Veterans, survivors, and athletes can all improve mentally by improving physically.
By Roger Lockridge
One of the many reasons that people get into fitness and training is because they’re trying to work through something. Whether it’s something from the past that is haunting them, overcoming self-esteem issues, or using the weights as therapy, physical health has been an outlet to help people with mental health for decades. Whether it was obvious or subconscious, the effort that goes into the workouts is doing as much for the brain as it is for the muscles.
Trina Clayeux, Ph.D., is the CEO of Give an Hour, a nonprofit organization focused on helping patients that struggle with various mental health issues. According to its website, Give an Hour’s mission is to “develop resilient individuals and communities.” They don’t provide emergency services, but their efforts have helped numerous people overcome various mental barriers to achieve new personal levels of success. In her work, Clayeux, who earned her Ph.D. in leadership studies, has seen time and time again that the ties that bind physical and mental health run deep.
“When you can’t control pieces of your physical health, your mental health starts to go downhill. That also works vice versa. When your mental health goes downhill, usually your physical health is right closely behind it,” Clayeux said. Many of the patients that Give an Hour serve are veterans of the United States Armed Forces, and she can attest to the enormity of the issues that can be connected to mental health and the lack of attention that was devoted to it.
“I had a long background working with military members for 20 years,” said Clayeux. “One of the biggest gaps in helping individuals was that there was a complete disconnect with mental health for them.”
Clayeux also shared that the military has been working to help bridge that gap with the transition that comes from active service to retirement or discharge. It’s worth noting that she isn’t only speaking from a professional standpoint. She, herself, is the spouse of a 26-year veteran, and that offered her an advantage when it came to helping other veterans in her professional life.
“With that came an adjacent view of the importance of physical health, which is widespread in the military, and an evolution of having mental health catch up to it, to be as normalized.”
One misconception that many people have believed is that you have to focus on one before you get the other. Clayeux feels this isn’t the case, and her experience and knowledge from the field has confirmed those feelings.
“As people in the [military] community have been connecting the dots between physical readiness and mental readiness, you really start to see the synergy of that coming together and how they are interdependent on each other,” she explained. Other forms of validation that can verify this can be seen in the form of veterans and family members that have shared their stories on M&F, such as Melanie Branch, Charles Eggleston, Kionte Storey, and Matt Cable. Clayeux herself also commits to fit. She has ran in numerous races, including completing an Ironman as well as a pair of half Ironmans.
“I’ve done sports all my life, and every year I would learn a new sport,” she says. “Paying attention to the process outside of the sport mattered and helped me. That connectivity was such a boost both mentally and physically.”
Outside of addressing mental health issues that can be traced to the past, Clayeux hopes that athletes, veterans, and everyone look ahead and focus on physical health and devotes time to the mental health aspect as well because an injury can come at any time. Being prepared mentally can make a big difference in the recovery.
“Being able to be prepared by leaning on a mental health professional instead of in a place of reaction helps,” Clayeux suggested. “You can look at it a little differently so you don’t sideline both your mental and physical goals.”
A Need to Train both Body and Mind
It can be really easy to lock into a workout or a game and not pay attention to anything else. While this is great for the physical component, the mental health aspect needs trained as well, and the workout or performance is a great time for that. Clayeux offered a way to do just that without taking time away from the session you’re in.
“When you’re being physically active is a good time to pay attention to the thoughts and feelings,” she said. “Look for signs of emotional wellness that comes with that activity. Some of it could be being out with friends, feeling more energized, feeling less stressed, etc.”
Clayeux feels that this can go far beyond a veteran’s personal self. Focusing on emotional wellness while training or being active can affect one’s immediate community.
“That physical activity and emotional connection can improve not just your wellness, but it will affect those around you as well.”
In regards to mental health, Give an Hour helps connect veterans and others to a variety of resources that can help them directly in their area. This includes various programs, counseling, and more. While there are options for people that need them, Clayeux feels that there is much more that can be done.
“A lot of it is that these mental health providers need access to these populations,” she shared. “Each community has its own culture and its own nuance. Even the bodybuilding community has its own ecosystem and language. It’s really important for the providers to have exposure to that and to know what really operates within a community.”
Tearing Down Obstacles
The biggest barrier for many people, including veterans, isn’t knowing what to do. Current members of the military and veterans are literally trained to be in peak physical readiness and focus on the task at hand while being aware of what could happen. It may not even be a diagnosed mental adversity such as PTSD that holds them back. For many, they don’t feel they’re worthy of improving themselves. Doing so would be selfish in their minds. Another point that Clayeux wants to emphasize is not only can they give themselves that grace to focus on self-improvement, but it is actually a form of self-responsibility that they should. Dr. Trina Clayeux feels that this can go far beyond your personal self. Focusing on emotional wellness while training or being active can affect your immediate community.
“That physical activity and emotional connection can improve not just your wellness, but it will affect those around you as well. When I’m having a really stressful day, the kindest thing I can do for myself is go on a run or go into the gym. I notice how much better I perform when I come back. You have to put the effort into the change or routine.”
How can veterans do that for themselves? They can apply the principles they learned in service to their life today. PT was a requirement that came with the job of serving. Dr. Trina Clayeux wants veterans to make that same commitment to physical and mental wellness now because she is aware that doing so will put them in the best position to be successful for themselves and those they love.
“I make certain non-negotiables, and fitness is one of them. I have seen it in my life, and others will as well, the practice of it is so important because of the compound effect.”
For more information on Give an Hour, or to register as a provider through them, go to www.giveanhour.org.