Greetings and welcome to Lesson 10 of my ‘Introduction to Mental Fitness’ course. If you are new to the course, check out the introductory post first.
Also a quick reminder that for Flinders students, these lessons can found on our FLO site as well, where you can chat about these lessons privately with other students, as comments left on this blog are visible to the general public.
Welcome to Lesson 10 of the Introduction to Mental Fitness Course.
So far in this course, we’ve explored the motivations for self-improvement, the definition of mental fitness, the conditions required for building mental fitness and some examples of mental fitness in action.
The time is right however to actually start putting into practice some of the ideas that we are talking about. You and I are going to start building our mental fitness.
In the last lesson in the ‘Suggested Tasks’ section I asked you to identify a small lifestyle change you were interested in making that could be used as a mental fitness project. I suggested that you pick something related to one of the 15 areas outlined in this post.
The idea is to pick something relatively simple and small so you can practice the steps of building mental fitness with a low importance, easier change. I’ve chosen the goal of spending more time using my standing desk. This is my standing desk. I plan to use it more each day.
If you are struggling to think of something to focus on, feel free to use one of these simple examples:
- going for a 10 minute walk each day
- drinking an extra litre of water per day
- scheduling specific times during the day to check on social media
Let’s get started
So if you remember back to this post, I said there were three broad conditions that needed to be in place to build mental fitness: Vision/Goal, Attitude/Beliefs, Behaviour.
Each of those can be further broken down into parts.
– Why you want to make the change
– The exact nature of the change you are making
– How you will know if you have succeeded
– Knowledge about the change being made
– Attitude towards the change itself
– Belief that you can actually make the change
– micro goals
– skills and practice
– habit formation
In today’s post we are going to focus on the knowledge part of “Attitudes/ Belief”. To make that extra obvious, I highlighted it in green above.
To make healthy changes in your life, you need to know what healthy changes to make. I call that health and wellbeing knowledge.
Learning about health and wellbeing helps you develop more accurate and helpful attitudes towards pursuing health and wellbeing in your own life.
Now I have the luxury of spending lots of time absorbing knowledge about mental health and wellbeing. It’s my job. I accumulate that knowledge in a few ways – I browse the web, I read research papers, I listen to podcasts, I subscribe to newsletters from reputable mental health sources. I also talk regularly to practising mental health professionals and try to understand the methods and ideas they use to help people.
But you might not have that luxury. If you are doing a medical, health or psychology-related degree then perhaps you are picking up ideas and knowledge along the way, but if you are doing a different topic like engineering, computer science or communication design, then your daily exposure to concepts and ideas around mental health and wellbeing might be fairly limited and what you do encounter might be limited to what you get via the news or social media.
For example, think about where you get most of your health related information. If you are anything like me, you are encountering information from multiple sources:
- What you hear indirectly from TV, radio, web and social media;
- What you are told by health professionals (e.g. our GP);
- What you are explicitly taught in formal courses and programs (degrees, workshops, seminars, online courses);
- Your own personal reading/listening/watching – including the scientific literature, news, books, videos, podcasts;
- What you learn and observe from the people you know – their experiences;
- What you learn and observe from people you don’t know – the experiences of strangers (not connected to us);
- Your own experiences of trialling different strategies and methods.
Some of that knowledge is of a high quality. Some of that knowledge is of a low quality. Distinguishing between the two is an important part of building mental fitness.
Distinguishing high quality from low quality health information
Generally, the best place to get health information is from registered health professionals. Accessing a health professional is typically done via your General Practitioner (GP) who then refers you to someone depending on your needs. If you need dietary advice, it is about seeing a dietician. If it is mental health advice, it might be about seeing a psychologist. Seeing a health professional is the best way to get the most relevant health information customised to your needs.
If you don’t have a regular GP, come to see one of ours.
However I am fully aware that most of us also use the internet to get health information, as sometimes we aren’t sure what we are looking for, don’t want to (or can’t) make an appointment to see a professional, or have done so already and are seeking further information.
Using the internet to acquire health related knowledge has many risks. Search just about any topic and you’ll find plenty of people willing to share their opinions and ideas about that topic, but whether what they are saying is valid is something you’ll have to get better at determining.
And this is a genuine challenge. The downside of so much information about health and wellbeing at your fingertips is having to sift through that information to find the relevant and useful stuff. And I can say (with some embarrassment) that despite my training in psychology, I have gone down many silly pathways when it comes to health and wellbeing over my life. But this has equipped me with better skills for determining the quality of information. Will I make similar mistakes in the future? Probably, but I get better at distinguishing as I go.
So how do you distinguish high quality information from low quality information? How do you develop a decent filter for good information? Here are a few things to consider:
Start by considering the source of the information. This might be an individual, organisation, company, university or a health service. Ask yourself these questions:
What are their qualifications? Are experts creating their content? What seem to be their intentions? Do they have a good reputation? Do they seem credible? Are they transparent about their funding and ties with other organisations? Do they seem to have a hidden agendas like wanting to sell you something?
As a very rough rule of thumb, health information from registered health professionals, universities, government organisations and not-for-profit organisations is typically more trustworthy, although this doesn’t rule out quality content from profit making organisations (as long as they can clearly show where they got their knowledge from).
When accessing content online (e.g. via social media), make sure to track the content back to the original source as the content can be misrepresented the more layers of sharing are added. For example, if you see a Facebook post about a brand new supplement that promises better health, try to track the story back to the original source. There is a good chance it leads back to a company trying to sell a product.
Sources that are very close to the original science are usually better such as the peer reviewed literature that can be searched using services like Google Scholar, or science news sites that aggregate the latest research news like Science Daily. The problem with these sources is that if you are reading outside of your expertise area you might find them difficult to navigate.
