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Mental fitness: Be wary of the ‘feeling good’ trap

September 30, 2022
By Bill Howatt

Photo: Moyo Studio/Getty Images

One challenge with maintaining mental fitness is what I call the feeling-good trap. I continue to observe that when people begin to feel good, they stop doing what helped them reach the point where they have positive feelings and a sense of health.

For example, someone loses 20 pounds but then stops doing what enabled them to achieve their goal. The result: they gain 25 pounds. This often happens due to having the wrong goal. The goal should be to live healthy, not lose 20 pounds. The same holds true for strengthening mental health. Daily mental fitness helps one develop and maintain a positive mindset and good mental health.

In addition to cognitive behavioural therapy, homework for my clients experiencing mild to moderate clinical anxiety often includes morning and evening routines with readings, journaling, and a worry management game plan. Deep breathing also is recommended as that skill is accessible on demand to curb bouts of intense physiological anxiety.

Telling your body to calm down during high levels of anxiety driven by body chemistry seldom works. However, engaging in diaphragmatic breathing can help settle the mind and body. Through therapy and homework, many clients have positive changes and feel more confident managing their anxiety after about 10 weeks of treatment.


However, the same clients often end up in my office after 10 months to two years suffering from anxiety and feeling they can no longer cope. When asked if they are doing their daily homework, they always answer, “No, because I was feeling good and did not think I needed to do it.” So we repeat the plan because it worked before.

Like physical health, if you want to maintain or strengthen mental health, you must focus on and act on it regularly.

Mental fitness is not about mental illness

The challenge with getting employers and employees to protect mental health is they confuse it with mental illness. About one in five employees in every workplace has a mental illness, and three out of four struggle to manage their emotions, often referred to as languishing (e.g., feeling blah). Languishing is a mental state that inhibits one’s ability to enjoy life to their full potential.

Mental fitness is about creating daily actions to educate and promote positive thinking and habits. It is not about being happy 24-7; it is about developing the reserves and capacity to cope with life’s setbacks and drains. We can learn how to live well, even when unwell, as everyone has negative experiences and emotions. These moments of adversity and stress are a part of the human condition. Mental fitness can help deal with life stressors and adversity.

Tips to stay focused on mental fitness:

Identity matters. Mental health begins with determining if you want to be physically and mentally healthy. If you do, that does not mean you know how. Mental health, resiliency, and mental fitness can be taught and through learning, practice, and new habits, a person can learn how to positively impact their mental health. Someone with diabetes may need medication to regulate their condition, but to have good health, they must pay attention to their daily habits. The same goes for an individual with a mental illness. They must focus daily and develop skills and practices that promote their mental health.

Anticipate mind tricks. The mind is a powerful tool, but it is lazy. It looks for ways to save energy all the time. When we are tired, our mind may suggest exchanging something good for us for something easier. Many people stop doing what got them healthy because of micro-decisions that break habit patterns and, after a few days, put them off course from their daily practices. Anticipate mind tricks by creating a daily accountability log of the things that promote physical and mental health. Missing a day is not a big deal, provided you resume your daily practice the next day or as soon as possible.

There is no finish line. People who have adopted physical health and make it a priority have accepted the benefits of living with health and vitality increased by daily choices and actions and that physical health is a wise choice. Getting past stigma and educating workers and leaders that mental fitness helps create a mindset and mental energy to create positive emotions, healthy choices, and energy to live the best we can require habits that promote mental health.

Dr. Bill Howatt is the Ottawa-based president of Howatt HR Consulting.

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