A recipe for mental health

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One thing that strikes me about the term “mental health” is that we often use it as a euphemism for mental illness. For example, many events around the country in mental health week are geared toward raising awareness about and de-stigmatizing mental illness.

Whereas these are thoroughly worthwhile goals, there is more to mental health awareness than recognizing the challenges of the unfortunate minority, albeit very numerous minority, of those with classifiable mental disorders such as depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

This can distract from the notion of mental health as being a positive attribute that we can all further develop. We can bolster our positive mental health just as we can promote our physical health. We can often use similar methods, such as maintaining regular exercise and a healthy diet, and engaging in such activities as spending time in nature.

The link between mind and body is complex, and we might all best develop something of our own recipe for bolstering our mental health. However, there are a number of universal principles that can be worth attending to. Increasingly, businesses and schools are drawing on these principles to promote the health, wellbeing and productivity of staff and students.

Over the past fifteen years the field of positive psychology has made an enormous evidence-based contribution to understanding the kinds of things that are beneficial to our mental health and wellbeing. A general guide is to consider the PERMA model, whereby we actively pursue practices and experiences which bolster our positive emotions, engagement in tasks and life roles, relationships, sense of meaning or purpose and accomplishment.

Beyond these broad domains there are several core strategies or life skills that can help prevent illness or mitigate psychological distress. Firstly it helps to be aware of our own “stress signature” whereby we recognize our personal escalating responses to mild, moderate or severe stress. For some people, early signs of increased stress might include irritability and distractibility as well as some disruption to sleep. If stress levels are further exacerbated, this might lead to low energy levels, headaches, reduced social contact and even further disruption to sleep. More advanced symptoms might include reduced motivation in work and leisure activities, chest pain or panic attacks and severely disrupted sleep.

Others will experience a different pattern of escalating symptoms. The more we recognize our own individual stress reactions, the earlier we will hopefully intervene before our escalating distress becomes unduly severe or prolonged, perhaps leading to burnout at work, depression or other forms of mental illness.

Secondly it helps to have undertaken practice in a discipline to help reduce muscle tension and modulate our arousal levels, such as relaxation techniques, mindfulness, meditation or yoga. These techniques help reduce stress hormones such as cortisol, lower heart rate and blood pressure, and assist our sleep and immune functioning. If we have engaged in regular practice of such techniques even for a month, preferably several times a week, our familiarity with the technique can help draw on it during or soon after periods of increased stress. Using such strategies helps us mitigate stress reactions and rebound more quickly if we feel overwhelmed.

It helps to actively draw on our social supports when feeling unduly stretched or overwhelmed. Almost all mental health problems have less impact when people have good social supports that they can readily draw upon. It makes a difference if people speak up or ask for help from others if they are feeling overwhelmed. This can be a particular issue for men who tend to believe that acknowledging vulnerability is a sign of weakness, or a sign of failing to be sufficiently resourceful. Drawing on supports at strategic times is one of the most resourceful things that you can do. Others are often pleased to be able to help ease a burden, even if it is simply by offering a listening ear. By hearing ourselves speak aloud about our concerns or problems with an empathic other, it can help put things in a better or more hopeful perspective. In more ways than one, our connection with others is a key.

To further promote wellbeing it helps to draw on our individual strengths, including personality strengths, whilst engaging in meaningful activity that is of benefit to others. This helps prevent disease and supports longevity. See our blog on identifying signature character strengths to explore this further.

These practices, combined with other strategies that are part of our own individual recipe, are uniformly good for mind, body and soul.

Chris Mackey is a Fellow of The Australian Psychological Society and a regular presenter on the TV wellbeing show, Destination Happiness on Saturdays at noon on Channel 9.