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What is Mental Health?

By Emily Jennings and Dave Cortright | Published on May 14, 2023

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and this month’s first Mental Health Roadmap Series post is about discovering mental health.

 

In this post, we’ll touch on:

  • What is mental health

  • What are emotions and why do we have them?

  • Self-regulation

  • Talking about your emotions

We’ve decided to break our monthly posts down into weekly posts, so next week, we’ll cover:

  • The importance of your relationships with others and yourself

  • What self-care is

  • The difference between self-care and processing

Our last edition for this month will cover:

  • What well-being is

  • A way of thinking of the concepts of Mind, Body, and Soul

  • And the concept of mental health as a lifetime commitment

 

In July, we'll move on to Part 2 of the Mental Health Roadmap Series, where we’ll be talking about Exploring Therapy & Self-Help.

 

What is mental health?

 

This fact sheet by the World Health Organization does an excellent job of giving a full, easily digestible description of what mental health is.

In summary, mental health is part and parcel of one’s health and well-being. Good mental health is not just the absence of mental health disorders or conditions, but the ability to handle stressors and make decisions such that one can live a meaningful life. It’s a continuum on which one sits and is constantly shifting. Our experiences and how we handle them can lead us to states of poorer or better mental health, and various biological and environmental factors can predispose us to better or worse mental health, just as they can affect our physical health. 

In fact, mental health and physical health are not separate states of health; they affect each other. For example, if you broke it in a cycling accident, you might become afraid of returning to that activity and have anxiety about bikes. You might also become depressed because you can’t play football on Saturdays while your arm is healing, taking you away from an activity that improved your well-being due to the exercise, time outdoors, and positive social interactions that came with it.

However, not everyone responds the same way to the same experiences. This can lead to some people developing mental health conditions where others might not—and that’s ok. It doesn’t make the person affected weak, or the person who wasn’t affected particularly strong, and it doesn’t mean one person’s experience or trauma is worse than another’s. It just means they probably both have different life experiences and are affected by different factors, such that one person was more likely to respond one way to the experience than the other.

Furthermore, when recovering from any mental trauma, it’s just as reasonable to have accommodations for any limits to your capacity as it is when recovering from physical trauma. 

Having more or less experience in life won’t necessarily lead someone to be better “prepared” for what life throws at them. Again, mental health is a continuum. Sometimes you’re at one point, and sometimes you’re at another. You might respond differently to the same event one day than you would have had you experienced it another time.

That said, there are preventative measures you can take to try and build resilience to buffer against what life throws at you, such as reducing stress, increasing your resilience, and improving your self-esteem. We’ll get into some of those in future posts, but today we’ll specifically discuss self-regulation and awareness of one’s emotions. 

 

What are emotions and why do we have them?

 

There are a few ideas in emotions research that scientists generally agree about, such as the existence of universal signals of emotions (facial or vocal) and evidence for five basic emotions: anger, fear, disgust, sadness, and happiness. However, scientists do not and historically have not agreed on a central theory of emotion, leading to the existence of six major theories of emotion. A basic understanding and awareness of these theories can be helpful in the process of self-regulation and becoming aware of one’s emotions.

 

The six major theories of emotion:

  1. Charles Darwin’s Evolutionary Theory of Emotion says our emotions exist because they serve the adaptive role of motivating us to respond quickly to our environment in order to increase our chances of success and survival, i.e., fearing a bear that could eat you.

  2. The James-Lange Theory of Emotion says our emotions are the results of our body’s physiological reactions to stimuli, i.e., there’s an increase in adrenaline from seeing a bear that could eat you, and you then feel a fear of the bear.

  3. The Cannon-Bard Theory of Emotion disagrees with the James-Lange theory and says emotions happen too quickly to be reactions to physiological changes, and therefore physical symptoms do not precede an emotion, but rather occur independently and simultaneously, i.e., your heart starts racing and you simultaneously fear a bear.

  4. The Schachter-Singer Theory of Emotion says that a physiological response to a stimulus takes place, and then given the context in which it occurs, one assigns an emotion to the experience to make sense of it. So, because contexts can vary per experience, one could experience a racing heart upon seeing a bear and interpret the emotion they experience as fear if encountering the bear while camping, or as anger if encountering the bear at a zoo.

  5. According to the Cognitive Appraisal Theory of Emotion (also known as the Lazarus Theory of Emotion, after psychologist Richard Lazarus), the brain appraises an experience, and the result of the appraisal is an emotion, followed by an action. To borrow and expand on the example linked in the article above, you encounter a bear while camping, you appraise the situation as one that’s dangerous, you then experience fear, and you then freeze or flee from the bear, if you don’t try to fight.

  6. The sixth major theory is the Facial-Feedback Theory of Emotion, which says that you experience an emotion based on changes in your facial muscles that form your reaction to a given stimulus. So if you see a bear while camping, your eyes widen, your eyebrows raise, and your jaw drops, and you experience shock and fear from seeing the bear.

