Your mental health is just as important as your physical health, but much, much trickier to manage. While a broken arm can be set and a busted knee can be replaced by the magic of science, your grey matter takes more than a massaging to get in order. However, there are steps to take on your mental health journey, whether you’re looking to view the world a bit more positively or cope with anxiety and depression.
But first, we have to answer some questions…
What is mental health?
Generally speaking, mental health refers to how you
- Face challenges
- React to events and your surrounding environment.
Mental health is made up of emotional and psychological wellbeing.
Your emotional wellbeing refers to the positive emotions you experience, like happiness, joy, love, compassion and excitement.
Your psychological wellbeing is basically the framework that informs your emotional wellbeing. For example – if you find a new challenge has arisen in the workplace, psychological wellness would probably lead to you being excited and nervous about the change, whereas poor psychological wellbeing might lead you to get over-anxious and frightened.
It’s not all or nothing
Just like your physical wellbeing, there may be aspects of your mental health where you’re excelling and places where you might need a tune up. For example, you might find purpose and engagement through work but lack a feeling of closeness with friends.
What are signs of good mental health?
Good mental health isn’t as simple as being ‘happy all the time’, as nice as that sounds. Instead, signs of ‘flourishing’ mental health are
- Being engaged with work, hobbies and activities
- Maintaining close in relationships where care and concern is reciprocated
- Feeling as though you have purpose in life
- A sense of accomplishment and competency in your activities and life
- Feeling calm and at peace
- A sense of optimism about the future and the present
- Your ability to withstand adversity and unexpected challenges
- A positive self-esteem
- Energetic and full of vitality
What are the benefits of good mental health?
Mental wellness can do more for your health than simply make you ‘feel better’. The health benefits of living more positively and having higher levels of life satisfaction lead to a healthier life.
Healthier people are happier people, and being happy can make you healthy.
Mental wellbeing can:
Help with sickness
One of the first victims of your annual cold is your mood, whether you dive into self-pity or take on the charm of an enraged honey badger. However, positive, happy people report having better health.
Published in 2008, a study aimed to see the impact of happiness and life satisfaction on 9981 Australians. Asking questions like “during the past 4 weeks, have you been a happy person” and “all things considered, how satisfied are you with your life?”, subjects answering in the positive were self-reporting as possessing better health.
Impact heart health
It’s more than a coincidence that the heart is representative of love and happiness - a 2010 study of 1,739 Canadian adults showed that people reporting higher levels of happiness were less likely to develop coronary heart disease over a ten year period. It showed that a positive affect seemed to be protective against heart disease, while negative affect made people more vulnerable to CHD.
Help with aches and pains
There’s a reason we hold hands when we’re about to get an injection or have stubbed our toes six ways from Sunday – the comfort and happiness people provide can help with recovery times and how we deal with pain.
A 2001 study showed that people who reported having higher levels of happiness became healthier over the trial period than their less-happy counterparts.
Further, a 2005 study on women suffering from chronic pain and arthritis suggested that those with more positive emotions (measured by interest, enthusiasm and inspiration) were less likely to experience an increase in pain.
Boost the immune system
That insufferably happy friend you have that never gets sick is their own saviour. A 2003 study in which 334 people were exposed to the common cold (hopefully in a non-revolting way), people reporting higher levels of happiness were less likely to develop a cold.
How do I improve my mental health?
Working on your mental health is just like working on your fitness or diet – it’s a journey that requires planning, dedication and a lot of maintenance. Luckily, the first steps on the path to mental wellness are small and easy to incorporate into your life!
Even though exercise can leave you sore, tired and sweating, it’s a huge part of mental wellness and wellbeing. Exercise is great for
- Increases blood and oxygen flow to the brain
- Encourages growth factors that help create nerve cells and promotes synaptic plasticity
- Increases chemicals in the brain the aid cognition
- Encourages production of dopamine, glutamine, norepinephrine and serotonin
- Maintaining a healthy body weight
- Aiding recovery
- Lessening chronic pain
- Strengthening the immune system
- Adrenaline provides a sense of euphoria
The secondary benefits:
- Social exercise provides support and shared objectives
- Gives the chance to make and achieve goals
- Can increase time spent outdoors
- Promotes more positive body image
As happy as the idea of a giant, chocolate fudge and peanut coated sundae might make you, it’s not the key to mental wellness.
