My recent posts have mainly focused on physical health. Let’s now turn our attention to mental health, which is a vitally important part of our overall wellbeing. A healthy lifestyle is just as much about maintaining good mental health as it is about preserving physical health.
The term mental health now encompasses a very wide range of conditions. Some of these – schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, for example – can be very serious and complex, requiring careful long-term specialist treatment.
Here, I am going to confine myself to what we might think of as the “everyday” mental health of people who have not been diagnosed with any particular mental-health condition by a medical professional. If you have been diagnosed with a mental-health condition, the advice I give here may not be right for you.
If you feel you may be developing a mental-health condition, please, contact your doctor or the mental-health services available in your area.
To understand what poor mental health is, first we need to look at what good mental health is. The inner feelings associated with good mental health include a sense of ease with the world and the people around us, self-confidence, a sense of purpose, and a zest for living.
On a physical level, we will tend to feel refreshed when we wake up, energized during the day’s “business hours,” and ready for a good night’s sleep at bedtime. That said, it’s perfectly possible for a person to have a physical health condition that leaves them feeling tired or in pain yet also enjoy good mental health.
We’re most likely to feel these inner feelings when we realistically understand ourselves, our abilities, and our environment. And when we do that, not only do we find it easier to tackle the normal stresses of life, but we also enjoy strong and loving relationships with other people, are able to work productively and make a contribution to our community, and, most of all, laugh a lot and enjoy life.
Conversely, the feelings associated with poor mental health include low self-worth, helplessness, resentment towards the people around us and intrusive negative thoughts about the past or the future. These can often trigger unpleasant physical sensations and conditions, such as a tightness in the chest, insomnia and a sense of being drained and washed out.
These feelings may be tied to a genetic predisposition or experiential or environmental factors from our earlier life. However, they can also arise when we are not realistic about ourselves, our abilities, or our environment – that is, when we frame life in a way that sets us up to fail, leading us to struggle with challenges, feel like we have no sense of purpose, blame others, and lose our ability to laugh and love.
Going through life in this way can have devastating consequences that also exacerbate our poor mental health: we may alienate ourselves from our loved ones, or we might seek temporary relief in alcohol or drugs. Left unchecked, living life in this way can cause the onset of debilitating anxiety and depression.
Those are the two polar extremes of “good” and “poor” everyday mental health, but we need to handle them carefully. Above all, it’s important not to be misled into thinking that a person who has “good” mental health always feels joyous and on top of the world. Even people who take excellent care of their mental health will grapple with periods of sadness and stress, because these feelings are deeply inherent to the human experience.
It’s normal to feel worry in response to the crises that we inevitably have to live through at various points. It’s normal to feel an intense sadness as we experience loss, whether it takes the form of a bereavement, our children’s departure to new pastures or our retirement from a career we loved. Weeping in response to life’s sorrows is a healthy emotional outlet.
And just as these events and the feelings they trigger are inevitable, it’s also likely that we will go through times where we experience the more physical torments that come with these feelings. You will surely have gone through a period when you felt exhausted from forcing yourself to go about your business as usual with a smile while you were living under a black cloud.
And you will likely have at some point experienced being unable to concentrate, eat or take an interest in activities you usually enjoy because of sadness or worry.
What really defines “good” mental health is not some magical ability to instantly banish negative feelings from our life. It’s the ability to acknowledge and work through them and ultimately emerge from them, returning to that sense of ease, self-confidence, purpose and zest for life that I described above.
The cycle we go through when we are grieving is a good illustration of this. A normal sequence of response to loss is denial that it has happened, anger that it has happened, the “what if …?” stage, depression where it is difficult to continue living and, finally, acceptance and a return to being our usual selves. Good mental health is about completing the cycle; poor mental health is about getting stuck in one of the first four stages.
It takes hard work to take care of our mental health, especially when we are dealing with adverse events in our life. The first step is to maintain our physical health. We need to get enough rest and sleep and have a sensible exercise programme, a hygienic regime and a healthy diet of natural foods.
Good relationships with the people in our lives, productive work we enjoy, fun times with family and friends that make us laugh a lot and a creative outlet that makes us happy all add up to good mental health.
The difficulty, of course, is that when a crisis arises, our first instinct is to jettison all these things. Fear and sadness make us want to hide away from others, to let our bodies shut down, to seek respite in substances that create momentary feelings of comfort.
And this is another reason why good mental health takes hard work. It requires a willingness to balance the extra time you need to reflect, rest and cry with continuing to look after your physical well-being and to satisfy those universal human needs to socialize and contribute. Friends and loved ones are often a good source of support when you are struggling to achieve that balance.
Feeling Good: A Mental Health Workbook (2022) by Dr. Kojo Sarfo is an excellent tool for taking control of our mental health and living life to the fullest.
As when you are suffering from physical ill health, it is wise to consult your doctor if you are experiencing any psychological health problems. Your doctor will know which specialist to consult.
Are you mentally healthy? Do you enjoy life? Do you laugh a lot? Do you feel there’s more that needs to be done about your mental health?