Before we dive into such a serious topic such as mental health, let’s think about this rather cheesy quote: “To be healthy as a whole, mental wellness plays a role”.
I know, I know. You must have cringed, or rolled your eyes at that. You might have even thought that the quote was childish. Think what you want, but there’s one thing you can’t deny: that simple quote holds so much truth.
We know that mental health is crucial, yet discussing it openly still carries elements of stigma and taboo.
After all, how can we openly admit that we have problems? And how can we tell if we’re “normal”? How do we know if we’re not just, like the older folks used to say, “going through the motions”?
Defining mental health
Googling “what is mental health” will yield thousands upon thousands of results, each with a different yet similar spin on the term.
But to keep matters straightforward, we’ll use the universal mental health definition given by the World Health Organisation (WHO):
Mental health is a state of well-being in which an individual realises his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.
If ever an individual is unable to perform either one of the four criteria above, they may have mental health issues.
Why is mental health important?
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Let’s recall the quote earlier on. It did imply that being mentally healthy is the true key to being physically healthy.
When your mental health is in tip-top condition, you can expect your physical health to follow suit. It is indeed a no-brainer, but it is a fact that so many people tend to easily forget.
You might notice that a person is unable to live their best lives when their mental health is at an all-time low. At times, even getting out of bed can be incredibly difficult, let alone achieving peak performance.
A person undergoing mental health issues will also find it hard to maintain good and meaningful relationships, be unable to cope with the stresses of life, or fail to make contributions to the community and society.
Perhaps the most disconcerting repercussion is that mental illness is directly responsible for many types of physical health problems, as pointed out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
It said, “Mental illness, especially depression, increases the risk for many types of health problems, particularly long-lasting conditions like stroke, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. Similarly, the presence of chronic conditions can increase the risk for mental illness.”
To put it simply, one would be stuck in a long, vicious, and not to mention painful cycle.
Identifying the potential triggers of mental health issues
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While there really isn’t a way of pinpointing exactly how one starts to experience a downward spiral, there are certain triggers that can bring about changes in the state of mind.
According to Mind UK, triggers can be broken down into three groups of factors; biological, physiological, and environmental:
Mental illnesses which are likely “inherited” from other family members, or caused by an abnormality in genes are considered biological factors.
However, certain infections, substance abuse and poor nutrition can also be the source of mental illnesses and the worsening of their symptoms.
Severe psychological trauma suffered as a child such as emotional, physical, or sexual abuse can contribute to poor mental health, as will the loss of someone important.
Even the emotional effects of abuse and neglect can cause isolation, fear, and an inability to trust. All of these factors can translate into lifelong consequences such as low self-esteem, depression, relationship difficulties, and an increased risk of developing an addiction.
In fact, a study conducted by children in a variety of settings showed that severe deprivation or neglect disrupts brain development and information processing.
This puts them at high risk of attentional, emotional, cognitive, and behavioural disorders.
Growing up or being surrounded in a less-than-ideal environment filled with triggers and stressors can cause someone to become susceptible to mental illness.
Stressors can come in many different forms such as death or divorce, a dysfunctional family life; feelings of low self-esteem, anxiety, anger or loneliness; a change in jobs or school, or even social or cultural expectations.
Take, for example, the beauty standards that we now have been accustomed to, such as associating thinness with attractiveness. This can, directly and indirectly, cause eating disorders.
Signs and symptoms of poor mental health
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Poor mental health can manifest itself in many different ways that it’s hard to pin down at times.
This is the reason why people with mental health issues are often met with questions like, “Really? You don’t look like you have depression!”
Just as a general guideline, here are some signs and symptoms to look out for in not only others but yourself as well:
Eating too little or binge-eating
Oversleeping or inability to sleep
Constant feelings of lethargy or no motivation
Indifference or disinterest in usual activities, no sense of enjoyment
Experiencing unexplained aches and pains
Feelings of helplessness or hopelessness
Over-reliance on harmful substances such as drugs and alcohol
Forgetfulness, confusion, and tense behaviour that’s exacerbated by feelings of worry, anger, or fear
Feelings of detachment from relationships and friendships
Mood swings that often cause problems
Thoughts of self-harm or even suicide
Inability to perform normal day-to-day tasks
Types of mental health issues
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Just as there are many different types of symptoms, there are many different types of mental disorders. Common ones include:
Anxiety disorders, which include panic disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorders and phobias, often characterised by excessive fear or worry.
Mood disorders such as depression and bipolar disorder, where one experiences extreme highs and lows.
