What if I told you that mental fitness is something you can develop in the same way you build your physical fitness?
We hear a lot these days about stress and when we do, the conversation often focuses on avoiding it or managing it. What if that isn’t actually useful?
The best illustration I’ve read highlighting the direct link between mental toughness and performance comes out of a research lab. A team of researchers wanted to look at what made subjects mentally fit or resilient and took some baby chicks into the lab to study their theory. Painting the chicks and grouping them in separate pens, the first group was left alone to interact happily and normally.
The second group was periodically picked up and stressed in a confined space. After the stress, the chick was given time back in their group pen to recuperate. The third group was continually stressed in the confined space, with no recovery time or play opportunity with other chickens. The researchers created three distinct populations with different experiences.
After raising them for a time in this manner, all the painted chicks were placed in buckets of water, with researchers timing their struggle until drowning. I know, this sounds just awful.
The chicks that had been continually stressed drowned almost immediately; they just had no hope in the face of hardship that they could swim. The second group to succumb was comprised of those “happy innocents” in group one who had never been confined and stressed. They didn’t know how to withstand this watery hardship and folded in the face of it. The last swimmers fighting to make it were the chicks from the stress adaptation group.
Somehow, the confinement stressors followed by time to recover had rendered them stronger and able to swim and survive much longer than their peers. This group was resilient; they had experienced hardship before and believed they had a chance to make it and recover. They had those past mastery experiences to rely on, and they just fought to keep swimming.
Stress has a purpose. Stress is opportunity. It’s meant to teach us to swim!
Responding well to stress requires high functional capacity of your brain’s frontal cortex. This area of our brain houses something called our working memory capacity, which helps us with both emotional regulation (being able to think and not just react) and upper-level cognition (focus). We can improve that capacity with the use of some well-studied, relatively simple exercises.
Think about the last time you experienced stress. I always think back to those really awkward years – for me it was 13 – and last week. Think about that age, standing in the middle of the school lunchroom with your meal tray. As you gaze over top of your sandwich, anemic vegetables, and cookie snack pack, you anxiously wonder who will make room for you at their table.
What happened in your body at that moment? Maybe your heart sped up, you started breathing fast, your face flushed – your body fires off a full-on stress response. As the stress is registered by your brain, wherever that stress comes from – a chain reaction fires.
Your body releases cortisol, adrenaline, and a host of other chemicals to help you cope. It also releases a hormone called DHEA into your bloodstream. DHEA’s entire role is to help your brain grow from the stressor you just survived. But there’s a catch – DHEA only does its job when you give yourself a post-stressor break.
You need that time to de-escalate your revved up nervous system in order for DHEA to do its brain-building work for you! The hormone increases synaptic firing and neural connectivity (you’ll think faster) and increases working memory capacity (emotional regulation and focus). DHEA is what makes stressful experiences worth your time, but you have to create the space for it to do its work.
Creating this space is the heavy lifting of mental fitness training, and it isn’t as easy as it sounds. If I say rest, self-care, nervous system regulation and you think taking a nap, you’re on the wrong track.
When we are asleep our brain waves are long and slow. We call these delta waves, and our brain is in delta state. When you’re awake and ambulatory, walking and talking in the world you’re in Bets state. What’s interesting for a lot of us in a hyper-stimulated environment is that we find ourselves often entirely on or entirely off, and the place in the middle where DHEA does its building work is theta state.
In this space, you’re at rest, but still aware. Also, your nervous system has space to rebuild and strengthen. So what does a drop in stress hormones and downshifting of the nervous system feel like? Think about the last time you enjoyed an activity or training – when you took a deep breath in and you just felt that “Ahhh!” feeling – even if you were working hard and running up and down trails.
You may find it while running, skiing, doing yoga, getting a deep tissue massage, taking a bubble bath, or even lifting weights. Some people call it a “click,” or a “shift.” Here is where you have to experiment a bit. That moment will look different for everyone, but when you find it, take note.
Do more of it – especially when you’re feeling stressed and overwhelmed. I find it often on a yoga mat. I have a friend who tells me she finds it swimming laps. Now for me, I’m trying not to drown while swimming laps, there is nothing theta state happening for me there! Dedicate the time to finding your practice. What down-shifts your nervous system? Then do it. Ritualize it. Make downshifted moments part of your training routine.
