What is Good Mental Health?
And How Do We Achieve It?
Increasingly, strong mental health is being recognized as critical to our overall health,
happiness, and meaning in life. As we move out of an era in which mental health challenges
were shamed and silenced into an era in which mental health disorders are more broadly
understood and accepted, we also have an opportunity to understand how good mental health
is defined, what it looks like, and how to pursue it. Let’s talk!
What is Good Mental Health?
To start with, how can we define good mental health? According to the World Health
Organization (WHO), mental health is a “state of well-being in which every individual realizes
his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and
fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.”
To expound on the WHO definition, good mental health is not simply the absence of mental
health disorder, just as strong physical health is not the absence of illness. That we are not
experiencing clinical depression may not mean that we are in a prime place of mental wellness.
Rather, as embedded in the WHO definition, strong mental health includes the presence of
positive mental health characteristics.
Positive Characteristics of Mental Health
- A sense of peace and contentment with one’s life
- The ability to deal with stressors in one’s life
- A sense of meaning and purpose
- The ability to adapt to change and respond to adversity
- A balance between work and play
- The ability to build and maintain fulfilling relationships
- A love for oneself that shows up as self-confidence
The good news is that each of these positive mental health characteristics can be intentionally
developed. Just as we can tone and condition our bodies for optimal physical health, we can
tone and condition our minds and spirits for optimal mental health.
As an example, a sense of meaning and purpose can be cultivated. Reflecting on our own life
experience, seeking wisdom from mentors, reading and studying, journaling in pursuit of self-
discovery, and seeking spiritual texts and wisdom are actions we can take to grow our sense of
meaning. Even under the most challenging of life circumstances, meaning and purpose is
available. In his book Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl describes his life in the death
camps of WWII. Despite the horrifying living conditions, Frankl, a psychiatrist, observed that the
prisoners who were more likely to survive the experience had rich inner lives, an orientation
toward the future, and an ability to construe meaning from lived experience.
As Frankl described, having strong mental health does not mean that we never go through bad
times or experience emotional problems. Rather, life regularly serves us disappointments, loss,
and change. And very often, these hard times can cause sadness, anxiety, and stress. But just as
physically healthy people are better able to bounce back from illness or injury, people with
strong mental health are better able to bounce back from adversity, trauma, and stress. This
ability is called resilience.
Pursuing Strong Mental Health
So how do we build these positive mental health characteristics? Here are several ideas to
develop our mental health:
- Build social connection – Humans are social creatures and
a we are most fulfillednd mentally healthy when we are in relationship with others. We are being reminded of at great need for connection during this time of social isolation. Reach out to those you love for conversation and meet ups (if possible in this COVID era) as ways to care for yourselves as well as your loved ones. If you find yourself in need of additional connection, you can reach out to people who are currently acquaintances. Lots of people are uncomfortable making the first move in a relationship – but when
we see that action from others, it looks courageous. Brene’ Brown teaches
us that “vulnerability is the first thing I look for in you and the last thing I’m
willing to show you. In you, it’s courage and daring. In me, it’s weakness.”
So summon up your courage and be the first one to reach out, knowing you will
be seen as courageous. Further, consider joining any one of a host of worthy causes
that align with your interests. Whether you are an advocate for race relations,
literacy, public health, or fighting poverty, there are like-minded people out
there who are already mobilized and will gladly receive you.
- Stay physically active – Research continues to prove
profound connection between physical activity and mental health. Exercise is a proven natural antidepressant, it relieves anxiety, reduces stress, improves sleep quality, and helps to add play to your life. If you already have a favorite activity, you already know the value of exercise. If you don’t enjoy exercise, start with a simple walk around the block. Notice your frame of mind before you leave, and actively note what you are feeling and thinking. Upon your return from your walk, consider your new frame of mind and notice
what you are feeling and thinking. This brief experiment will help to underscore
the significant and readily available mental health benefits of exercise.
