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Mental Fitness. More than ever.

Updated: Mar 15, 2023

Imagine: You are calm, creative, passionate and focused with your natural best self in your mind's driver's seat. Your mind's gremlins, those inner critics and naysayers, are relegated to the backseat or even the trunk?
What could be different?
For all us humans. For the world.

When I think of mental fitness, I imagine my inner Saboteurs, those negative inner critics voices in my head, like these gremlins. For real, I'd love to see them sitting there bored, twiddling their thumbs because I've relegated them backstage instead of letting them run the show - my show!

Image source: Toni Crow

Our minds are pre-disposed toward negative thoughts and emotions. This comes from how our brain works and other physiology. It is further influenced by our own experiences and, in a wider sense, our relationships with history, cultures, societies, families and other systems. On an individual level, this impacts our emotions, behaviour, choices, and ultimately our performance, relationships and wellbeing.


"Mental Fitness is our capacity to handle life's challenges with positive rather than negative mindset."[1]


Have you heard that we can learn to shift how our negative predisposition to a small and useful role. We can each enhance our capacity to act from positive mindset, even in the face of real challenges. This is Mental Fitness and we're learning more about how each of us can achieve this.

This can feed into each of our stories going forward. Maybe and ultimately even into the world's future-story and systems and how our brain continues to evolve.

I wonder what difference this could make in our lives and in the world. I believe our world and every human needs this now, more than ever.

Understanding our brains

Each of us have stories [if curious see my backstory at the end of this article]. Stories in a world full of mixed bags of happiness and struggling, striving and thriving. We have a huge spectrum of real human suffering and this is not to downplay that.

There is also unnecessary sufferingwhat we put ourselves through. We see, feel and read about it everywhere. This is the human condition.

With advances in neuroscience and similar fields, we also know we can evolve our individual brains, and collectively the human condition for more: peace and wellbeing, performance and healthier relationships. Like most things it starts with awareness and understanding, beginning with our brain.

That humans tend to feel they have more suffering than joy is an old and universal story. It is the battle of what we'll call, for simplicity's sake, our survival and wisdom brains.

These operate very differently and can produce very different results*:

  • The survival brain includes our brain's most primitive areas (brainstem, limbic system), parts of our left brain, and works with our stress response system. It constantly scans for threats and rewards. All fear and most suffering, narrow thinking, cravings and negative emotions arise here (grief is an exception and another topic).

  • Our wisdom brain includes more recently evolved parts (including mid-prefrontal cortex, areas of our right brain) and works with our rest and digest circuitry. This is where higher thinking, creativity, intuition, love, and positive emotions come from.

*Acknowledging this article contains simplified versions of the neuroscience.

Our brain loves rewardsphysiologically delivered by pleasant neurochemicals like dopamine, triggered by and felt in positive emotions like love, peace and calm, gratitude and joy. These come from our wisdom brain allowing us to feel and to generate more positive emotions as we are inspired and pulled forward by these pleasant rewards.

Our brain's primary directive is survival, not rewards. This is controlled by our survival brain, shutting down access to other many areas. Without intervention, constant underlying threat mitigation is dominant. It is motivated and felt in fear, anger, frustration, judgment, shame or guilt. We feel stress and overwhelm. Cortisol floods our system. We are in tunnel-vision, lower thinking, and we are pushed forward from fear.

Studies indicate it takes 3 to 5 positives thoughts to counter one negative. Brain scans show our survival brain has 5 times as much grey matter dedicated to threats vs. rewards scanning.

We experience our survival brain through our harsh inner critics and fear-mongering gremlins. We suffer and are impacted from the emotions and actions they produce. Biologically, combined with all that goes on in our lives and world, this brain and these harsh charactersif uncheckedplay a large role in most of our lives. Think about that for a moment.

There is a whole snowball effect. From us humans to generational, cultural, family and social systems and experiences also focusing on the negative and vice versa; and so compounding the predominance of protective, fear-based thinking and actions. Think about that, too.

It feels to me that this has built up over the last two centuries, especially through the industrial, digital and now virtual revolutions. Maybe exacerbatedand certainly brought more to lightin the past few extraordinary years.

It also feels like we could be on the cusp of a new age. I hope it tips us into a new world of awareness, positive mindset and mental fitness.

Reactions not based in reality

Positive or negative, reward or threat based, many of our thoughts and reactions fall into five "Non-real" categories:

  1. Things not yet known (the future)

  2. Things that cannot be changed (the past)

  3. Something partially or downright untrue (beliefs, stories, assumptions)

  4. Things we cannot control (others, certain circumstances, the future)

  5. Speculation, imagination

"Real" categories are what we know to be true or mostly true, and what we can control (ourselves) or influence (our role or the part we can play in something).

FEAR = False Evidence Appearing Real (Or Forget Everything And Run)

Our brain feels things as real and true, whether real or not. And it responds accordingly.

