Your mental health influences how you think, feel and behave in daily life. It also affects your ability to cope with stress, overcome challenges, build relationships, and recover from life’s setbacks and hardships.
What does it mean to be mentally healthy? Mental health refers to your overall psychological well-being. It encompasses the way you feel about yourself, the quality of your relationships, and your ability to manage your feelings and deal with difficulties. Strong mental health is not just the absence of mental health problems. Being mentally or emotionally healthy is much more than being free of depression, anxiety, or other psychological issues. Rather than the absence of mental illness, mental health refers to the presence of positive characteristics.
Generally, people who are mentally healthy have a sense of contentment, a zest for living and the ability to laugh and have fun. They also have the ability to deal with stress and bounce back from adversity, as well as a sense of meaning and purpose, in both their activities and their relationships. In the same vein, a sound mental health comes with a flexibility to learn new skills and adapt to change, a balance between work and play, rest and activity, an ability to build and maintain fulfilling relationships, self-confidence and high self-esteem.
These positive characteristics of mental and emotional health allow you to participate in life to the fullest extent possible through productive, meaningful activities and strong relationships. These positive characteristics also help you cope when faced with life’s challenges and stresses. You are resilient when you are healthy mentally.
Resilience, key factor in mental health
But, at the same time, resilience is very vital in your ability to maintain a sound mental health.
Having solid mental health doesn’t mean that you will never go through bad times or experience emotional problems. All human beings go through disappointments, loss, and change. And while these are normal parts of life, they can still 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.
People who are emotionally and mentally resilient have the tools for coping with difficult situations and maintaining a positive outlook. They remain focused, flexible, and productive, in bad times as well as good. Their resilience also makes them less afraid of new experiences or an uncertain future. Even when they don’t immediately know how a problem will get resolved, they are hopeful that a solution will eventually be found. In order to maintain a sound mental health, you need to be resilient.
Below are some suggestions that can help you take better care of your mental health.
Get informed about mental health
Despite the high prevalence of mental health cases, many people don’t understand what really constitutes mental illness. Psychiatrists identify ignorance as the biggest challenge in dealing with mental illness. To be able to effectively take care of your mental health, you should know what mental illness really means. According to Dr Olugbenga Owoeye, Consultant Psychiatrist, Federal Neuro-Psychiatrist Hospital, Yaba, Lagos, Mental illness is any clinical condition that is characterised by psychological disturbances.
“That is, disturbances of emotion, of thinking, of memory or behaviour that are severe enough to cause pain or distress to the person suffering from the illness, and the people around them. When it is associated with impairment in social and occupational functioning, we say that the individual is mentally sick,” he said.
Owoeye noted that inadequate knowledge about mental illness has a dismal impact on the treatment of mental health cases.
“Most of the severe mental health cases, especially depression, anxiety and stress related disorders, present in a way that people may not even know that hospital is the next point of call. So people don’t think of going to the hospital first and as a result of this, there is delay over a period of time before eventually coming to the hospital for treatment. This delay tends to affect both the treatment and the outcome of the treatment,” he added.
Don’t ignore signs of mental illness
Most times, we ignore the emotional messages that tell us something is wrong and try toughing it out by distracting ourselves or self-medicating with alcohol, drugs, or other self-destructive behaviours. We bottle up our problems in the hope that others won’t notice. This should be avoided by all means.
Understand that mental health requires care
Just as it requires effort to build and maintain physical health, so it is with mental health. We have to work harder these days to ensure strong mental health, simply because there are so many ways through which life takes a toll on our emotional well-being.
Why are we often reluctant or unable to address our mental health needs?
Our inability to address our mental health needs stems from a variety of reasons, particularly the fact that mental and emotional issues are still seen as less legitimate than physical issues. They are seen as a sign of weakness or somehow as being the fault of the patient. Men, especially, would often rather bottle up their feelings than seek help.
In the modern age, we are obsessed with seeking simple answers to complex problems. We look for connection with others by compulsively checking social media instead of reaching out to people in the real world. To boost our mood and ease depression we take a pill, rather than address the underlying issues.
Make social connection a priority – especially face-to-face interactions
No matter how much time you devote to improving your mental and emotional health, you will still need the company of others to feel and function at your best. Humans are social creatures with emotional needs for relationships and positive connections to others. We are not meant to survive, let alone thrive, in isolation.
Phone calls and social networks have their place, but nothing can beat the power of quality face-to-face time with other people. Go out of your way to build new friendships. Join networking, social, or special interest groups that meet on a regular basis. Don’t be afraid to smile and say hello to strangers you cross paths with.
Improve your physical health
The mind and the body are intrinsically linked. When you improve your physical health, you will automatically experience greater mental and emotional well-being. Physical activity also releases endorphins, powerful chemicals that lift your mood and provide added energy. Regular exercise or activity can have a major impact on mental and emotional health problems, relieve stress, improve memory, and help you to sleep better.
Learn how to keep your stress levels in check
Stress takes a heavy toll on mental and emotional health, so it is important to keep it under control. While not all stressors can be avoided, stress management strategies can help you maintain balance. You can lessen your stress level by engaging in activities that appeal to your senses – like listening to an uplifting song, reading a book, watching a movie, or doing any other activity. Just make leisure time a priority. Partake in your favourite activities for no reason other than that they make you feel good. Play is an emotional and mental health necessity.
Make time for contemplation and appreciation
Think about the things you are grateful for. Meditate, pray, enjoy the sunset, or simply take a moment to pay attention to what is good, positive, and beautiful as you go about your day.
Manage emotions to relieve stress
Understanding and accepting your emotions, especially those unpleasant ones many of us try to ignore, can make a huge difference in your ability to manage stress and balance your moods.
Eat a brain-healthy diet to support strong mental health
You may not be aware of how much of what you eat – and don’t eat – affects the way you think and feel. An unhealthy diet can take a toll on your brain and mood, disrupt your sleep, sap your energy, and weaken your immune system. Conversely, switching to a wholesome diet, low in sugar and rich in healthy fats, can give you more energy, improve your sleep and mood, and help you to look and feel your best.
Foods that adversely affect mood include caffeine, alcohol, trans fats or anything with partially hydrogenated oil, foods with high levels of chemical preservatives or hormones, sugary snacks, refined carbs (such as white rice or white flour) and fried food.
On the other hand, foods that boost mood include fatty fish rich in Omega-3s such as salmon, herring, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, tuna, nuts such as walnuts, almonds, cashews, peanuts, avocados, flaxseed, beans, leafy greens such as spinach, kale, Brussel’s sprouts, and fresh fruit such as blueberries.
Get enough sleep – it matters more than you think
If you lead a busy life, cutting back on sleep may seem like a smart move. But when it comes to your mental health, getting enough sleep is a necessity, not a luxury. Skipping even a few hours here and there can take a toll on your mood, energy, mental sharpness, and ability to handle stress. And over the long-term, chronic sleep loss can wreak havoc on your health and outlook.
Find purpose and meaning in life
Everyone derives meaning and purpose in different ways that involve benefiting others, as well as yourself. You may think of it as a way to feel needed, feel good about yourself, a purpose that drives you on, or simply a reason to get out of bed in the morning. In biological terms, finding meaning and purpose is essential to brain health as it can help generate new cells and create new neural pathways in the brain. It can also strengthen your immune system, alleviate pain, relieve stress, and keep you motivated to pursue the other steps to improve mental and emotional health. However you derive meaning and purpose in life, it is important to do it every day.
Know when to seek professional help
If you have made consistent efforts to improve your mental and emotional health and still aren’t functioning optimally at home, work, or in your relationships, it may be time to seek professional help.
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