The vitamins provided by natural foods, like vegetables, fruits and non-processed meats play a huge role in how our bodies and mind function. New studies are linking gut bacteria to our mental states. While results and testing are in very early stages, the implications are huge for those who are trying to achieve mental wellness.
Aside from these emerging revelations, a healthier diet can help you keep in shape and lose weight (which provides its own long, long list of benefits).
Set achievable goals
Motivation is a precious resource, like water or 5 mins alone while you’re attending a kids’ party, so you’ve got to take care of it.
If you’re making goals that you can’t possibly achieve, your motivation is going to be the first thing to take a hit. While you may not be consciously thinking it, it’s hard to justify doing something new or even trying something when you know that chances are you’re never going to reach your goal.
Setting small, achievable goals gives you the chance to succeed over and over again, making you feel like a champion and giving your confidence a much-needed boosting to see you over the finish line.
Positive thinking and language
Have you ever made a mistake and thought ‘I’m an idiot’? If you have, how much better did that thought make the situation?
Positive thinking and language, while extremely easy to prescribe, can be difficult to follow. If you’ve developed a pattern of negative thinking, then breaking free from it takes more than a simple decision to ‘stop doing it’.
For some, it will take concerted effort, first acknowledging the negative thought
‘Hmmm I just called myself an idiot’
And then reasoning your way through to a more helpful way of thinking
‘Everyone makes mistakes, I’ll learn from it this time’.
There are several ways to try to create positive patterns of thought and language. You can try saying the positive out loud, or writing it down, or keeping a journal of the times you caught and corrected yourself.
Not all negative thinking is bad or unhealthy, but unnecessary negativity is probably not going to be a good thing.
Structure your day
Getting up ten minutes late and not being able to find your wallet and keys as you crudely try to spread peanut butter on a rapidly deteriorating piece of bread is, as you can imagine, not a very relaxing way to start the day.
No-one expects you to be able to account for every minute of your day, nor should you expect to be able to control your life with an absolute certainty. But you can make small, meaningful changes that will reduce the unnecessary stresses in your life.
Think about the little niggles in your day – can they be avoided? Solved? Is there anything you can do in your spare time to alleviate the problem before it arises?
In our previous example, setting an alarm to a more reasonable time or having reminder alarms might help our fictional late-stater get up properly. They could get into a habit of leaving their wallet and keys in the same area. Preparing their lunch the day before might lead to a better quality of sandwich.
These are small changes, but over time, they can give you a better sense of control over your life.
Again, there are a variety of ways to implement these changes. Daily calendars, weekly tasks, checklists, reminders – find a solution that you like, and try to turn it into a habit.
Even though you’ve probably heard and read it a million times before, mindfulness is a great way to reset or just evaluate what’s going on in your head when things are getting too much.
Mindfulness is the act of paying attention. How are you feeling right now? Why? Is there a way to make things better? Is what I’m feeling helpful?
Taking the time to step back from your situation, evaluate it, and continue from a more rational, calm state, is nearly always going to be beneficial. For beginners, this practice probably won’t be the first thing to come to mind when you’re experiencing high levels of stress or anger or sadness – so like any skill, you have to work on it from a simpler place.
Like meditation, you can take time out to work on your mindfulness, investigate how you’re feeling and why, before rationalising ways to act on those feelings.
What is good mental health?
Health benefits: Meta-analytically determining the impact of well-being on objective health outcomes http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17437190701492486?scroll=top&needAccess=true
Flourishing Across Europe: application of a New Conceptual Framework for Defining Well-Being
If you need support, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit www.lifeline.org.au/gethelp or call the Beyond Blue Support Service on 1300 224 636 or visit www.beyondblue.org.au/about-us/contact-us
If you’re a CBHS member with hospital cover or packaged product, you maybe eligible for our Mental Health Program. For more information on the program, contact CBHS’ Health and Wellness team on 02 9685 7567 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.