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Mental Health 101: Basic Techniques for Feeling Better

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Update 16.04.2024

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15 min

Mental Health 101: Basic Techniques for Feeling Better

Finally, people have started discussing the topic of mental health more often and more openly: with family and friends, on TV shows, talk shows, in films, on social media, and in books. Even more, with celebrities discussing their mental health journeys and more accurate portrayals of mental struggles in popular culture, the attitude began to change. 

But despite numerous mental health articles and books, perhaps because of contradictory information, many issues surrounding mental health remain confusing for people who don’t have a background in medicine or psychology.

Is there a difference between mental health and mental well-being? What’s an example of mental health that may be at risk? Where is the line between a bad week and mental illness?

Let’s address all the questions one by one, starting with definitions.

What does mental health mean? How does it differ from well-being?

Let’s talk about two terms that are very similar at first sight.

Many people, even in articles about mental health, use the terms “mental health” and “mental well-being” interchangeably, which is not exactly correct. But it isn’t always wrong, either. And their definitions will help you understand why.

What is mental health?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “Mental health is a state of well-being that enables people to cope with the stresses of life, realize their abilities, learn well and work well, and contribute to their community.” This means that mental health is an overall emotional, psychological, and social state that impacts a person’s functioning, both positively and negatively.

What is mental well-being, then?

Mental well-being also refers to the same emotional, psychological, and social states that help us cope with stress. But it only describes their positive impact. In other words, mental well-being is the side of mental health we all strive for—a flourishing psychological state in which you experience a sense of purpose, fulfillment, and satisfaction.

As chair of the Global Well-being Institute, Susie Ellis, once said: “When you think about wellness, think prevention and health. When you think about well-being, think happiness.”

So, yes, when we talk about someone accurately perceiving reality, who has the resources to manage life’s ups and downs, we can use the term “mental well-being” or just “well-being” as other words for mental health.

But while well-being focuses on the ability to enjoy life, mental health covers all aspects of a person’s mental state, including negative aspects and disorders.

In practice, this slight difference means only one thing: while we all strive to achieve mental well-being (a state of happiness and satisfaction), we should remember that it’s okay not to be okay sometimes.

Pillars of mental well-being

Why is mental well-being important when we talk about mental health? I’ll use the theory of Richard Davidson, a professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and the Founder and Director of the Center for Healthy Minds, to help explain why.

The first thing you need to know about Richard Davidson’s conception of well-being is that well-being is a skill—a skill that stands on four pillars you can nurture to quickly return to feeling good after stressful events.

Awareness

In Davidson’s theory, awareness is the first pillar of well-being, and it includes two components:

  1. Awareness is mental stability in the absence of distraction because “when we are distracted, we are often less happy.”
  2. Meta-awareness, which means having an understanding of what your mind does. For example, a realization that you haven’t understood a word of the last two pages you just read.

Together, the components of awareness involve attentiveness to the environment and internal cues, thoughts, and emotions. Awareness helps you understand and self-regulate your emotions and behavior to feel better about yourself, improve everyday performance, and interact with people in a supportive way.

For example, you might feel uncomfortable around a grieving friend. If you’re aware of your feelings and human emotions, you may realize that you just don’t know how to help your friend, and that makes you uncomfortable.

Asking them how you can help— whether it’s to leave them alone, just sit quietly with them, or listen to their concerns—will fix the issue for both of you: you’ll know you’re helping, and the person receives the support they need.

Connection

The connection pillar of well-being describes feelings and acts of appreciation, gratitude, kindness, and compassion. Interestingly, even though perceiving these feelings toward yourself is important for well-being, expressing them toward others has a stronger effect.

It just feels good to know you’re making someone a bit happier, especially when you see a person’s reaction (connection) to your words or actions.

Research proves this: a Gallup World Poll surveyed more than one million people across 150 countries and found that generosity, as measured by charitable donations, is one of the most robust predictors of life satisfaction.

There are many additional positive influences of connection on mental health. Examples include building new friendships, which can in turn contribute to your social well-being.

Insights

The third pillar of well-being represents a curiosity-driven examination of your own beliefs, expectations, and nature of “self.” We’re all a constellation of experiences that affect our beliefs, thoughts, and actions. Investigating this constellation lets us understand and regulate our reactions to external stimuli.

For instance, examining your anxious thoughts can help you identify what triggered your reaction. And insights into these triggers can help you find the right coping strategy.

Purpose

This pillar describes your sense of direction in life and the meaning of everyday activities that affect your mental health.

Having purpose allows you to be resilient to change and recover faster from traumatic events. It should be backed by positive core values.

For example, maybe you value benefiting society and saving lives, and that drives you to become a researcher whose purpose is to cure cancer. Because your purpose is value-driven, it will have a strong positive effect on well-being.