All of us face periods of adversity, and no one is going to ask us if we can swim before the crisis. We have to train for the hard times, and we can. Make a little time for your brain and watch yourself get sharper, smarter, more focused, kinder. You’ll also be ready for the bucket of water.
You need to know how to become mentally fit to be the best student, professional, parent, and friend that you can be. Be the chick that lived well! Train yourself to swim.
A wrote a book on this subject that’s brand new from Praeger – check it out here.
When Giving Thanks, Don’t Forget Yourself
As we give thanks at the holidays, it’s easy to overlook someone important: your past self.
While it’s well documented that gratitude toward others can improve wellbeing, two University of Florida scientists find that gratitude toward your past self also has benefits.
Does thanking yourself seem a bit…selfish? The researchers, UF psychology professor Matt Baldwin, Ph.D., and undergraduate student Samantha Zaw, think not.
“Despite the fact that past gratitude is self-focused, it reminds people that they’re part of a bigger story and that they have the power to grow,” Baldwin said. “It’s possible this promotes a pay-it-forward type of mentality.”
Gratitude is what psychologists call a self-transcendent emotion, one that lifts us out of the everyday and expands our perspective, which can help us get along with each other better. In a recent experiment, Baldwin and Zaw asked participants to write brief gratitude letters. The first group thanked someone else, the second thanked themselves, while a third, the control condition, wrote about a positive experience they’d had. Zaw and Baldwin then surveyed the participants about their self-perception after writing the letter. Although the results are not yet published, early analysis shows that the exercise gave the other- and self-focused gratitude groups a sense of redemption and helped them feel they were morally good people. However, the group that wrote to themselves scored higher on both measures.
The past-self group also saw a benefit the others didn’t: an increase in the self-awareness measures of clarity, authenticity and connectedness.
“Unlike gratitude toward others, being appreciative of ourselves carries an added benefit of truly understanding who we are and feeling connected to ourselves,” said Zaw, a McNair Scholar who has been working with Baldwin since her freshman year as part of UF’s Emerging Scholars Program.
Zaw and Baldwin’s research — the first known data gathered on past-self gratitude — was inspired by a Reese’s cup. When Baldwin’s co-worker, boredom researcher Erin Westgate, returned to the office after pandemic lockdown, she was delighted to discover a peanut butter cup she had squirreled away in her desk.
“She texted me like, ‘Oh my gosh, my past self left my future self a Reese’s,’” Baldwin recalled. “I was like, ‘Wait a second. You’re expressing gratitude towards something your past self had done. We have to study this.’”
As Zaw and Baldwin dug into previous studies, they found plenty on gratitude toward others and a few on self-compassion, but nothing on past-self gratitude. They designed the letter-writing experiment to test its effects, presenting their findings at the Society of Southeastern Social Psychologists in October and at the upcoming meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in February.
If you’re curious about the benefits of self-gratitude, Zaw offered a way to try the experiment at home, maybe as a new Thanksgiving tradition. Take a few minutes to write a thank you message to someone else, and another to yourself for something you did in the past. Sharing what you wrote could foster connections between loved ones, she said, but the exercise can also pay dividends if you try it on your own.
“At Thanksgiving and Christmas, we focus on other people, but self-care is really needed too, especially if we want to feel more clear about ourselves,” she said. “Maybe it can even lead to a better vision for ourselves for the next year.”
A Lifeline for Primary Care Amid a Crisis in Youth Mental Health
Most mental health care in America doesn’t happen in psychiatrists’ offices – especially when it comes to children, teens and young adults.
Instead, young people with depression, anxiety and more turn to the same people they already go to for all kinds of other health issues: their pediatricians, family doctors, school-based clinics and other primary care providers.
But where do those providers turn when they need more help in handling the mental health concerns of their patients – especially more serious issues that they’re not trained to handle?
If they’re anywhere in Michigan, they can turn to the team at MC3.
For nearly a decade, the MC3 program has helped thousands of primary care providers throughout the state care for the mental health needs of young people up to age 26. It also aids providers caring for pregnant women and new mothers of any age who have mental health needs.
More than 16,000 times since 2012, MC3’s psychiatrists and pediatric behavior specialists from the University of Michigan have connected directly with more than 1,800 primary care providers by phone, for consultations about their patients.
