Before we explore topics that fall under the umbrella of mental health - topics like depression, anxiety, and trauma - we need to define our terms first.
What is mental health?
In order to wrap our minds around this, we can use a framework with which we are all somewhat or quite familiar: physical health.
Physical health is generally defined as the state of being free from illness or injury. We can also define it as the state in which our bodies are functioning as they should, even optimally.
How do we acquire or improve physical health? Three areas:
Diet/Nutrition, Exercise, and Rest.
After looking at each one briefly, we’ll translate into mental health.
Diet/Nutrition This is what we put in our body. Our dietary and nutritional needs are mostly met through the foods we eat, the liquids we drink, in other words, what we consume. A diet rich in clean water and whole, nutrient-dense foods is going to promote health in a way that a diet comprised of processed foods and empty calories cannot. These poorer food choices lead to discomfort, illness, and even disease. What we consume is all important! This is the first element of health. Our diets should promote health, not degrade it. Remember that phrase for later…
Exercise This is how often and how well we work our bodies. Exercise can be expressed by our level of fitness, and fitness is determined with three metrics: strength, endurance, and flexibility.
Strength is how much resistance the body can handle without losing form, without injury. As a former personal trainer, I saw a lot of people hefting significant weight but with poor form. Injury was one repetition away. True muscular strength means we can lift weight without losing proper form. Our musculoskeletal integrity stays intact. (Keep that phrase in mind.)
Endurance is how long we can last during exercise without failure. This requires a complex integration of almost every system in the body - the musculoskeletal, the cardiovascular, the nervous system and more play a part. We increase our endurance by challenging ourselves to go a little harder and a little farther each time we engage in exercise. Huge surges are not smart and lead to injury. Small increments are ideal.
Flexibility is not about doing splits or touching our toes. While these are basic and decent markers of flexibility, it is better defined as every joint in the body having full range of motion. Our joints are surrounded by muscles, tendons, and other soft tissues that allow for varying planes of mobility, depending on the mechanics of the joint. Flexibility means we can move freely along these planes with little to no resistance. A rigid body invites injury. That’s the phrase I want you to remember: rigidity invites injury.
Rest This is when the body recharges. While this may not seem like an important marker of health, it is essential! Without it, our systems are taxed to failure. Sleep is when our cells regenerate, our brains process through dreaming, and our muscles heal and grow. We all know that sleep-deprivation is a form of torture. This is because sleep is what resets our mind. The brain cannot properly function without adequate rest. The word to remember here is: recharge.
Alright. Now let’s switch to mental health. Recall those phrases I wanted you to keep in mind? They’re about to come to life in terms of your mental health.
When we talk about mental health (as opposed to emotional health, sexual health, etc.) we are talking specifically about the function of the mind. For our purposes here, we are going to focus on the purpose, quality, and activity of our thoughts.
Let’s break it down, using the principles above:
Diet/Nutrition This is what we put in our minds, what we consume. Reflect back on the last week. What media and sources of information did you consume? What did you read and watch? Where did you go for entertainment?
This is your mental diet.
The better and higher quality the material, the more it will contribute to your mental health. A mental diet rich in thoughtful, inspiring material will promote mental health far more positively than a mental diet comprised of “junk food.” And what is junk food, mentally speaking? Anything that numbs you, medicates you, depresses you, or raises your anxiety beyond your ability to cope. Learning, in and of itself, causes anxiety. This is normal, functional anxiety. But we have to reconsider consuming…
Social media It's a decent way to stay connected to the people in your life and history. While there are far better and more meaningful ways to connect (phone calls, visits), social media is a quick fix when we want to keep in touch. For business owners, it also provides an effective and powerful marketing tool. That said, for all the good it offers, it degrades the mental health of those who participate on its various platforms. For example: there is no good reason to allow ourselves to be mentally sabotaged by falsely constructed faux-realities. If we are going to stress, we allow stress for realistic circumstances and worthwhile causes, not because of photoshopped images, selected for their envy potential. Social media invites empty competition, comparison, and destroys relationships. This is junk food! A good marker is: when you feel yourself getting anxious, get off!
