. This is what can come from making the above suggestions habit and lifestyle. You can make it to the treeline with gas in the tank and power yourself all the way to the summit, not sit miserably in the backseat of some good Samaritans car wondering what went wrong.
The choice seems clear, go ahead and take that first step by deciding when you are going to meditate and choosing which meditation you will use from the link above. You are worth investing in, you are capable of dramatically increasing your mental fitness, and you have all the tools you need within you to do so. In closing I would like to leave you with a quote from Miyamoto Mushashi in The Book of Five Rings, “there is nothing outside of yourself that can ever enable you to get better, stronger, richer, quicker, or smarter. Everything is within. Everything exists. Seek nothing outside of yourself”.
I wish you the best on your path to greater mental fitness!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Aaron Short is a licensed professional counselor based out of Colorado Springs, CO. He specializes in mindfulness, trauma, and men’s issues. When Aaron is not at his computer, or sitting across from somebody, he enjoys spending time with his family and hiking.