When “45’s” official mental health exam returned with a perfect score, it raised some serious eyebrows including my own. Really? Perfect, huh? I’m thinking, maybe I need to check my own mental state. The way my life rolls as a wife, mom, educator, and athlete, I can’t afford to lose my mental, spiritual, and emotional peace for any reason. It could happen. Shoot, it HAS happened. I reflect on tough moments during my triathlon season when my nerves were frayed like split ends. There were countless times when I needed the support to keep going when everything in me was confirming that it was completely ok to stop. Times, when I’ve counted on my swim coach Traci (an English Channel marathon swimmer) to say just the right thing to nudge me forward.
One day — when my mind was incapable, yet my body was perfectly fine — Coach Traci said, “Alright now, Shaunna. Get your head screwed on straight and get to work.” After giving her the side eye, I literally took a deep breath and repeated incessantly: “Smooth is slow, and slow is fast…greater is HE that’s within me, than he that’s in the world…I can do all things….”. That worked. Instead of following my first instinct to avoid a long swim course in rough, choppy water, I did it twice in one day – about 1600 meters swimming.
I don’t know about “45”, but I’ve developed an arsenal of tools to help with my mental fitness. In addition to the words from my swim coach, I started creating a list of swim mantras. I read a book entitled, The Brave Triathlete: Calm the F*ck Down and Rise to the Occasion (Marshall & Paterson, 2017) that explained brain function in practical ways that made sense to me. I cultivated my yoga practice. I connected with a highly recommended sports psychologist that worked with Ironman triathletes. In other words, I spent almost as much time working on my mental fitness as I did my physical fitness.
Here are ways you can, too:
1. Eat well.
I mean, duh. We should do that anyways. However, there’s a grocery list of food that you should have at your disposal on a regular basis to promote brain health. Stacy Winters, BS, BSN, registered nurse and ACE Certified Health Coach says, “Food high in omega fatty acids are great. Salmon, egg whites, and avocado are excellent. Don’t forget to keep a stash of nuts and berries, especially blueberries and walnuts. Surprisingly, dark chocolate is also helpful.” Don’t you worry, Stacy. I’ve got that dark chocolate on lock.
You’d be surprised how many of my students KNOW when I’ve worked out and when I haven’t. If I’m having a particularly stressful day, my students will ask me, “Dr. Gold, did you run today?” knowing full well the answer to that question based on my attitude (or lack thereof). I guarantee you, exercise helps with attitude adjustments, mental clarity, and processing of perceived emotional challenges. Run, walk, dance or try a Tabata routine!
If you haven’t tried it, you should think about it. Light Watkins, author of Inner Gym and Bliss More: How to Succeed in Meditation Without Really Trying, argues that “meditation is the most effective way to remove stress, which is what can disable our innate ability to be present and see things as they are.” And let’s be clear – once in a while ain’t enough. Watkins says, “…it’s not enough to meditate once every now and then. Like physical training, we need to exercise regularly in order to see consistent results.” So let’s keep meditating. Even small spurts of time make an impact. Chile, 10 good minutes sitting in the blessed quietness of my car before walking in to pick up my boys from daycare can change my whole demeanor. New to meditating? Try this 10-minute version for beginners.
4. Find your mantra.
Having an arsenal of mantras, affirmations, or scriptures can also have a grounding effect, despite whatever changing circumstances surround your situation. Yoga has helped me with this, but think more about phrases that come to you quickly and reframe your perspective in positive ways. Check out one of my older columns, “8 Quotes to Get You Through”, to snag one for yourself. Whatever your mantras are, find them, memorize them, and internalize them for the tough moments.
For those of us who are proverbial superwomen, this may be the most difficult task of them all. Yet, just like we keep routine schedules concerning important matters, sometimes relaxation must be scheduled in. Schedule in that pedicure once a month. Make an appointment at the spa once a quarter. Pencil in that appointment (with YOURSELF) at Starbucks once a week. Whatever form of relaxation works for you, don’t be willy-nilly about “when and if” it will happen because I guarantee you it won’t happen if you don’t prioritize the time.
Research proves it over and over again. The less sleep you get, the worse your brain functions. One of my favorite social media stars, entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk always says, “I don’t care how long you sleep. What matters is what you do with the hours when you’re awake.” True, right? But do aim for 7-10 hours a night when you can.
7. Find support.
Just like I need Coach Traci, you need at least one person your life who helps you to reframe your fear, frustration, anxieties, or raw emotions. This person may be your BFF or a licensed professional, but whoever it is — get someone who can support you. Just as you need a medical doctor for routine check ups, a professional can also help with routine sessions for support.
Mental fitness is not a game; it’s a necessity. Let’s tighten up our mental stamina, so that our hearts and minds are just as strong as our bodies.
Dr. Shaunna Payne Gold writes monthly for Crush Magazine AND…she’s a U.S. Masters Swimming Certified Coach, Triathlete, Marathoner, Author, Blogger, Educator, & BoyMom, Owner & Founder of SHEro Athletics, LLC.