By Brad Bowins, MD, FRCP(C)
Identifying the pillars of “good” mental health is crucial to improving our mental and emotional well-being.
In my work as a psychiatrist and researcher, I have identified seven behaviors that contribute to quality mental health: activity, defense mechanisms, social connection, regulation, human specific cognition, self-acceptance and adaptability.
When trying to improve your mental health, it might be helpful to keep these healthy behaviors in mind.
During our evolution in hunting-gathering groups, we had to be active to survive. As a result, humans are built for movement and mental engagement — both of which are critical to our overall health. Indeed, when we’re mentally and physically active, we are less likely to be isolated and withdrawn.
Typically, symptoms of mental illness include withdrawn behavior and, in the case of depression, reduced activity. However, physical and mental activities (such as exploring nature, socializing, playing sports, creating art or listening to music) improve this issue. As a result, activity can help people with mental illness experience positive emotions and improve their mood.
It is human nature to focus on negative circumstances more than positive scenarios. This is because historically, people had to compete for limited resources — and we evolved to prioritize negative emotions, such as sadness and fear, to ensure our survival.
When we use defense mechanisms, we can counter negativity and favor positivity. For example, humor is a powerful tool, as it can help us channel and release our negative energy in a constructive way. Other strategies include putting a more “positive spin” on events and detaching from negativity through mindfulness. These methods can help us defend against adverse feelings and circumstances.
Research confirms that people require quality social contact for mental health. Accordingly, loneliness proves to be a major contributing factor to symptoms of mental illness.
All forms of connection are beneficial, not simply face-to-face human contact. For example, people who feel isolated respond well to finding companionship through pets.
However, social connection implies supportive interactions, not just any interaction. Negative interactions, like bullying or spending time with a friend or family member who stigmatizes mental illness, can be detrimental to mental health. To prioritize our mental health, we must avoid these experiences and seek out connection through positive relationships.
Emotion regulation is the ability to exert control over our own emotional state. This skill is crucial for maintaining healthy emotions, thoughts and behavior. Many mental illnesses (including depression, anxiety, mania and psychosis) entail “compromised regulation” over emotions and thought processes.
Successful emotion regulation diminishes our negative emotions (like sadness, fear and anger) so that positive emotions (like excitement) outweigh negative ones. Equally important is regulating our thought processes to ensure that our thoughts are compatible with reality.
Having an awareness of our emotions and thoughts is an essential first step. With that awareness, we can then reframe our negative perceptions and thoughts and replace them with positive ones.
Basic cognition, social cognition and motivational processes are powerful — although commonly unappreciated — components of good mental health.
Basic cognition largely consists of our “executive functions,” such as attention, organization, planning and multitasking. Social cognition includes our capacity to interpret emotions in facial expressions, understand the intent of others and recognize one’s own role in relationships. Motivation takes various forms, such as striving for knowledge or self-improvement, seeking out friendships or romantic partners and acquiring basic needs like food, water and shelter.
Discussions of mental health frequently omit human specific cognition, but difficulties with this type of cognition are evident in autism spectrum disorders, intellectual disabilities, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression. Practicing our executive functions and social cognition (such as practicing reading facial expressions) can help improve these skills.
Accepting oneself is a pillar of “good” mental health — not liking who we are has long been associated with mental illness. Self-acceptance is a process that involves both “evaluative” and “perspective” components.
Self-esteem refers to our evaluation of our positive or negative value. Self-concept can be viewed as the sum of our beliefs (our perspective) regarding our personal attributes and qualities. Self-acceptance occurs when we have both a healthy self-esteem and self-concept. In other words, we view ourselves positively and understand our own value.
When self-esteem and self-concept are negative, mental illnesses, such as depression and anxiety, are more likely to develop and persist. Engaging in strategies, such as self-esteem journaling and writing down positive actions, combined with engaging in fulfilling activity, can help improve self-acceptance.
Life circumstances are ever-changing, and our capacity to adjust behavior to align with unforeseen change is crucial for maintaining our mental health. Simply put, life requires flexibility. A lack of flexibility results in unfavorable outcomes contributing to mental illness.
Repetitive unhealthy behavior (such as never leaving your house) is a key contributor to recurrent and persistent mental health problems. Conversely, symptoms of mental illness often limit our adaptability; this often manifests in avoidance and lack of motivation. This can create a cycle of unhealthy behavior that is hard to break.
Breaking this cycle by repeatedly replacing repetitive unhealthy behavior (not leaving the house) with adaptable behavior (forcing ourselves to go for a walk or meet up with a friend) is essential to maintaining mental health.
As hard as it is, sometimes the only way to reduce mental illness symptoms is to push ourselves to engage in these healthy behaviors. Ultimately, when we use these seven behaviors, we are doing the best we can to protect and prioritize our mental health.
Dr. Bowins is a psychiatrist, psychotherapist, researcher and founder of The Centre for Theoretical Research In Psychiatry & Clinical Psychology. His work aims to advance the way that key aspects of mental illness are understood, including psychological defense mechanisms, depression, psychosis and schizophrenia, hypomania, personality disorders, repetitive maladaptive behavior, psychological regulation and the true nature of psychopathology.
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