What exactly is mental health?
We can think of mental health as the ability to adapt in challenging situations by effectively managing our thoughts and emotions in order to continue pursuing worthy goals and behaving in line with our values. Mental health is not something you have, it is something you practice.
Mental health can be broken down further into three major components: cognitive health, emotional health, and behavioral health. Each of these components interacts with and influences the others, and they are all imperative to overall wellbeing.
Let’s learn a bit more about each of these components:
1. Cognitive health
Our thoughts are constantly running in the background like a radio. In fact, a recent study discovered we have over 6,000 thoughts on average per day! These thoughts are often so automatic that we don’t stop to recognize them for what they are – just thoughts – prone to error and bias, and not at all a reflection of objective truth.
We run into trouble when we treat our thoughts as facts instead of hypotheses because our thoughts have a major influence on our emotions and behaviors. In other words, the way we think matters for how we feel and act.
Say you receive some critical feedback from your supervisor. The conclusions you draw in response to this feedback will influence how you feel and how you decide to respond. If you have the thought, “I’m a failure”, you might feel ashamed and hopeless. You might feel less confident, less motivated, and less creative, and your lackluster performance at work only makes you feel like even more of a failure.
Recognizing a thought for what it is – just a thought – is an important first step in freeing yourself from the trap of believing everything you think. Say, I’m having the thought that I’m a failure. Now, put this hypothesis to the test. Look for evidence to the contrary. Can you think of evidence that you are not in fact a failure? Ask yourself, Is there another way to think about this?
Check out our blog on interrupting anxiety spirals for strategies for reframing anxious thoughts.
2. Emotional health
Our emotions help motivate us to take action in line with our goals and values. They motivate us to seek out meaningful experiences, avoid danger and embarrassment, and much more. They can be a helpful source of information. But just like our thoughts, they can be biased and misleading. We might sense danger when we’re actually safe and vice versa.
When we give our emotions more credit than they’re worth, we run the risk of getting caught in the riptide. On the other hand, if we habitually block our emotions, we effectively retreat from life itself. The trick then is to accept our emotional experiences without denying them or blindly obeying them.
Start by naming the emotion you’re feeling. Try to be as specific as possible. At first you might only feel anger, but keep digging. Can you be more specific? Referring to an “emotion wheel” like this one can help aid you in the process of identifying what you’re feeling.
Naming the emotion gives you permission to feel it. It also contextualizes the emotion so you can better understand how exactly it was provoked. Is this a reaction to a thought you had? If so, you might use your accurate thinking skills to reframe that thought.
3. Behavioral health
Behavioral health can be qualified by things like how engaged you are with the world around you, how well you’re functioning, the quality of your relationships, and the degree to which you feel a sense of belonging and community.
Learning to effectively manage your thoughts and emotions will in turn improve your behavioral health. Right-sizing your fears and riding the waves of your emotions will empower you to engage with the world around you instead of avoiding new or challenging situations.
Mental Health Awareness
Life is hard. We are constantly confronted with challenges, distractions, and obstacles that threaten to derail us. This is the nature of the human experience. When we learn concrete skills for better managing our inner worlds, we are empowered to take ownership over our own wellbeing.