 

These theories of emotions can help one to conceptualize how emotions work and see emotions as physical reactions, which can help one to create some distance from seeing emotions as one’s “fault” or as a defect. Emotions are a natural response to one’s circumstances and how they are relating to the world around them.

 

Emotions can indicate to us what our needs are and flag what needs are not being met. We can use awareness of the information our emotions provide to better understand what we can do to help ourselves feel better. It’s like the reaction you have when you burn your hand: you immediately pull back and realize you shouldn’t touch something hot because it hurts. Emotional pain is much the same: it tells you there is a need to attend to something that is hurting you. 

 

Self-regulation

 

Becoming aware of your emotions and learning to manage the behavior and feelings that you experience in response to your circumstances and experiences is a powerful skill known as self-regulation. Once you’re able to regulate how you respond to what happens in your life (i.e., stop and think and make a plan), you might find that you’re better able to handle stress and frustration, your anxiety and well-being improve, and that it’s easier to build social connections and achieve your goals. You can read more about self-regulation and effective strategies in this article from VeryWell Mind, and if you want to go more in-depth, check out the Handbook of Self-Regulation, which was compiled by the world’s leading researchers on self-regulation.

 

So how does one self-regulate? Recognizing that you can control your response to a situation is the first step, but then stopping to think and make a plan is not as simple as it seems, especially when your emotions are heightened and any insecurities are felt. Some strategies you could adopt to help make self-regulation come more naturally to you are (in no particular order):

  1. Practicing mindfulness meditation

  2. Cognitive reappraisal (or reframing)

  3. Practicing acceptance for how things are and letting go of what’s outside of your control

  4. Expanding your emotional literacy (i.e., your ability to identify and understand your emotions and the emotions of others) - you can start by taking a quiz or two to check your EQ (short for emotional intelligence)

  5. Journaling 

  6. Setting goals for what you want to achieve and reminding yourself of them

  7. Checking in with yourself concerning your values

  8. Identify the stressors and triggers that lead to you feeling upset, so you can more easily recognize them and make a plan for how you’ll handle them

  9. Practicing gratitude for what you have now, taking the focus off of what you don’t have

  10. Exercising

  11. Practicing yoga

  12. Noticing your surroundings (e.g., Go for a walk and study the leaves on a nearby tree)

  13. Focus on one thing or task at a time

  14. Practice deep breathing (such as the 4-7-8 breathing technique)

 

You can combine any of these strategies or just use one or two, whatever works for you. Some suggestions are more geared toward helping you slow down and stay present (e.g., practicing yoga), while others are more so actual strategies for self-regulating (e.g., cognitive reappraisal). Whatever you do, by making some of these practices and strategies a regular practice or daily habit, you’ll be more likely to make use of them and feel their full benefit when you most need to self-regulate.

 

Learning from others

 

One key aspect of learning to self-regulate is finding people you can learn from. A lot of the work you’ll do learning to become aware of your emotions and then regulate them is work that is only really effective when you interact with other people. You can read as much as you want about emotions and self-regulation, but until you put the skills you want to learn to practice, there’s no way they’re going to develop. It’s therefore important to expose yourself to experiences where you can practice self-regulation.

 

It can be equally as important to learn more about self-regulation from people who are grounded and know how to self-regulate. Look for the people in your life who seem to handle their emotions well and try to spend more time with them. Think about how they respond in stressful situations or situations that could lead to heightened emotions and take note of the strategies they use and that you think could be applicable to your own life situations.

 

Talking about mental health

 

People have historically been less likely to speak up about their mental health. It’s been ok to talk about a physical injury, but not about a traumatic event that’s left you feeling anxious and depressed. Yet it’s just as important to feel able to seek help for and talk openly about those feelings of anxiety and depression as it is to talk about and seek help for corporal ailments.

 

If talking about challenging emotions has not been modeled for you or encouraged in your family or peer groups, then this might feel awkward, uncomfortable, or even taboo. In extreme cases, you may have even been punished for trying to share your feelings. You may have been led to believe that we individually must work through these feelings alone and that anyone who can’t do so is weak.

 

The exact opposite is true! We are social creatures, and as such, we were designed to connect with one another. Sharing emotions is one of the primary ways we do this. Know that there are spaces out there where it is safe and even encouraged for you to open up about how you feel. If the people around you are not able to be supportive, then it might help to reach out to a therapist, mentor, coach, teacher, support group, peer, colleague, or really anyone with whom you feel comfortable. And if it doesn't work out the first time, it's ok to try again with someone else, as it can take some trial and error to find situations and relationships in which you truly feel comfortable being open and vulnerable.

More from the Mental Health Roadmap Series

Discovering Mental Health

Part 1: What is Mental Health? 

Part 2: Relationships & Mental Health

Part 3: All about Well-Being

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