Eating disorders such as anorexia (fear of gaining weight) and bulimia (a tendency to overeat and binge).
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), whereby flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety are experienced.
Psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia, where one’s perception of reality is abnormal and often disrupted by hallucinations and delusions.
Social anxiety disorder, which is extreme fear in social settings.
Prevention is truly better than cure
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While therapy, counselling — or in certain cases, medication — can help with managing mental health issues, it’s important to nip the problem in the bud.
Sure, it’s easier said than done but the first step to tackling this problem is to establish a routine.
Establishing a routine is effective due to a simple reason: you control what you do in a day. Consequently, you will also be able to get yourself in control.
For starters, stick to a clean, lean and healthy diet and make sure you get adequate sleep. This means less processed and sugary foods, and a shut-eye of 7 to 9 hours.
And here’s the best part of the whole prevention work: you need to get physical.
Exercise can help reduce anxiety and a myriad of other mental health issues, as evidenced by multiple studies that have come to the same conclusion.
Get moving, even if it’s just for 30 minutes a day.
Understandably, some days may feel like you’re carrying a tonne of bricks on your shoulders, but a little goes a long way — especially when it comes to exercise.
Just a little is enough to stimulate the mind. You’ll find that you will feel less stressed, depressed, hopeless, nervous or anxious after a run or aerobics.
So, on days when you feel like you have extra energy and headspace to spare, go ahead and dance like no one’s watching with a Zumba routine on YouTube.
When all else fails, drop to the floor for some push-ups or planks. The choice is yours as long as you break a sweat.However, if you’d like to be hyper-specific, Netdoctor has put together a simple list of the best exercise to improve mental health, which are:
Running or jogging
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There’s a reason why the term “runner’s high” has been thrown around for ages. It’s because once you’re past the threshold of discomfort, a state of euphoria will often follow.
The resulting sense of clarity and elation helps to reduce feelings of stress and pain, and will help you think clearly.
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Who wouldn’t feel good after throwing some powerful punches? Not only is boxing a good way to release pent-up anger and stress, it also promotes empowerment and healing.
According to Netdoctor, sparring with another boxer allows you to achieve “flow”, a state espoused by Buddhist monks and Olympic athletes.
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We may be used to the idea that high-tempo movements will do the trick for cardio and de-stressing sessions.
Pilates, however, allows you to achieve the same by focusing on breathing techniques and mobilising your body — both of which encourage feelings of wellbeing.
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To the untrained eye, yoga may look like child’s play. But beneath the surface, yoga plays a central role in balancing both the mind and body.
According to yoga therapist Toni Roberts, the continued focus on the breath “brings yogis into the present moment and instigates a parasympathetic response from our nervous systems.”
Simply put, it means our bodies are lulled into a state of “rest and digest”, thereby calming us down.
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What’s the first thing you think about when the words “spin classes” come to mind? Yes, that’s right — kick-ass playlists and choreographed routines complete with strobe lighting.
Why spin classes make you feel good is not rocket science: you’re motivated to push yourself, have fun and become even more productive in the process.
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Some exercises can help you stay focused and composed for a long time. An example would be resistance training.
Resistance training has many physical benefits of its own, but mentally, it has been proven to decrease anxiety and improve cognition.
Perhaps the most important benefit is that it improves central nervous function, which is responsible for regulating our moods.
The possibilities are endless when it comes to choices of exercise. So, no matter what kind of “movement” you eventually decide on, don’t get too worked up about it and just have fun.
After all, just showing up is half the battle.
Understanding the mind-body connection
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Exercise plays a huge role in enhancing our physical state, fighting disease, and maintaining good mental health.
It can also improve the way you perceive your physical condition, abilities and body image, so enhanced self-esteem is definitely a plus. We also know that exercise encourages the production of endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine — all of which work to improve the mood. These are what you call “happy hormones”.
So in essence, a fit mind nurtures a fit body. It’s no wonder why we tend to feel good after an amazing workout session! If you’re already doing some form of exercise to improve yourself both physically and mentally, good on you. Though exercise alone is not a cure, you can bet that it does wonders for your mental state. Of course, you don’t have to go all out by starting a strict regime that could potentially injure you. You can start as small with breathing exercises before making your way to more rigorous, energised and challenging routines. Whatever you do, just be sure to ride the endorphin wave.
Reaching out for help
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While exercise and regular self-check-ins can help with mental health, it is equally necessary to reach out for help if things get too overwhelming. Here are some ways to get help:
Reach out to friends and family, as they may be able to provide emotional support.