How building a mental fitness plan can facilitate prosocial coping skills

By: Bill Howatt

What’s your go-to coping strategy when under intense stress?

Most strategies fall under one of three categories:

  • Prosocial—These give you the energy to push through life’s challenges. Strategies include connecting with a family member, exercising, spending time with a pet, and practising mindfulness (e.g., meditation).
  • At-risk—These strategies can appear to give immediate relief, but they come with a risk to health. For example, eating to cope with stress can result in gaining body fat that can put you at risk of obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
  • Help-seeking behaviours—These strategies use professional resources to help with problem-solving. You don’t need to be experiencing a crisis in order to make an appointment with a psychologist, social worker, professional therapist, or employee assistance counsellor. These resources can also be used for prevention.

The Conference Board of Canada and Mental Health Commission of Canada recently completed research that suggests a significant percentage of the population, when feeling concerned about life circumstances, is likely to engage in at-risk behaviours. For a closer look at these findings, read the issue briefing Pandemic Pulse Check: COVID-19’s Impact on Canadians’ Mental Health.
A mental fitness plan can reduce your risk of experiencing a mental health challenge, developing an addictive disorder, or engaging in at-risk activities to cope with stress.

How to build a mental fitness plan

Be clear on why it’s good for your mental health. Much like you’d make energetic activities part of a physical fitness plan, plan to focus on prosocial behaviours, such as practising gratitude and journalling, to build resiliency and energy. Energy drains can happen without warning. This plan should help manage them.

Step 1: Get your mental fitness baseline

Complete the Mental Fitness Index, an online, confidential assessment tool that will generate your mental fitness baseline score. The Conference Board of Canada and Workplace Safety and Prevention Services (WSPS) Ontario can provide you free access to this tool. Your data will be protected and only aggregated with that of all participants.

Step 2: Chart current energy chargers

Four areas can positively impact mental fitness. Be mindful of what you have in place:

  • Environment—Financial health, job security, access to healthcare and psychological supports, psychological safety at work and home, shelter, and food are positive factors. If any of these aren’t in place or are a concern, it can be an energy drain.
  • Physical health—The mind–body connection is important. One of the best things to do for mental health is to take care of physical health through exercise, diet, sleep, and positive lifestyle choices. Note your positive habits that promote physical health.
  • Mental fitness—Prosocial coping skills support mental health. These include formal mental fitness practices like meditation, mindfulness, daily journalling, and walking your dog.
  • Social connections—The people we surround ourselves with can be a positive or negative charge. Having authentic connections we value and enjoy (e.g., a loving partner) supports mental health. Closing social connection gaps in work and home is an excellent way to reduce isolation and loneliness.

Step 3: Create draft one

Make a first draft of your plan by writing out what you have in place for each positive and challenge noted in the first two steps.

Then, pick one challenge area you’d like to improve. Provided you’re motivated and believe that improving this area could also improve your energy, plan how you’ll address it. If you don’t have the knowledge and skills to do it on your own, seek support from a professional, family member, or friend.

A mental fitness plan doesn’t need to be complicated. Start small. Be intent that what you’re doing is charging your mental fitness, and that you’re undoing behaviours that are draining or putting your health at risk. By taking one area to improve at a time and focusing on maintaining all the positives, you’ll have a user-friendly formula for promoting mental health.