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Mental Health, Like Physical Health, Requires Discipline

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Last summer, I was having nachos and beers with one of my good friends after work. She told me how whenever she went to the gym, she compared herself to the fitness girls in the locker room and wondered what their secret was. While she then washed down a nacho with some beer, I told her that the secret to being fit is that there is no secret. It’s hard to have incredible physical health because there are temptations everywhere pointing us in the wrong direction—temptations to sleep in, not go to the gym, watch more shows, indulge in nachos and beer, and the list goes on.

Want to know why mental health is so hard? For the same reason. Temptations are everywhere, and they’re hard to resist. It’s hard to not indulge in complaining. It’s hard to not compare the best qualities in others with the worst in yourself. It’s hard to let go of anger, greed or jealousy, and to forgive those who have trespassed against you. It’s hard to not be led into the temptation of believing the grass is greener on the other side. It’s hard to know that money can’t buy happiness, and it’s hard to endure when your mind tells you to give up. These cognitive traps are everywhere, and they are easy to fall into because we are rewarded with a sting of pleasure when we torture ourselves with their indulgence. If it were any other way, we wouldn’t be burdened with so many mental health challenges.

Having strong physical health takes dedication, sacrifice and a vigilant aversion to temptations. You can’t brute force your workouts to overcompensate for a poor diet. It requires both proper nutrition and training to reach the level of fitness you want, and it is likely that a magic pill won’t solve your physical health problems. Mental health is no different. You can’t use therapy or medications to brute force through a poor mental health diet. If you do, you will see poor results, exhaust yourself and maybe even give up.

Fortunately, there are many ways to supplement a mental health plan with a proper mental health diet. An easy example is tracking your intake of social media. There’s nothing wrong with social media, and it’s a wonderful tool if used in the right way. But if it’s used primarily to watch people you dislike while hoping they fail, wish for revenge on someone who’s hurt you, complain, glorify the negative chaos in the news, or objectify people and their lifestyles, you should stay away. If your mental health diet allows for you to indulge in habits that make you think miserably, you will feel miserably too.

These bad habits are hard to give up, but with mindfulness, anyone can build a strong mental health plan. One simple exercise is sitting for 10 minutes and watching your breath. When you try, triggering thoughts will arise and compete for your attention. Whichever thought you react to most is the one with all the power. But when you focus your attention on watching your breath, instead of reacting to painful thoughts, you begin to see that you have the ability to simply notice that thoughts are there without getting involved.

In the beginning, like muscle soreness from a good workout, mindfulness may feel like things are getting worse. Your mind will kick, scream, fight and torment you with boredom or agitation like never before. Your mind will also try to convince you to give up otherwise the pain will last forever. This is a normal part of the healing process and is no different than the physical discomfort from going through drug detox. There’s no use fighting it. Instead, just keep going and let it all come out.

Once the initial resistance cools down, your mind will use any thought it can to convince you to never try mindfulness again. If you’ve ever been on a weight loss diet, you are familiar with the cravings that come from enduring a caloric deficit. The same cravings for your vice will come from your new mental health diet. A common thought that will arise is that mindfulness is a waste of time because it won’t help pay the bills or win the object of your affection, and you should focus on those endeavors instead. Frustrating as these temptations may be, they are good indications that mindfulness is exactly what you should be doing to improve your mental health.

It is because of these cunning temptations that it takes discipline to stay on track with both your physical and mental health plan. Discipline is hard, but hard work pays off. One workout won’t make a difference, nor will one mindfulness session. Don’t expect results after trying once and then give up because you didn’t achieve your goals. Remember, just like how physical strength training builds your muscles, so heavy weights can’t hold you down, mindfulness training builds your mental resolve, so heavy thoughts can’t hold you down either. We are all too familiar with these heavy thoughts of doubt, rejection, anxiety and depression, and long for peace from the mind, which we call peace of mind. 

Fortunately, each discipline assists the other. While improving your physical health, the strength you exercise when you dismiss a less healthy craving is the same ability you exercise in mindfulness when you dismiss cravings for social media or self-hate and stick to giving yourself time to rest in silence. Through mindfulness, when you start fixating on the positive, you will feel better, which will give you more energy to improve your physical fitness, which will make you eat healthier, which will remove sluggishness, make you feel better, improve your mood and naturally reinforce your focus onto the positive. And around and around it goes. It never ends. The more you do the more you can do. Take one step and then one more. As you continue, you will start to see that you have no limits. You will gladly push yourself in all areas of life to see how far you can go. This is the secret that no one wants to accept, which of course is not a secret at all.

Eventually, these changes will create so much inner strength and peace that you cannot do anything other than be your best self. You will instinctually know not to indulge in whatever self-defeating behavior triggers you, and its power will deflate on its own. What once felt like an uphill battle will eventually feel like a breeze. All of a sudden, you will love yourself exactly as you are for no other reason than the simple truth that you are the source of your own peace. With this not-so-secret secret of discipline towards avoiding temptations that hurt you, you will love your peace of mind almost as much as you love yourself.

Getty image by max-kegfire

Originally published: November 8, 2021
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