Fun fact, if we hug ourselves, our brain responds the same as if we received that hug from another person! Further, there is that contagion component (mirror neurons, the power of suggestion, energy wave impact). Much like yawns, our feelings are contagious and can affect others who also respond accordingly.

These days many threats we feel are manufactured by our survival brain [see list above]. They fall into unreal categories or "paper tigers". What others think of us. Our self-doubts. Worry about the future...

The impact of ruminating on and reacting to these paper tigers is incredibly damaging to our peace and wellbeing, our performance and relationships.

Here's what can happen:

  • We go into stress-response invoking survival reactions of fight, flight or freeze, blood pressure up, breathing changes, we close down adopting tunnel vision.

  • We feel negative emotions which are unpleasant. Our system is flooded with too much cortisol, too often.

  • Our brain's other capacities of openness, creativity, intuition, connection, complex thought processes, common sense and wisdom are unreachable.

  • Compassion, empathy and lovefor self and othersare difficult and even impossible to access.

  • Extreme and protectionist behaviours come to the forefront, such as judgement, avoidance, controlling and micro management, and hyper-vigilance.

  • This impacts our peace of mind, sleep, health, relationships and performance and further fuels the stress-response... repeat cycle.

It's hard to think clearly, almost impossible to think calmly, and challenging to be open and truly aware from this place. Sound familiar?

Do you have inner critics, aka gremlins and saboteurs? Good. This means you are human. We all do have 'em! These extreme and harsh characters come from our survivor brain, built up through history and experiences. They whisper self-limiting stories applied without discernment, see risk everywhere, compare us unfavourably with others, are harder on us than we would be on our worst enemies, rudely and pointlessly wake us up in the middle of the night whether we want to or not, and base happiness on achieving the next thing, and then the next.

Our Saboteurs self-sabotage us, keeping us firmly in our comfort zone no matter how uncomfortable it actually is.

Some examples:

  • I'm miserable in my job and change is scary. It's easier/safer to stay here.

  • I'm curious and would love to travel to new places but it's too risky.

  • I'm never getting married (ever or again), I'll just get hurt.

  • I have ideas. I want to participate more but what if people judge me.

  • I'm not good enough, I'll never be good enough.

What's useful, what's not

Our survivor brain is tremendously powerful. It is naturally risk averse. It makes up stories. It resists change as it interprets any kind of change as the unknown and thus a possible risk.

That's why we have the term "going outside our comfort zone"the brain avoids the uncomfortable.

Paradoxically, it is mainly through discomfort that we truly learn, grow and become stronger.

Note: our survivor brain does have an important role to play. It continues to help our species to persist and evolve. It alerts us to what we need to pay attention to. There are messages in those uncomfortable and negative feelings.

So our survivor brains and their negative emotions are useful.

Shirzad Chamine, best selling author and founder of Positive Intelligence(R) uses this metaphor:1

Like a hand on a hot stove, it is useful to feel pain, otherwise we'll leave our hand there and burn it to the bone. It's the same with negative emotions.

Like feeling pain on the hot stove, these emotions can be useful to alert usbut only for a second. Keeping our hand on the hot stove—staying in negative emotionsdoes not serve us or the situation.

What is the alternative?

Good news! Remember? Our brains are flexible, they have adaptable neuroplasticity, even long into our elder years!

Brain research shows we can build new neural connections and highways. The unhelpful ones can become dirt roads. We can reduce grey matter in our survival brain and increase it in our wisdom brain. We can even shift our mental processing from damaged areas of our brain to healthy areas of our brain!

Our brains are built from our experiences over time. We can train ourselves in experiences moving us from the survivor brain's saboteurs to our brain's sage wisdom.

What we water grows. We can weaken our saboteurs and their thought patterns, beliefs, stories, habits and behaviours. We can learn to take our hand off the hot stove sooner and choose to take the message and switch to the wisdom brain.

So how do we do all this?

Neuroscientists like Irene O'Brian recommend three conditions for neuroplasticity:

  1. Goals (positive, important, meaningful motivators; lights you up, pulls you forward)

  2. Effort (there's no magic pill folk)

  3. Repetition (keep it up, that which we water survives and thrives)

I believe another condition is understanding some of this science above. Our left brains appreciate science. This can inspire greater belief in what's possible as well as help us in our practical efforts. To make this sustainable and keep developing, most of us need training, structure and support.

There are tons of studies, books, articles on this topic and almost as many training models and approaches that can support the effort and repetition. Neuroscientists, psychiatrists and psychologists, neurobiologists, doctors, other researchers are learning more all the time and there's a lot of information out there.

Some call this Mind Training, such as Dr. Dan Siegel in his recent book Aware: The Science and Practice of Presence. I've attended lectures where this is termed "Mind Management". I like Chamine's Positive Intelligence term "Self-Command".1

Coaching and the models we use provide tools, structure and support to help us know and manage our minds.