Video games Using video games as a source of diversion or entertainment is healthy as long as we are not diverting our attention where it is needed. When video games become an addiction/escape, we are in the realm of unhealthy. When we are postponing or procrastinating our responsibilities to play or finish a game, we have gone too far.
Pornography Much has been written about the toxic danger of porn. Its impact on the brain and brain function is well documented. It rearranges and hardwires our arousal systems in such a way that we cannot be aroused by normal means anymore. Porn use is highly addictive and for that reason will suppress painful feelings, feelings we need to feel in order to mature and grow in wisdom. (We’ll cover emotional health next week.)
Binge-watching TV There is nothing wrong with a little small-screen entertainment. This is a healthy way to engage our brains in stories, plots, and utilize critical thinking. However, some television programs are healthier than others. Reality TV can replace real living. Even a quality show can be enjoyed to excess, resulting in sleep-loss and relational absence. If we need to have the television on in the background, are we lonely?
News It's important to stay informed. It is also important to take a break and refocus on people and priorities that do not shift from day to day. Remember that news organizations are selling a product: stories. The more addictive, angering, and fear-inducing the news cycle, the more their product is bought and consumed. While journalists are an essential group of professionals in our society, we have to take in the news with the awareness that we as the consumers are in the vulnerable position. Protect yourself; protect your mind. When the news cycle is consuming your thoughts and conversation, it is time to take a break.
Negative people Yes, Folks. This is part of your mental diet. Remember we said that food should promote health, not degrade it. Relationships should do the same for your mental health. Those that leave you feeling drained, bored, uninspired, down, hopeless, and angry should be limited. These are toxic relationships, unhealthy for the mind. Our relationships should promote our sanity (not crush it with gaslighting and invalidation), strengthen our critical thinking skills, and inspire us.
Exercise This is how often and how well we work our minds. Mental exercise can be expressed by our level of "mental fitness,” and mental fitness can be determined with the same three metrics: strength, endurance, and flexibility.
Strength is how much resistance the mind can handle without injury. The world does not and need not coddle us. Every day we are faced with intellectual, mental challenges. These may take the form of bad advice, illogical thinking, complex problems to solve, and assaults on our thought processes. Our ability to continue to think rationally and critically, without emotional outbursts or breakdowns, is a sign of mental strength. When we are rooted in clear thinking and solid principles, and we stay true to who we are. In this way, our mental integrity stays intact.
Endurance is how long we can focus without failure. Distraction is the enemy of mental endurance. Mental strength here means that when we set our minds, we do not lose direction. We can set goals and either see them through to completion or reassess them, but we do not simply abandon them, thereby abandoning ourselves. We can stay the course, whether that’s reading a book, finishing a task, or spearheading a venture. We remain focused, keeping our goals small and achievable day by day. Baby steps are winning steps. Remember that huge surges are unnecessary. Small increments are ideal.
Flexibility means we are committed to what we think we know but not married to it. Mentally strong people change their minds. If evidence or reason arises that suggests a better or more productive way of thinking, mentally healthy people shift. Rigidity can result in hurt or lost relationships and missed opportunities for growth. Mental flexibility is key! Remember that rigidity invites injury. Where mental health is concerned, that injury most often occurs in our relationships.
Rest This is when the mind recharges. Some of us have become Human Thinkings instead of Human Beings. We need rest from the mental toughness and busy-ness of the day. Perhaps we listen to music and allow our minds to float along the melody. Perhaps we watch a movie and allow our brains to stop generating activity and receive information instead. Perhaps we meditate, removing ourselves from our constant thoughts and learn to observe them rather than dwell in them. When our mental activity is high, we need commensurate rest.
Folks, this is how you acquire and measure mental health. It isn’t just the absence of mental illness and disease but also the consistency and quality of your mental activity.
Markers of mental health are: positivity, critical thinking, consistent learning, inspiration, focus, meditation, and balance.
Markers of mental distress that might well lead to mental illness are: negativity, conformity (otherwise known as “group think”), boredom, anxiety, distractibility, and living in extremes.
Where can you improve your mental health?
Next week: Emotional Health