What if we had the same belief that our mental strength could be developed in a similar way to our physical health?
Fiona Gray, School Counsellor at Sydenham High School, GDST, on successfully navigating the emotional rollercoaster of life through developing mental fitness
Our physical wellbeing can be understood on a spectrum that we must intentionally and holistically engage. It takes time to build strength to run a marathon, it takes energy to meal prep and plan a healthy diet, sometimes requiring the support of professionals when we are unwell, and rest to recover and restore our bodies. What about our mental health?
One of the most phenomenal parts of our brains is neuroplasticity, which is the quality that allows our brain to rewire and retrain itself to respond in different ways. This feature remains present throughout our entire lives. We have the ability to develop emotional resilience, strength, and mental fitness.
The summertime exam season sees anxiety and stress appear as particularly prominent emotional responses. From preparation and revision, to the exam itself and finally receiving grades afterwards, this time period holds a whole rollercoaster of emotions. It is important that we are training our brains how to engage and move through these experiences of stress and anxiety with kindness and grace. We cannot avoid these emotions, however, we can develop tools to use to move through them well.
A second important quality of our brain is that neurons that fire together, wire together. In short, repetition can reinforce beliefs. We can play with our brains – if every time you sit down at your desk you think “ugh I hate studying, I am so bad at it.” Your brain will start to pair seeing your desk with negative self-talk. However, instead you could try pairing seeing your desk with a cup of tea, or a motivational quote, or an inspiring song. This can feel silly, but soon your brain will rewire in a new way, which might make a small shift in your experience leaving you feeling more positive.
Our thoughts, feelings and actions are all connected. If negative self-talk becomes paired with an experience it can then also impact our feelings and actions. The shift might be a subtle change in language, but can have a ripple effect into shifting the way you feel and behave. An example could be if you can switch a thought from “I am never going to be able to understand this, it’s too hard” to “this is the feeling of me working hard and being diligent, I’ve understood hard concepts before and my brain can do it again.” The shift in sentences is small, and does not change the circumstances, but does change how you feel towards yourself.
During exam season, many individuals wrestle with experiences of comparison. Although comparing can be a helpful tool, when it helps us to expand the way in which we see how others live or engage the world, it can also becoming a toxic experience. When we compare our self to others, we measure our own success against someone else’s failure. Research has found if we switch our ‘comparing’ thought patterns to motivational thought patterns, by encouraging those around us, it releases oxytocin and adrenaline. These helpful chemicals lower our own anxiety and increase our sense of warmth and connection to others.
A common symptom of anxiety is feeling out of control. During a season of more elevated anxious feelings it can be helpful to find healthy ways for us to engage a sense of control and autonomy. For example control can be achieved through minor choices such as picking music for the car ride or choosing what we’ll cook for dinner in the evening, and allows us to more consciously interact with this need, rather than the lack of it impacting other areas of our lives.
Training for a sporting event, or recovering from an injury, we know that our bodies take time to strengthen. It takes practice, and we build up muscle over time. Further, we know that training our bodies physically requires holistic care – from nutrition, training, resting, stretching, and community (such as coaches or supportive family and friends). So let us also apply this to developing our mental strength.