- Actively manage your stress – In this era of global pandemic, deep racial
tension, and economic recession there are many sources of external threat,
resulting in stress. Stress is both a biological and physiological response to external threat. Pulses quicken, thoughts race, and the body sweats as biological responses to stress. Brain chemicals such as cortisol and adrenaline flood through our body as physiological responses to stress. Stress can negatively affect physical and mental health, and has been linked to autoimmune disease, migraines, obesity, high cholesterol, coronary heart disease, hypertension and stroke. Particularly in this stressful current moment in history, finding healthy ways to manage stress will return you to a centered place in your body, while your emotions regulate, and your body and brain function more optimally. Each of us is different, and therefore finding stress management that work for you is important. Perhaps music, or a call to a friend, or a groovy yoga session are your go-to stress reduction methods. Maybe for you, going for a run, cooking an
amazing meal, and tending to your gardenias reduces stress. Search for
these methods that are purely you; know them about yourself. Then actively
carve out space in your calendar to engage in these quieting and relieving activities.
- Focus on nutrition – Research reinforces the link between
mental wellness and nutrition. While our bodies may call out for comfort foods when we are feeling depressed or stressed, we actually will do better to address the underlying mental condition to feed ourselves healthy foods. Foods that negatively affect mood include caffeine, alcohol, trans fats, foods with high chemicals, sugary food, and fried food. Comparatively, foods that positively affect mood include fatty fish rich in Omega-3s such as salmon, herring, anchovies and tuna; nuts such as walnuts, almonds and cashews;
flaxseed, leafy greens, and fresh fruits. Next time you are feeling depressed or
stressed, consider whipping up a spinach, fruit, flaxseed smoothie rather than
tucking into that bag of potato chips! Your body and your mind will thank you.
- Protect your sleep – Did you know that while you sleep, your
body is pumpingcerebrospinal fluid through your brain, flushing awaywaste products? Your brain is literally being cleaned and restored as you sleep, which may explain why you can wake feeling refreshed and energized in the morning after a good night’s sleep. Mental health challenges such as anxiety and depression can chip away at a good night’s sleep, exacerbating the underlying mental health challenge even further. But again, we can work on this good mental health promoter. Tending to your sleep hygiene,
that is, creating a soothing sleep ritual and unplugging from external stimulation
can help. A warm bath at night, reading, listening to soothing
music, deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or bedtime meditations
can all contribute to generating a natural feeling of sleepiness. Unplugging
from technology and screens at least 30 minutes before bedtime, and ensuring
your bedroom is quiet, cool and dark will also help. Here again, know what
uniquely works for you and actively guard your night-time ritual to maximize
the possibility of a good night’s sleep.
Seeking Professional Help
Following these practices will help, but if you find yourself still struggling, or simply needing support, consider seeking help from a professional therapist. Often, getting care from a qualified professional can help motivate us to take better care of ourselves. Please feel free to contact me if I can help you get connected to someone who will be a good fit for you.
Brown, B. Rising Strong (2015); Spiegel and Grau, New York: New York
Frankl, V. E. Man’s search for meaning: An introduction to logotherapy (1984); New York: Simon & Schuster.
HelpGuide, Building Better Mental Health. [online] Link to article.
World Health Organization (WHO), 2014. Mental Health: a State of Wellbeing. [online] Link to report.
Mental Health Counselor
Brenda is a mental health counselor who combines Counseling Psychology experience, Human Resources business experience, personal cancer recovery, and life experience of the last 25 years to care for clients. Brenda owns Thrive Counseling Services LLC, a Kirkland-based counseling practice focused on trauma care. Brenda also serves with Cancer Lifeline, a support organization for cancer survivors and their families.
Brenda’s primary counseling modality is Lifespan Integration, which is gentle, body-based therapeutic method that heals without re-traumatizing. Using a person-centered approach, Brenda also offers support with anxiety, depression, grief, and loss.
Brenda believes the therapeutic relationship and therapeutic modalities can produce healing, transformation, learning, and growth. Brenda’s hope for her clients, as for all of us, is to consider, practice, and adopt new ways of being and living that are healing and revitalizing.
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