Last month I talked about how learning about mental fitness helped me to gain a new perspective on how the brain develops and this month I’m going to share some of the exercises and practices that I believe have helped me become less stressed, more open, make better decisions and be more understanding.

Whether others feel the same is for them to judge, but I hope that learning more about myself and how I operate, has had a positive impact on my relationships with friends and work colleagues.

I should start with a caveat; I am not a neuroscientist, nor a trained counsellor or psychotherapist. I am someone who has learned some of the practical ways in which mental fitness has worked for me. If this is of interest, I will gladly share some of the books and articles I have read on the subject.

How does mental fitness work?

One of the easiest analogies for how mental fitness works is to imagine that neural pathways are like the ruts you see in the countryside made by tractors repeatedly going along the same track. As the tractor runs over the same ground, the ruts get deeper and more embedded until no other vehicles can drive along that path. The pathway becomes ingrained and eventually the ruts are so deep that the tractor will run along the path without needing to be steered.

In a similar way, have you ever driven on a regular journey you have made many times, only to realise when you arrived that you don’t remember anything about how you got there? Or another example is watching how fast people write messages on their phones without even looking.

The reason for this is that the neural pathway of instructions, the thought pattern if you like, has been repeated many times. Hence that neural pathway is reinforced and the thinking becomes automatic.

What’s the problem with automatic thinking?

While automatic thinking can be a good thing, it is important to be aware of what our routines are and what pathways we may be reinforcing that we would rather change. This is especially important when it causes us to automatically react in ways that may be unhelpful.

As you build mental fitness, you develop the awareness to identify options, rather than jumping into the activity impulsively. You learn to ask yourself questions; what outcome would I like? What options do I have in terms of how I react? What will be the impact of my actions on myself and others?

Asking these questions allows you the time and the space to consider and therefore ‘choose’ your response on purpose, rather than your automatic pilot taking over.

Positive Intelligence reps

I learned one of the most effective brain exercises for overcoming situations where you would rather suppress automatic thinking from the Positive Intelligence site. It teaches a simple method of creating what they call ‘PQ (positive intelligence quotient) reps’. These are triggers that help you take positive control of your thoughts and actions. It could be by counting to five, or by listening intensely to a particular sound or a visual PQ rep, such as looking in fine detail at a simple object nearby.

One of mine, for example, I use when driving. If I am stuck in traffic or someone cuts me up or is being hesitant at a busy junction, rather than get stressed and flustered, I focus intently on the rear lights of the car in front. I don’t just look at them, I study them, as some are quite interesting – not just red plastic, but a kaleidoscope of patterns. What this exercise does is make me take control of my own thoughts rather than let my automatic brain take over.

I can then remind myself that the best outcome is for everyone to get where they want to go safely and that getting stressed will not help that outcome. There could be any number of reasons behind the scenario: there has been an accident; or someone is rushing to get to an emergency; the hesitant driver might be someone driving on their own for the first time; maybe an elderly person who shouldn’t be driving, but is desperate to maintain their independence. Why would I want to hassle any of these people and make them more stressed?

Getting physically fit by getting mentally fit

Getting to the gym can be a chore. Often the duvet is a more attractive option, especially on cold, dark winter mornings. To help me get going I have developed a PQ rep that is simply clenching my fist three times and focusing on how that feels. As in the driving example, this gives me control of my mind and I can remind myself that the positive feeling I get from taking exercise is always worth the effort, as are the results of being fit and healthy.

Once this rational thought is established in my mind over the desire to hit the snooze button, getting up is simple, straightforward, and obviously the sensible thing to do.

These kind of PQ reps or triggers can be used for any situation where you want to pre-empt what will be an initial negative reaction. You will already have some – biting your lip, counting to 10, etc. If you can build a repertoire of triggers for a variety of situations it can have significant benefits.

Next time, I will discuss some of the ways positive mental fitness can help teams.