What is Mental Health?

A lot of the time, we associate the phrase “mental health” with mental illness, or mental UNhealthiness rather than genuine mental health. But what does mental health actually feel like? And why are we so much more familiar with poor mental health than good mental health?

If I asked you to name some mental health conditions, you may cite such things as depression, anxiety, bipolar, schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder (BPD), obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), emotionally unstable personality disorder (EUPD) etc etc etc. Apart from whoever named these conditions clearly loving an acronym, what we see immediately is that there are many, many nuances of what we would class as “poor” mental health. If I asked you to name some conditions related to good mental health, would you be able to? Happiness? Self-acceptance? Self-care? Self-love? Equanimity? We just don’t seem to have the same language available to explain conditions related to, or contributing to, GOOD mental health, in the same way. Yet we have hundreds of labels to describe what we, especially in the Western world, have deemed as “poor” mental health.

Life these days is fast paced, stressful, unpredictable, and for the past 6 months, filled ever more obviously with fear, meaning a low level state of what could be called anxiety and/or depression has become fairly standard for a lot of people. What is mental health really based on? And what can we do to improve it?

Mental health/illness is, in a sense, a depiction and a description, of our reaction to life. As life happens, our incredibly clever mental, emotional and physical systems find ways to cope. Some of these are classed as healthy, and some are classed as problematic. Often, we are brought up in societies where emotional expression is heavily discouraged, leading to suppression of feelings which affects not only our mental well-being, but also our physical health, contributing to stress in the body displayed as conditions ranging from tight shoulders to heart attacks. We are not taught ways to creatively express and so destructive, and even physically harmful coping mechanisms become the only ways we have to get through a day. Addictions, self-harm, eating disorders and alcoholism are all highly prevalent. We seek anything that takes the pressure off, gives us a moment of relief, that makes us feel like we can breathe a little easier, like we can function, like we can show up with the seemingly expected smile and attitude in our workplaces, family occasions, and our intimate relationships. But is this really healthy?

Having been through a very long and drawn out dance of multiple nuances related to my own mental healthiness, I find it interesting to step back and see how it is so much harder to picture or describe good mental health comparatively to compromised mental health. The factors I have found that raise the quality of my mental health were not necessarily what I expected them to be. Most were far simpler than I’d ever have thought when I was in the thick of poorer seasons of mental health. I used to think to be able to feel positively about myself and have “good” mental health, I would need to save the world, or do something Huge and Important to prove my worthiness. Turned out what actually made me feel better was things like emptying the bin before it was overflowing, keeping my space organised and clear, gifting myself time in nature, making the things that supported my well-being higher up my priority list, and stopping saying yes when I meant no. I had to go through a process of becoming my own best friend, which was tricky to begin with because I genuinely believed I hated myself and therefore was unworthy of not only anyone else’s time and attention, but also my own.

To achieve a level of what I would deem mental health, and to subsequently be able to show up for life in a more constructive way, I had to begin to treat myself how I would treat others. I would go to the ends of the earth to help another person. I would give them time, presence; I would feed them, encourage them to rest, to take good care of themselves and to do what makes them happy not just occasionally, but consistently. Yet for myself, all I would really do with any commitment or volition was judge myself really harshly for not being good enough, or for being “too much” for people to handle.

My work towards mental healthiness was, and still is, about learning who I am, what makes me feel good, and what works for me. This includes:

· Connecting and engaging with other people (something I used to avoid as much as possible) and actually letting them know me in my struggles as well as in my more confident aspects

· Making and taking time to go outside each day, even if just for a few breaths in the natural rhythms away from phones and screens and manic speed communication and expectations

· Drawing or writing – some form of creative expression so I am not getting so bunged up with Stuff that I feel like I am going to explode or that my head is too heavy to carry around with me or even lift off the pillow

· Movement of some kind, whether it be yoga, or pole fitness, or hanging upside down from hoops and silks, or indoor bouldering, or just sticking loud music on and jumping around on the spot, something that moves the energy through and out

· Some form of stillness and time for self-reflection – time to take a look at how I am feeling and how I am subsequently interacting with the world. If I don’t take the time to get to know who I am and why I behave the way I behave, how will I ever change it or even know I am doing it?

What I have come to realise is that when I do these things consistently, the quality of my thinking is higher. By this I mean I am not spending hours each day worrying about what people think of me, slaying myself in vitriolic monologues of self-despise and shame, not second guessing people’s motives for loving me, not staging extravagant arguments and playing over conversations and situations over and over again to try and achieve a different imaginary outcome. I am more present. I notice things more. It’s easier to breathe. It’s easier to get up in the morning. It’s easier to sleep at night.

You are the only one who can undertake your journey towards a higher level of mental healthiness. We ALL need to do this, diagnosis or not. We all have a say in the quality of our mental health, just as we do in the quality of our physical health. Unless I am engaging in exercise, I don’t expect my body to be strong. Therefore, unless I am engaging in mental/emotional self-care and in the positive/creative activities/”exercise” that works for me, how can I expect my mental health to be strong? This is actually GOOD news. It means there are things I can do to help myself.

If I am starting from a place of my thinking being broken/compromised, then I need to accept help, just as if my leg were broken or I had a sprained ankle. I wouldn’t expect myself to be running a marathon or climbing Mount Everest, or even getting out of bed without some assistance. I would need plaster and pins to support me while I healed, and help and encouragement to do daily tasks, and I would then need physical therapy and exercise to help me rehabilitate to health. My mental health journey was a lot about accepting help to let people prop me up when I needed it, to support me in my recovery, and to find out what the things were that I could do to help myself, including people teaching/modelling the skills to help me process and express my emotions in constructive rather than destructive ways. I needed help to get to know me. I needed the mirrors and the teachers that other people provide. And then, over time, I was able to be that for others.

We live in a vast and expansive world filled with unique individuals. We all have days when we could be diagnosed as mentally unwell, and we all have times when we experience higher quality mental health. Neither are wrong. All nuances are valid and part of life’s glorious unfolding. What we can do, is work together to support ourselves and each other towards getting to know what works for us when we are struggling, and what helps us live a life working WITH our glorious minds, rather than against them.

I guess what I have noticed is that mental health is just as individualised and unique as mental illness. We may not have as many prescribed labels for it, but maybe that’s because it IS so unique to each person. It’s about finding what YOU love, what makes YOU happy, what sets YOUR heart on fire, what makes YOU feel good. How could that ever be described in one word? Or even in a very clever acronym… 😉

Image Credit: Getty images

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