Positive Intelligence®, or PQ, is one model. I find PQ a powerful and straightforward model. I have fun using it! It promotes ease and flow, as well as results. And it has been life changing using it personally and for my clients and students. Much like staying active for physical fitness, Positive Intelligence keeps us actively practicing and maintaining Mental Fitness, particularly "Self-Command" of our minds.

A Primer on Positive Intelligence®

Positive Intelligence's definition of Mental Fitness is: Our capacity to handle life's challenges with positive rather than negative mindset.

Positive Intelligence programs, tools, and coaching incorporate the essential neuroplasticity conditions of Goals, Effort and Repetition needed for lasting change.

We learn about and apply these research and science-based, powerful yet simple concepts and principles:

  • 10 Saboteurs We all have a few of these as predominant agents of self-sabotage responsible for creating most of the negative emotions from the survival brain (or Saboteur brain). These Saboteurs are The Judge (our master Saboteur), Avoider, Controller, Pleaser, Hyper Achiever, Hyper Rational, Hyper Vigilant, Restless, Stickler and Victim.

  • 5 Sage Powers Accessible from our wisdom or Sage brain, these are the powers of Empathy, Curiosity, Innovation, Navigation and Action

  • 3 Core Mental Fitness Muscles

    • Saboteur Interceptor Muscle

    • Sage Muscle

    • Self-Command Muscle

Wondering, "Where can I learn more?"

I hope you're feeling inspired and intrigued. Here are a few small steps to get you started.

I cannot help adding one coachy question... I'm curious, what do you think might be different for you if you had more command of your mind?

My backstory

I am a Certified Executive Coach, ICF credentialed at the PCC level, a Lean Black Belt coach, have a rich and colourful kaleidoscope of experience.

And I'm human like you.

In my story, I have a life-long habit of go-go-go, multitasking (in theory) and accomplishing tons. I have gained much in life this way. It can also be stressful, overwhelming, distracting me from truly experiencing the riches of the present.

My journey's mantra became, "Go slow, to go better". I have made progress. Somewhat. I still habitually find myself back on my hamster wheel. One does not break down 4 decades of habits overnight.

Mine was a cyclic story of working hard, soaring, crashing, rebooting, gaining momentum.

[Spoiler alert] Today, that negative vortex cycle, has swung upward to a positive vortex. A slower vortex - paradoxically, one that I am finding much more enriching.

We go to some time in the not-so-distant past. A perfect storm. A milestone anniversary of past trauma, passion for my studies and work warping into hyper-drive, and other factors. My journey took a sudden, severe detour into burnout. Physically exhausted, emotionally drained, I spiralled into a downward vortex of anxiety and depression. Our world and, at that time, Russia's invasion of Ukraine contributed to my heavy emotions.

My coping to drown out the saboteur voices was Netflix escapes or reading a book a day. I comfort ate my way through bags of chips. I avoided socializing. I shared little except with my husband. [He is kind and somehow knows how to be for me. I am fortunate and grateful.]

Once I opened up, my family were of course supportive [more gratitude]. None of them are strangers to mental diss-ease. I regained some energy and leveraged my own coach, a therapist, my doctor. I reignited my mindfulness practice (this was most therapeutic!).

I also happened to be scheduled for Positive Intelligence & Mental Fitness training, a version specifically for coaches. As a coach, I've enjoyed a ton of books, articles, training, coaching and development on this type of topic. This program ties into all that AND feels like the missing piece providing practical support to take us beyond insights and ideas.

The Positive Intelligence (PQ) program is learn-by-doing and helped significantly ease my anxiety and reboot. Through ongoing Mental Fitness practice, I notice negative thoughts and emotions for their messages. Then I, more and more, routinely intercept them before they can keep me feeling bad, holding me back or sending me onto the hamster wheel.

I learned feeling negative emotions is helpful to hear their message AND that it is a lie to believe that remaining in negative emotion is helpful in any way whatsoever!

My capacity to handle life's challenges with more positive mindset is producing a calmer, happier and action-focused-me. I feel open and more authentically myself. More and more, I prioritize and act and show up from positive feelings of love, confidence, empathy, curiosity, creativity, a renewed sense of purpose, and clear, focused action. My mantra now? "Slowing down enriches." And I deeply know it does, for me, others and even rippling into the world.

I was inspired today to slowly reflect and to write this article. If even one person is enriched through slowing down enough to read my words, I believe this will ripple into enriching the world somehow.

Author: Toni Crow, CEC PCC PQC, Toni Crow Leadership Coaching


Irena O'Brien, Building a Flexible Brain workshop, December 2022

Dan Siegel, Aware: The Science and Practice of Presence, TarcherPerigee, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, New York, New York, 2018

1 and multiple adapted references, Shirzad Chamine, Positive Intelligence: Why Only 20% of Teams and Individuals Achieve Their True Potential and how You Can Achieve Yours. Greenleaf Book Group Press, 2012

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