Two years ago I lost 15 lbs in 4 short weeks due to stress. I had just experienced a sudden and drastic change in my personal business landscape, and my body’s rapid degradation was a reflection of the turmoil in my mind.
It was incredibly disturbing and difficult to deal with in the moment, and it took the better part of a year to come out the other side. It was through dedicated daily effort, support from community, friends, and loved ones, and consistent exercise that I am now living a healthier, happier life.
I share this because I struggle with mental health. I believe we all do to varying degrees.
This isn’t an accusation; it is an observation - a realistic self-assessment of my personal ups and downs, as well as the experience of engaging with the diverse set of humans going through their own struggles at my gym on a consistent basis.
So the bad news is mental health is something just about all of us have to face. The good news is each and every one of us can manage it. We first have to acknowledge that we each have our own struggles, and then take action to stay positive and find the joy in small things every day.
That said, no one is perfectly happy. We face stress from work and relationships, societal pressures, physical health issues, financial strain, mixed with a daunting drive to find meaning in it all. It’s exhausting and frightening, but it’s also exciting. This messiness is what can make life such an incredible adventure filled with endless potential. It’s all about perspective.
If you don’t think you have any issues and are 100% happy and healthy, going about every day with a positive attitude, I still encourage you to read on so you can develop empathy for people you interact with on a daily basis.
What is mental health?
Mental health is all about our psychological well being: cognitive, behavioral, and emotional.
A balanced lifestyle - incorporating the love of friends and family, our work, exercise, and leisure - leads to good mental health. Too much emphasis on any one area and we’ll tip the scales out of balance and start to feel the effects.
We can become burned out quickly if exposed to constant stress at work; a lack of fulfillment if we’re focused on the wrong values; feelings of lethargy if we don’t exercise; anxiety if we never take a step back to spend time with friends and family - especially if we’re not able to get outside to recharge.
What are some of the roadblocks to good mental health?
Instant gratification and comparing ourselves to others.
We all want things now and forget that there is value in working for our goals. This is exacerbated by a number of things.
Same day shipping? Amazon Prime has you covered. Confirmation we’re amazing? Post to social media and feel the dopamine release as the “likes” flood in. Weight loss? Choose from the endless options of quick fix diets, fasts, or juice cleanses. But what happens on day 13 of a 12-day juice cleanse? We revert back to old habits so we gain the weight back. We forget that it took us a year or two or five to gain the weight we now want to lose overnight.
How to deal with instant gratification: embrace the journey.
The reward is in the growth process, not the goal itself. If we’re too focused on the end result we won’t live in the moment. We don’t actually learn about ourselves or take time to reflect on why we’re trying to change.
This short term kind of thinking has a negative effect on our psychological wellbeing. We spend time and energy chasing from one thing to the next, always trying to “arrive” instead of being present and embracing the journey.
How to deal with comparing ourselves to others: be vulnerable.
We’re living in a world where it is more and more difficult to share how we’re truly feeling, especially when we’re down. Social media highlight reels show us the best of everyone’s lives: curated, filtered, cropped, and shared to showcase a fairytale existence.
If we compare ourselves to this perfect version of others, it’s hard to feel happy with ourselves. We start to chase other people’s goals or try to earn admiration and acceptance from people we don’t even know.
During the struggles I faced last year I allowed myself to be vulnerable. I shared with my girlfriend, friends, and family about the anxiety and self-doubt. It was hard to open up, but I felt better by acknowledging it, and the love and support helped immensely.
What’s one more tip to lead healthier, happier life? Exercise.
Working out has a number of benefits, physically and mentally. Without getting into the science weeds of increased metabolism, lowered risk of heart disease, reduced anxiety, and improved sleep, know that the brain releases chemicals during and after exercise that will improve your emotional state.
Plus you’ll feel more confident because you are physically capable of more. Running faster, lifting more weights, being able to move better.
So put in the effort with exercise each week. Enjoy the improved psychological wellbeing from the release of endorphins during the workout, the afterglow of serotonin when you’re done, and the increased confidence. See your slow progress as exactly that: progress.
There is stigma that any health issue with a title is bad. That they are something to shy away from, to hide from ourselves and our family, which only exacerbates the issue. We need to understand that we are not alone in facing emotional struggles. The earlier we acknowledge that we need a little personal improvement, the earlier we can make change and maintain a healthy, balanced life.
Struggle is a common part of human existence. Without it we couldn’t learn from tough situations, from failure. We wouldn’t value when things are really good. Struggle gives us the opportunity to find joy in small things.
Look for connection in person, not through a screen. Online connections aren’t as fulfilling as genuine direct human relationships. Interacting with real people in the real world will lend perspective that you’re not the only one going through the struggles of daily life.
Here’s your one action: take a 20+ minute unplugged walk every evening with a friend or significant other. No phones or devices. Use the time to be vulnerable and share. Once the conversation gets going you’ll be amazed how many people close to you are feeling similar things. This has been big for me as I’ve worked on becoming more balanced in my life.
So focus on being your best self. Surround yourself with positive, like-minded people that push you out of your comfort zone when you’re complacent and support you when you’re down. Celebrate your mini-wins.
And remember, exercise is the only thing in life that is truly fair. You went to the gym or on a run today, or you didn’t. You did the workout and gave it your all, or you sat on your phone and scrolled social media for 5 minutes between sets. And the results reflect that. You make progress or you don’t.
I still go through my own ups and downs so recognize that even with mental health we don’t ever “arrive”, it’s a journey in itself. With the tips I’ve shared I’ve been able to lead a consistently happier, more fulfilled life and embrace the process.
Nothing in life worth having comes easy. Work for your success, embrace failure, learn from mistakes, and share the messiness of life with loved ones. We’re all in this together.
- Written by The Nate Chambers, co-found and positivity guru at Project 13 Gyms