Why is it that we intuitively appreciate that to be in good physical shape requires some form of physical exercise, yet expect good mental shape to be pre-programmed? We don’t usually wait until we have Type II diabetes before we start moving, but it often takes a catastrophic event such as a breakdown or depression before we consider mental health.
Mental health. There is a stigma attached to those two words that immediately make most people switch off. Many agree that mental health is an important topic, but not one that is relevant to them. There is probably an element of protecting one’s self-esteem here, with the perception that if you are working on your mental health, there must be something wrong to begin with. There is something wrong, but it isn’t you.
There is a pretty strong argument to be made that the society we live in today is broken. Of course, there are many great things about being alive today, but we certainly are not living in accordance with how humans have evolved. Today we are exposed to chronic psychological stressors which our bodies have not biologically adapted to cope with. The purpose of the hormonal stress response is to prepare the resources of the body in preparation for crisis. But what happens when the body is constantly in the ‘flight-or-fight’ mode associated with imminent threat? Constant exposure to stressors and over-activation of this stress response (allostatic load) is associated with inflammatory disease and negative mental health outcomes.
We are not supposed to be working 9 to 5 jobs for numbers on a screen that can turn into bits of paper, without which we cannot obtain the food, clothes and shelter necessary for our survival. We are not designed to live in this materialistic, disciplinarian, and hierarchy-based society, where fear and force maintains power and superiority over the people. Smart phones, computers and social media is all pervasive at the expense of actual human interaction, play, and social connection. A lifestyle of convenience has come at the expense of movement and physical activity. The consumerist culture we are a part of pervades every strand of our existence, with the daily marketing, advertising and mental inputs bringing never-ending social pressures and expectations.
We didn’t have a chance, but now look at us. We are addicted to Instagram and Facebook, seek constant validation from our peers, compelled to conceal weaknesses in self-image, tend towards narcissistic and egocentric behaviours. We are under pressure to attain the ‘perfect body’, to earn more money, to possess the latest piece of fashion and technology, we are disconnected from the food we eat and from the earth that we live in. No wonder we have problems!
In the professional football environment, the effects of the various pressures and high expectations are evident. Players are under huge pressure to perform from coaches, parents, themselves. Then you bring money into the equation, sand the media attention, and you have all the ingredients for psychological struggles. Yet, what coping strategies do professional athletes have to deal with these extraordinary circumstances? It is easy to be flippant about professional athletes who earn a living from sport and are the envy of many, but they are normal people like the rest of us. The perception and idealisation of athletes as being in peak physical condition perhaps even adds to the stigma of mental health, making problems more difficult to manage.
‘Mental health has a stigma that is tied into weakness and is absolutely the antithesis of what athletes want to portray.’ Dr. Thelma Dye Holmes
I’m not suggesting that we abandon professional sport or our modern way of living and swap our iPhones for chisels and a cave. But we should hone our mental health in order to thrive in today’s world. Whether you feel stressed right now or not, mental health development is important, and with the possible exceptions of the Zen masters amongst us, you are not immune to the environmental and societal stress of the 21st Century.
Mental health problems come in many different shapes and size. They can come in the form of depression, anxiety, eating disorders, bipolar, compulsive behaviours. Symptoms can present in a more subtle fashion with mood swings, feelings of hopelessness, feeling overwhelmed, lack of motivation or drive. Emotional and psychological trauma can also manifest in physical pain, in the form of a psychosomatic or conversion disorder. Similarly, it is understood that psychological factors play a significant role in chronic pain.
The first step in cultivating mental health is awareness about what mental health is, and understanding that everything we do is influenced by our mental wellbeing. We need to make mental health development as normal as physical health development.
Join us for a month of mental health at Feed Me Strength, where we will unravel different aspects of mental wellbeing. We will provide a primer on mental health development, and explore practical tools and strategies towards a healthier mind. What consumes your mind controls your life, so let’s nourish it.
Cairbre is the face behind Feed Me Strength. Currently the Head Strength and Conditioning coach for Arsenal Women FC. He has a passion for athletic performance and an endless curiosity about the inner workings of the body and mind.
UKSCA accredited, with a Sport and Exercise Sciences BSc, and Sports Performance MSc from the University of Limerick.