What Is Mental Health? Exploring The Definition Of Mind And Mental Health

Medically reviewed by Melissa Guarnaccia
Updated February 19, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Mental health encompasses our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It can play a vital role in helping us cope with everyday stressors and facilitating positive relationships with others. However, when mental health is compromised, it can affect how we feel, think, and act. If left untreated, it can even lead to physical health concerns such as heart disease and sleep apnea. 

According to the World Health Organization, mental health challenges are rising worldwide, with an estimated 970 million people living with mental disorders such as anxiety or depression. The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated this number. Statistics show a 26% increase in anxiety disorders and a 28% increase in major depressive disorders in just one year, from 2019 to 2020.

When you take the time to strengthen your mental health, you can create a better sense of balance in your life. As you address unhealthy behaviors such as substance use, develop healthy coping skills to manage stress, and create meaningful connections with people who support you, you may feel more in control of your life.

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The concept of the mind

At its core, the concept of the mind and mental health is about understanding our cognitive faculties and emotional responses. Cognitive functions allow us to think, remember, reason, plan, and problem-solve. Our emotions are reactions we feel in response to external stimuli or internal thoughts that range from pleasure to distress.

These two aspects of the mind are intimately intertwined. Our cognitive functions can influence how we experience and respond to our emotions, while emotional responses can shape our thoughts and behavior. The combination of these two processes is what enables us to make decisions and form relationships with others.

The mind-body connection is an integral part of this equation. Mental and physical health are closely linked, with our mental state often impacting our physical functioning and vice versa.

Recent research has shown that those with mental illness may be more prone to disease, while chronic physical conditions can worsen mental health concerns. The coexistence of such conditions can have a compounding effect on how you feel and manage daily life.

For example, if you experience depression or anxiety, it may influence how you eat, your level of physical activity, and your overall sleep patterns. Likewise, poor nutrition, lack of movement, or insufficient sleep can contribute to mental health challenges, such as difficulty concentrating or managing stress.

The takeaway is that it's crucial to consider your mental and physical health when striving for wellness and happiness. Taking care of yourself on all fronts can have a powerful impact on your everyday life.

Defining mental health

The World Health Organization defines mental health as the ability to manage stress, realize your abilities, learn and work appropriately, and contribute to society. But when we think of mental health, we should recognize that everyone is unique and has their own needs.

When these characteristics are present, it can be a sign of good mental health. Many factors influence our mental health, including biological and psychological components and social influences such as environment, relationships, and culture.

Biologically, we may be predisposed to certain mental illnesses. Chemicals in our brain, such as neurotransmitters, can impact how we experience emotions and our mental state. Other biological factors that come into play include genetics, hormones, and general health.

Psychologically, our mental health can be affected by how we think and perceive situations. Our internal dialogue and belief systems can create an emotional landscape that can be difficult to navigate. Personality traits and core values also contribute to how we feel about ourselves and our well-being.

While biological and physiological factors may be specific to the individual, environmental and societal influences are important, too. Social exclusion, economic hardship, racism, and discrimination can all significantly impact mental health, as can poverty and lack of reach to resources. Culturally, our values and traditions may affect how we view mental health and how we manage our mental state.

Specific characteristics may affect our pursuits of mental wellness. Possessing the following abilities may have a positive effect on your mental health:

  • Practicing positive self-care

  • Controlling emotions

  • Thinking and remembering rationally

  • Reasoning logically

  • Planning ahead

  • Problem-solving effectively

  • Communicating appropriately with others

  • Being mindful of one's strengths and weaknesses

  • Differentiating between healthy and unhealthy behaviors

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Understanding mental health disorders

Mental health disorders are often referred to as mental illnesses and can be the result of a combination of factors. Common mental health disorders include depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia.

Depression is a mood disorder that can cause persistent sadness or emptiness. Anxiety disorders may involve intense fear or panic in response to specific triggers. Bipolar disorder is generally characterized by alternating episodes of mania and depression that can interfere with a person's daily functioning. Schizophrenia is a psychotic disorder that may affect how one perceives reality and can involve symptoms such as paranoia, delusions, or hallucinations.

The stigma surrounding mental health can be a barrier to seeking help. Stigma is defined as the attachment of negative connotations or stereotypes to an individual, group, or behavior. Unfortunately, many people have experienced stigma related to their mental health. The consequences of stigma are far-reaching and can include being judged, discriminated against, isolated, or ignored by others.

It's important to remember that mental health disorders are real and can profoundly impact your everyday life. As a field of study, mental health is constantly evolving, which means new treatments and ways of understanding mental health are continually being developed. The more we understand mental health disorders, the more equipped we can be to help ourselves and others.

Promoting mental health and well-being

As you explore ways to promote mental health and well-being in your own life, it's important to remember that no single approach works for everyone. However, it can be helpful to focus on lifestyle factors and self-care practices to enhance how you think and feel.

Some self-care practices that can benefit mental health include:

  • Getting adequate sleep: The brain uses sleep to detoxify, process information, and restore itself. As the body flushes out toxins during rest, neuroprotective compounds are released to help reduce stress, cultivate emotional control, and optimize cognitive function.

  • Eating a balanced diet: Nutrition can affect many aspects of physical and mental health. A balanced diet provides the body with essential nutrients to stay healthy.

  • Exercising regularly: Exercise can improve mood and help manage stress. Regular exercise releases endorphins, which can reduce feelings of anxiety and depression.

  • Engaging in relaxation techniques: Relaxation techniques such as mindfulness can help to reduce stress and increase well-being. Mindfulness is a practice that encourages us to be present in the moment without any judgment or expectation.

  • Establishing healthy relationships: Social connections can provide support and fulfillment. Social relationships can create a sense of purpose, boost self-esteem, and reduce feelings of loneliness.

  • Setting boundaries for yourself and others: Establishing and maintaining boundaries is essential to self-care. Limits don't have to be rigid, but they can provide a sense of safety. Boundaries with yourself may include saying "no" to activities you don't want or need to do. Boundaries with others may limit how much emotional support you are willing to provide.

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Additional support for mental health

Mental health is a process and often requires ongoing attention. Many people experience ups and downs: these are not a sign of failure but rather a natural part of the journey. Sometimes you may need additional support or to try different approaches to find what works best for you.

Online therapy through a platform like BetterHelp can be a great tool to support mental health. Through online therapy, you can have evidence-based treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which can help you gain insight into your thoughts and behaviors, learn new ways to manage emotions, and develop practical strategies to cope with stressors. As a safe space, online therapy can also serve as a hub for self-exploration, allowing you to understand yourself and your relationships on a deeper level.

Research shows that online CBT is an effective means of treating various mental health conditions and improving patient's availability for care. By treating the underlying cause of distress rather than just the symptoms, CBT may help you to develop more adaptive coping strategies and create lasting positive changes in your life. You can make strides toward better mental health and well-being with the right tools and support.

Takeaway

Mental health means different things to different people and is a highly individualized experience. We all have unique ways of caring for ourselves and managing stress, so there's usually no one-size-fits-all approach to the topic. But by taking an active role in promoting self-care practices and utilizing evidence-based treatments like CBT, you can make progress on your journey toward a more balanced and fulfilled life. Online therapy can complement your existing self-care practices while you work toward more positive, lasting changes. With the guidance of a qualified mental health professional, you can find the tools and strategies necessary to make changes that may lead to better health and happiness.

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