Together, they’ve mapped out plans for handling ADHD in young children, suicide-prevention safety planning for teens and symptoms that might signal schizophrenia in young adults.
There’s no charge to providers or their patients, thanks to the program’s funding from state and federal grants.
For providers whose patients recently had a mental health emergency or are waiting for an appointment with a child psychiatrist or a psychiatric inpatient bed, the service can literally be a lifeline: one in five of the consults involve a patient who has expressed suicidal thoughts or harmed themselves.
How it Works
MC3 also offers video-based telehealth appointments to connect patients of participating providers with psychiatrists. U-M and Michigan State University experts have also created a wide range of training options for professionals available on the MC3 website.
Though the demand has grown in recent years thanks to the pandemic, the program has room for more Michigan providers to join the network and get access to its services.
Each connection starts by contacting one of the trained professionals in MC3’s network of Behavioral Health Consultants, located throughout the state. MC3 also works closely with the state-funded Community Mental Health agencies across the state.
“Only about 3% of the children, teens, young adults and moms that our participating providers have consulted with us about are in treatment with a psychiatrist. We’re providing access to specialist-informed care to young people who wouldn’t otherwise have it,” said Sheila Marcus, M.D., who heads the pediatric component of MC3 and is a professor of psychiatry at Michigan Medicine, the University of Michigan’s academic medical center.
“The reality is that no matter where they live and no matter what their family’s income level, most of these patients would not have easy access to a specialist because of the critical shortage of such providers,” she added. “In some counties, there are no local providers trained to provide this level of care.”
Primary care providers inside and outside Michigan can also access MC3’s free online resources, even if they’re not enrolled in the program.
These include prescribing guides for mental health medications and online provider education, to equip them to provide diagnosis and care that might not have been part of their formal professional training. Much of that training offers continuing education credits that can help physicians, nurse practitioners, physician assistants and certified nurse midwives keep up their license.
“For me, MC3 has been a game changer,” said Lia Gaggino, M.D., who first interacted with the MC3 team through her pediatrics practice in Portage, Michigan and now is the team’s consulting pediatrician. “Since its inception I have used their services for children and teens who presented with very complicated mental health concerns. I wished I had had a psychiatrist to help me and then MC3 appeared and offered me a lifeline. Their services changed my prescribing practices and improved my skills and I am so grateful for their advice and support. I encourage my colleagues to sign up and call –MC3 is there to help us!”
Local Care Amid a National Emergency
As the nation grapples with a national emergency of rising mental health concerns among young people, MC3 and similar programs in other states are expanding access to critical psychiatric services at a time when demand is soaring.
The national organizations that declared that emergency in October called for more support of mental health care in primary care settings, as well as efforts to overcome the national shortage of mental health specialists for young people, especially in rural and low-income areas.
That shortage is what drove the creation of MC3 in the first place.
Michigan is third from the bottom among all states in supply of mental health professionals for young people. Only Washtenaw County, where the University of Michigan is located, meets national population-based criteria for having enough mental health providers specializing in children and teens.
The pandemic has made matters worse across Michigan and the United States. A national report from November 2020 showed that anxiety and depression in pregnant women have more than doubled, and emergency department visits for mental health concerns in children had risen by double digits since the pandemic began.
Joanna Quigley, M.D., another MC3 consulting psychiatrist from Michigan Medicine, recently presented data at a national meeting showing that 30% of MC3 consults during 2020 focused on pandemic-related concerns.
The pandemic has prompted MC3’s team to plan to offer extra training to help providers identify the needs and handle the concerns of children traumatized by experiences they or their families have had during COVID-19.
Trauma-informed care is also important for children who even before the pandemic experienced very disruptive life events.
Terri Rosel, NP-C, a nurse practitioner at Cherry Health in northern Michigan, wrote to the MC3 team: “I work in a small student health center in Cedar Springs and am the sole provider in the office. Since starting this job four years ago I have had the pleasure of seeing so many students with mental health concerns. I felt ill-equipped at times to help them with my degree as a family practice nurse practitioner. I would utilize MC3 often to help with treatment plans for these wonderful kids who needed help but could not get into psychiatric services soon enough.”