As a result, many people look to standard news sites for their health information. I find the ABC a fairly safe source of health and mental health related news because they don’t rely on advertising to run the site which reduces the potential for conflicts of interest.
Having considered the source, then consider the content itself. What you are looking for are signs that the content is based on reasonably robust scientific evidence. What does this look like?
- Links to relevant research papers rather than testimonials
- The authors of the content are named and have qualifications suggesting it is appropriate for them to be writing that content
- That the content reads as information and not an advertisement
- There are no promises of quick and easy fixes. One of the easiest ways to determine potentially misleading health/mental health information is that it promises quick and miracle fixes to complex problems
- That the information seems balanced – i.e. that the level of benefit is related to effort, or that there is a consideration of both the good and not so good aspects of whatever it is they are talking about
- That there are processes in place to quality control the information like an editorial board, or indications that the content is regularly updated
It is worth distinguishing at this point between health news and health information. Health news is intended to keep you updated on recent medical and health developments such as new studies or new findings. This is often where you find the most cutting edge work in a field. Health information on the other hand is the well-established information about different health topics that should form the basis of your health decisions. As an example, HealthDirect is an excellent source of reliable health information. It is funded by the Australian government. Similarly, the advice you get from a Doctor or health professional is health information.
Finally, consider how easy it is to engage with the information.
- Is the site or app designed well?
- Is it interactive and engaging?
- Can you communicate with the authors of the site?
- If there is a cost, is it clearly set-out? Is there a free trial or money-back option? Having to pay for a resource is not necessarily a good or bad thing, but it needs to be clearly set out, so you know exactly what you are getting for the cost.
Asking yourself these questions doesn’t guarantee you won’t get duped by a health resource, but it does activate the more critical thinking parts of your brain that are required when considering changes you might make to your own life.
Some things you might need to accept in your ongoing quest for health/wellbeing knowledge
We live in a society where science and technology have helped us make extraordinary strides forward in health and wellbeing. Because of this we run the risk of thinking science has solved everything. But that isn’t the case. There is still an incredible amount we are still to learn about health and wellbeing and what we do know is incomplete and imperfect. I firmly believe we can all make positive movements forwards with the information and ideas currently available to us, but it won’t necessarily be easy or crystal clear along the way. Be willing to accept we don’t know everything.
You will absolutely encounter contradictory health information in your lifetime. Someone says gluten is evil, someone else says it is harmless (except to coeliacs of course). Someone says ‘anti-depressants can be helpful’, someone else says ‘stay away from them at all cost’. It is a confusing landscape for even the most well educated to navigate. Be willing to accept contradiction and dig in further to try and find the best available truth on the matter. Hint, it is usually somewhere in the middle. Take anti-depressants for example: they are absolutely beneficial for some people under some circumstances but they aren’t a miracle drug, or necessarily the best or only approach to treating depression. Ultimately the answer comes down to what they provide for the individual, and with this in mind:
Be willing to self-experiment
The only way you might be able to answer the question of whether something is going to be helpful for you or not, will be to try it. You see even with treatments or strategies that have been demonstrated in research trials to work well, it is not necessarily a guarantee that the strategy will work for you. Ultimately you have to test . Now obviously you want to be able to filter out bad strategies, because you don’t want to spend valuable time testing dead-ends, but there is an inevitable amount of trial and error involved in self-improvement. As you accumulate knowledge you are starting to filter out the ideas you think might or might not work for you. I’ll talk more about this self-experimentation in a future lesson. At this stage, just be willing to accept that some trial and error will be involved in you finding and applying the strategies that will help you improve
Be healthily sceptical
Don’t accept things on face value. That includes the ideas in this course. Be interested, but beware of anyone or anything claiming to fix everything, or be the single most important factor in life.
Question your own beliefs and attitudes
Turn some of that scepticism inwards a little bit. I’ll give example in my own life. There was a period where I was having a lot of pain. I was convinced it was dietary in nature and started restricting foods heavily. I got worse, but continued to assume it was dietary. It wasn’t until years later that I started entertaining other possibilities and in the process found things that worked, a medication and b12 injections from my doctor. Be willing to entertain the idea that beliefs you hold about health and wellbeing might not be correct.
Take a moment to reflect on some aspects of your lifestyle. For example, how much sleep do you get? What is your diet like? How much physical activity do you do?
Where was it that you learned about those things?
Do you think you were given good information about those things?
If you’ve been following along with the suggested tasks of previous lessons, then you’ll have a notebook or electronic document in which you are completing these tasks.
From the last lesson you will have a sub-heading called ‘Goals’ under which you’ve noted a simple lifestyle change that you could use as a mental fitness project. As noted above, if you are having trouble thinking of one you can pick from these simple ones:
- going for a 10 minute walk each day
- drinking an extra litre of water per day
- scheduling specific times during the day to check on social media
This week I want you to spend some time learning a bit about the lifestyle change you have selected. Write the lifestyle change in your notebook and then use the internet to search for more information about that lifestyle change. Note the interesting things you learn in your notebook. Use the advice from this post to help identify valid sources of information and good quality content.
For example, I have selected the goal of ‘spending more time using my standing desk‘ as my mental fitness project. I’ve started learning more about the benefits (or not) of using a standing desk by searching for articles in Google Scholar. I found this article that suggests the benefits are minimal. I found this article that says the same. But I will also look at other resources to see what other people say. Then I can develop a more realistic appraisal of the potential benefits and costs of making the change.
The goal is to learn enough about the lifestyle change such that you can make a decision about whether you think it will be worthwhile and if you decide to implement it, how you might go about it.