It's Time We Look at Mental Health the Same as Physical Health

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A Marine plays the guitar as a way to manage everyday stress.
U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Chase Hudgens, a motor transport operator with 2nd Transportation Support Battalion, 2nd Marine Logistics Group, plays the guitar as an example of how to cope with everyday stress during the Building the Warrior Within Expo at Marston Pavilion on Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, Sept. 24, 2019. (Cpl. Ashley Gomez/U.S. Marine Corps photo)

When it comes to fitness, active people take a day off at least once a week. I prefer the mobility day when I need a day to recover from a previous series of difficult workouts.

Why not also take a mental health day when you need one?

A term many in the fitness world use is “actively pursuing recovery” in order to avoid overtraining. Overtraining or under-recovery (whichever you prefer to call it) is real and can be avoided by pulling back from overly stressful workouts, proper nutrition, a good night’s sleep, deep breathing/meditation and taking time to relax. Our brain needs the same recovery as we give our biceps. Take a rest day for your brain and don’t feel weak because you need one.

In the military, human performance programs are growing in popularity. Special Operations Command recently made a $500 million investment in the "Preservation of the Force and Family (POTFF) Resiliency and Human Performance Programs." These programs deal with issues special operators have to face, including mental stress.

The stigma of mental health is being addressed by the military, but there still is a stigma tied to it. We also have to address mental health ourselves and start training and treating the brain just like the way we do our bodies.

Just Like a Cooldown and Stretch, We Need to Decompress

Just as we should do a cooldown and stretch after a workout, there are some days that we need to decompress the mind. We do not think of it as "weakness" if we stretch after a workout. We should not think of it as weakness when we need to decompress after a stressful day or event.

This type of day or event could be a typical administrative stressful day at work, or it could be one of the many things first responders and military members experience that is traumatic and life-threatening. Sometimes, we just see too much and need a day to sort it out. Sometimes, we do not have that luxury of taking a day off, so you have to learn how to deal with these events immediately.

Understand that the brain needs to sort out the life-or-death situation you either witnessed or personally experienced. Otherwise, it will keep intruding in your thoughts until you find that mental filing cabinet for it. A skill known as “Name It and Tame It” starts the healing process mentally. By addressing it and giving the situation a name (both verbally and written), you can help start to tame something that could be an obtrusive thought or flashback for years.

You can do this with bad dreams as well, which will help you get back to sleep faster.

Take a day off when possible; get a light workout done; focus on deep breathing; relax; consume healthy foods and drinks; and get enough sleep. The balance of all the above is the physiological way to deal with stressful days.

If you do not have a day, take a few minutes and meditate or breathe deeply (box breathing -- four seconds inhale, four seconds hold, four seconds exhale, four seconds hold). This is powerful. Try it while taking a shower. Close your eyes, letting the water fall on your head and shoulders while you focus on your breathing.

Take a quick nap, if possible. This is how the brain recharges.

Talk to People or Write it Down

You need to have a person to talk to. Perhaps a veteran family member or friend or co-worker, just so you can express those thoughts and images in your head, discuss it and move on from it. Actually, using a pen and writing what is on your mind down on paper is another way to express yourself. Do not be scared to share that writing with someone you trust. This process can help you get the help you may need.

Disclosure and Professional References

I am a fitness writer, not a psychologist. But comparing the two aspects of human performance (mental and physical health) to each other gives us the opportunity we need as a society and large organization (Defense Department and first responders) to destigmatize mental health and post-traumatic stress. Mental health issues can become chronic if not handled immediately, just as overtraining can become chronic and injurious if not dealt with immediately after a stressful series of workouts.

The following sections can provide you with more professional assistance with mental health, post-traumatic stress, self-medicating and self-help recovery strategies.

Mental recovery/health references:

Get head strong -- Military and veteran assistance

Mental health disorders

Even pulse -- Resilience training

Physical recovery/health references:

Importance of sleep for recovery

Sleep ritual -- Help yourself get to sleep better

If you or someone you know needs help, the Veterans Crisis Line is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, at 800-273-8255, press 1. Services also are available online at www.veteranscrisisline.net or by text, 838255.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you’re looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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