As the program continues to grow, it will partner more with schools through a direct connection with the TRAILS program that offers mental health awareness and support services.
Positive Feedback from Providers
The MC3 team has surveyed participating providers and found that 99% agreed with the statement that “following phone consultation(s) I felt more confident that I could effectively treat patients’ behavioral health problems.”
The team published other findings from its survey of providers, and responded to feedback by making changes.
The quotes they received from providers are equally compelling.
“This service has been absolutely ‘practice- changing’,” said one. “As we have more and more patients with mental health issues and limited local resources- we are essentially the only option for these kids. Having MC3 support helps us make good treatment decisions and is also ‘on the job training’ which we can apply to future patients.”
In fact, MC3 data show that 25% of the interactions help the patient avoid a higher-level of care that may be difficult to access, such as a psychiatric hospital bed or emergency psychiatric visit.
One of the maternal health providers who joined MC3 recently said, “I can’t even express how this service has enhanced the care I can provide. In the past, we’d screen and diagnose and then send moms out. We’d place referrals and hope that folks could navigate the complex system. Now, with MC3, I can collaborate with psychiatry, start meds or treatment, and access community resources that I am confident they will be able to access. It’s really been invaluable.”
America Has an Anger Problem – Can Better “Mental Nutrition” Fix It?
America is a pretty angry place these days. Formerly respectful spaces like school board meetings have become bitter battlegrounds. Some people are harassing healthcare workers and threatening restaurant staff for enforcing COVID protocols. Others are openly furious with the vaccine-hesitant. Everyone, wherever they stand on the (deeply divided) political playing field, is outraged about something.
Sure, anger is part of the human condition, but have things always been this bad? Elaine Parke thinks not—and she has a plan to get America the anger management tools it needs.
“We’ve stopped listening to one another because we’ve become addicted to our own narrow and sometimes selfish points of view,” says Parke, author of “The Habits of Unity: 12 Months to a Stronger America…one citizen at a time” (Outskirts Press, 2021, ISBN: 978-1-9772-4276-1, $21.95, www.12habits4allofus.
“It’s way past time for us to take a collective deep breath and treat others with dignity, respect, and civility—and listen to them—whether we agree or not,” she adds. “It’s urgent that we make this shift now.”
Dialing down our ire is easier said than done. We are living in extraordinarily stressful times. But there’s more at play. Parke says we are shaped by the messages we consistently consume—and in today’s connected world, a lot of those messages come from our digital diet.
“Social media isn’t solely to blame for stoking our emotional flames—in fact, it was designed to be a source of information and to bring people together,” Parke clarifies. “But if your newsfeed is making you an angrier person, it’s on you to either log off for a few days or reassess the kind of content you’re engaging with. When we choose to focus on stories that are positive and nourishing, we go a long way toward resetting our emotional equilibrium.”
Parke’s “The Habits of Unity” is her attempt to help people take charge of what she calls their “Mental Nutrition.” Much in the same way that we (hopefully) approach the food we eat, we need to develop the discipline to make more nutritious mental choices every day. Her book’s 365 “one-magic-minute-a-day” motivationals make it easy to hardwire these choices into habit.
With her simple, doable framework for uplifting ourselves, boosting our mental health, and practicing unity, Parke hopes to get everyone focused on the same branded behavior each month. The idea is that the sheer force of all that concentrated positive energy sparks a unity revolution that rises from the ground up and sweeps the nation.
Yet, until that happens, we can leverage the power of “The Habits of Unity” on a personal level by forming one good habit per month:
January: Help Others
February: You Count
March: Resolve Conflicts
April: Take Care of Our Environment
May: Be Grateful
June: Reach Higher
July: Become Involved
August: Know Who You Are
September: Do Your Best
October: Be Patient and Listen
November: Show a Positive Attitude
December: Celebrate Community, Family, and Friends
Those who’ve tried it say the plan is easy to put into practice. It feels good, so you’ll want to keep doing it. And there’s a ripple effect. As you become more positive, centered, and respectful, others will be drawn to you and your relationships will improve.
“As these ripples expand, they will improve the emotional climate in our country and make it easier to seek common ground, instead of lashing out,” says Parke. “But we can’t sit around waiting for others to take action. Each American must recommit to making our country a welcoming, affirming melting pot—instead of a stewing pot.”
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