Few of us, if asked the question, would say that we didn’t want to be fitter. What this means will differ from person to person, depending on where you are starting from, but there is a consensus that better fitness is a good thing and that it means more than just physical fitness. Fitness and wellbeing are connected, and a healthy body and mind relationship sits at the heart of a conception of modern health. Emotional wellbeing is a welcome by-product of improving physical fitness. As we improve our physical health and look better, we begin to feel better, or that is the hope at least.
It all makes instinctive good sense. Even if we don’t know the theory behind it, we experience ourselves as body and mind together. Brands and health spas and magazine articles talk to us about being and feeling healthier in body and mind, and in so doing enforce a separation that does not resonate with how we experience ourselves, which is both, and all of the time. What we are less capable at or less able to tolerate, is being able to tune into what’s actually being felt in our bodies. Many psychological problems have immediate correlations in the body. Whether consciously or unconsciously, what we feel and what we do with those feelings is happening not only in the mind, but also in the body, from chronic muscle tightening and tension, clenching of the jaw, tensing of the belly, swallowing down emotion to holding our breath. You’ve probably being doing some of this as you have been reading; I have certainly been doing it as I’ve been writing.
So the mind and body are in it together, and yet we seem more willing to invest in our bodies (and hope that the emotions get a positive pay off) than we do our mental health. Why might that be? The health and fitness industry is both more visible and accessible and more consumable and less stigmatised. There is status in telling someone that we are seeing a personal trainer, and stigma still in telling someone that we are seeing a therapist. Fitness now, especially with the explosion of group based and outdoor fitness clubs can give us a powerful sense of belonging. Exercise can have real mental health benefits. Christina Hibbert's , 8 Keys to Mental HealthThrough Exercise explains it well and shows us how. It can be a brilliant adjuct to psychotherapy (for some maybe even an alternative), but for most it can’t replace the beneficial role of therapy.
Compare the raft of positive associations around building physical fitness to the common perception of sitting alone with a therapist raking through one’s pain. It certainly doesn’t generate the same kind of emotional traction. This is beginning to change, attitudes to mental health and therapy are evolving slowly, more people know people who have seen a therapist, and the cultural discourse is shifting away from mental ‘illness’ (some people of course are seriously mentally ill) towards the experiencing of some degree of emotional distress, anxiety, depression, malaise, withdrawal, anger, trauma, dis-order as an inevitable part of being human and alive. I’m choosing to see those people who are choosing to improve their emotional fitness as part of a powerful and positive movement. Should we choose to belong to it, we are richly rewarded. Rewarded because we feel better in ourselves, about ourselves and around others. Rewarded because through that can come a righteous new kudos. Imagine a gathering of some sort, a status and accomplishment driven conversation, to which you can smugly add, ‘yes but are you emotionally fit?’
Emotional fitness doesn’t have a fixed outcome, like losing 6lb, running a 5K or upping your one rep max, but it does have a powerful general aim, beautifully described by Nick Totton and Em Edmonson as greater freedom of choice and spaciousness. Greater freedom of choice because in understanding ourselves better, what we feel, why we feel it (or resist it) or why we subsequently behave as we do, we are equipping ourselves with a powerful awareness and can choose to change how we feel and how we behave. Greater spaciousness, because if we can shift and feel through the negative, troubling, intrusive or distressing feelings that burden us, then we can make room for something else, something better for us. We can re-shape ourselves from the inside out.
There are some fantastically innovative organisations, like MAC-UK, that are bringing positive mental health interventions to the streets, addressing chronic issues around accessibility, and being robust and flexible and responsive to the challenges we face as a society. All of this momentum is good, and makes space for therapy, not as something you do because there’s necessarily something ‘wrong’ with you, but because there isn’t a person alive who couldn’t benefit from doing some work on themselves. If each of us sorts more of our own shit out, then we might stop passing the emotional fallout of that shit on. We pass it on in our behaviours towards each other and towards the places and spaces that need to sustain us. Dare I say it? More therapy might just make the world a better place.
Where the quest for emotional fitness differs from the journey towards physical fitness is in the idea of pushing or punishing oneself to achieve the gains. I'm a psychotherapist, I won’t lie, facing your emotional ‘stuff’ isn’t easy, and it takes some courage, sometimes lots of courage, but the work must never put us at war with ourselves. At its best this is the ultimate journey of compassion and unconditional positive self-regard. The kindest thing we can do for ourselves, perhaps, is to build our emotional fitness.