It's Time We Look at Mental Health the Same as Physical Health

Bridget Rolens demonstrates various mindfulness activities during the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction luncheon Feb. 27 at Scott. Mindfulness meditation is being used in a variety of ways in the military. Rolens is the owner and program facilitator for the Pathways to Mindfulness. (U.S. Air Force photo/Kiana Brothers)

When it comes to fitness, active people take a day off at least once a week. I personally prefer the mobility day when I need a day to recover from a previous series of difficult workouts.

Why not also take a "Mental Health" day when you need one?

A term many in the fitness world use is “actively pursuing recovery” in order to avoid over-training. Over-training or under- recovery (whichever you prefer to call it) is real and can be avoided by pulling back from overly stressful workouts, proper nutrition, a good night’s sleep, deep breathing / meditation, and taking some time to relax. Our brain needs to the same style of recovery system as we give our biceps. Take a rest day for your brain and don’t feel weak because you need one.

In the military, human performance programs are growing in popularity. In fact, Special Operations Command recently made a significant $500 million investment in the "Preservation of the Force and Family (POTFF) Resiliency and Human Performance Programs." These programs deal with issues special operators have to face, including mental stress.

The problem of mental health is being addressed by the military, but there still is a stigma tied to it. We also have to address mental health ourselves and start training and treating the brain just the way we do our bodies.

Just Like a Cooldown and Stretch We Need to Decompress

Just as we should do a cooldown and stretch after a workout, there are some days that we need to decompress the mind. We do not think of it as "weakness" if we stretch after a workout. We should not think of it as weakness when we need to decompress after a stressful day or event.

This type of day or event could be a typical administrative stressful day at work, or it could be one of the many things first responders and military members experience that is traumatic and life threatening. Sometimes, we just see too much and need a day to sort it out. Sometimes, we do not have that luxury of taking a day off, so you have to learn how to deal with these events immediately.

You need to understand that the brain needs to sort out the life or death situation you either witnessed or personally experienced. Otherwise, it will keep intruding in your thoughts until you find that mental filing cabinet for it. A skill known as “Name It and Tame It” starts the healing process mentally. By addressing it and giving the situation a name (both verbally and written) you can help start to tame something that could be an obtrusive thought or flashback for years.

You can do this with bad dreams as well, which will help you get back to sleep faster.

Take a day off when possible, get a light workout done, focus on deep breathing, relaxing, eating healthful food and drinks, and sleep. The balance of all the above is the physiological way to deal with stressful days.

If you do not have a day, take a few minutes and meditate or breathe deeply (box breathing -- four seconds inhale, four seconds hold, four seconds exhale, four seconds hold). This is powerful. Try it while taking a shower for five minutes and close your eyes, let the water beat down on your head and shoulders while you focus on your breathing.

Take a quick nap too if possible. This is how the brain recharges.

Talk to People or Write it Down

You need to have a person to talk to. Perhaps a veteran family member or friend or co-worker, just so you can verbally get rid of those thoughts and images in your head, discuss it and help you move on from it. Actually, using a pen and writing what is one your mind down on paper is another way to express yourself. Do not be scared to share that writing with someone you trust. This process can help you get the help you may need.

Disclosure and Professional References

Obviously, I am a fitness writer, not a psychologist. But comparing the two aspects of human performance (mental and physical health) to each other gives us the opportunity we need as a society and large organization (Department of Defense and First Responders) to destigmatize mental health and post traumatic stress. Mental Health issues are real and can become chronic if not handled immediately after stressful situations, just as overtraining can become chronic and injurious if not dealt with immediately after a stressful series of workouts.

The following sections can provide you with more professional assistance with mental health, post-traumatic stress, self-medicating, as well as self-help recovery strategies.

Mental Recovery / Health References:

Get Head Strong -- Military and Veteran Assistance

Mental Health Disorders

Veteran Crisis Line -- 24/7 Get help immediately if needed

Even Pulse -- Resilience Training

Physical Recovery / Health References:

Importance of Sleep for Recovery

Sleep Ritual -- Help Yourself Get to Sleep Better


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