In contrast, a job where you work just to make money and acquire material possessions can make your well-being suffer because your values and purpose aren’t aligned. For you, “money doesn’t buy happiness.”

So, if you want to achieve mental well-being, endeavor to strengthen these pillars. But you still may not attain well-being if you don’t take care of other components of mental health.

Components of mental health

Knowing the building blocks of mental health makes it much easier to understand where to put effort if your walls start to crumble. So, let’s learn about those.

As it happens, in matters as complex as human mental health, there are many theories about its critical components.

These theories all make good points and often overlap. I’ll describe mental health components that have some consensus among researchers.

Physical health

Physical health is the first contributor. When we feel ill, we rarely feel happy. Sleep patterns, nutrition, and exercise all contribute to physical health and, thus, are essential for being mentally healthy.

But that doesn’t mean that people with chronic disease or physical impairment can’t achieve mental well-being. Individual and societal perceptions of diseases can influence the mental health of a person who has a disability or disease.

George L. Engel’s biopsychosocial model accounts for this by emphasizing that physical health and illness is an intricate interplay of biological, psychological, and social factors. 

In other words, a person who loses a leg in an accident experiences a mental challenge as they adjust to a new reality. However, by having a healthy perception of their new abilities and receiving support from society, they may remain mentally healthy. Maybe they’ll even become a Paralympic champion!

Emotional health

Definitions of mental and emotional health are similar, but they’re not synonyms. Emotional health is only a part of mental health.

An emotionally healthy individual or one who has good EQ has the ability to manage their emotions, experience positive feelings, and cope with stress. An inability to experience positive emotions can be a sign of a mental disorder, such as depression.

According to Martin Seligman’s positive psychology model, we all have three basic psychological needs:

  • To feel positive emotion
  • To engage in activities that give life meaning and purpose
  • To have positive relationships with others

In most cases, satisfying these needs leads to good mental health.

Social well-being

Humans are social beings. We need to feel connected to others, interact with them, and learn from them. Feeling lonely and isolated can lead to mental health struggles, as many of us learned during the COVID-19 lockdowns.

According to the CDC, loneliness is an environmental factor that contributes to mental illnesses. Not being able to socialize due to external factors that prevent socializing, such as moving to another country or a lack of social skills, can worsen our mental health.

Psychological well-being 

Good psychological health consists of finding purpose in life, putting effort into personal growth, having autonomy in your decisions, performing basic daily tasks, building positive relationships with others, and accepting yourself.

All these factors are elements of Carol Ryff’s model of psychological well-being, which emphasizes the importance of self-realization and positive functioning in mental health.

Indeed, if even one of the elements is lacking, mental stability can suffer. For example, without self-acceptance, mental illnesses like body dysmorphia, anxiety, or depression can arise.

Cognitive well-being

Cognitive well-being refers to how people evaluate their life as a whole and its specific areas. However, when biological factors like chemical imbalances in the brain or environmental changes, like world events, interfere with cognitive health, it may become challenging to function.

As you see, mental health is complex, and if all the components remain strong, you can attain mental well-being.

Changes in one component of mental health have effects on others, and likewise, the power of one component can help to overcome the challenges in others, possibly preventing severe illnesses.

Factors affecting mental health and well-being

Various external influences can affect mental health, similar to how viruses, bacteria, and injuries can cause physical health to suffer. Below I will list some external influences that experts consider causes of mental disorders.

Adverse childhood experiences

Аdverse childhood experiences can affect mental and physical health during childhood and even much later in life. Some consequences of adverse events that occur during childhood include displaying risky behaviors, temporary or permanent disability, and social exclusion or isolation.

According to Professor Kam Bhui, children who experience adverse events can even experience up to a 20-year reduction in life expectancy.

A good example of mental health issues developed after childhood trauma is the story depicted in the TV miniseries Patrick Melrose, in which Benedict Cumberbatch played the title role. After a young Patrick experienced sexual abuse from his father, Patrick developed several mental disorders, including substance abuse and addiction.

Other adverse experiences include:

  • Language or behavior that damages a child’s mental well-being and self-esteem
  • Physical, psychological, and verbal violence, including bullying
  • Witnessing violence
  • Losing a parental figure
  • Parental separation or divorce
  • Parental illness

Fortunately, not every child experiences consequences as severe as those experienced by Patrick Melrose. In fact, for some individuals, the effect on their mental health is minimal.

As Bhui notes, “Young people are resilient and can flourish despite experiencing adversity,” — especially if they receive timely help from adults.

Traumatic events in adulthood

The same types of adverse experiences listed above for children can affect mental health when experienced during adulthood and can lead to long-term consequences and mental disorders. In addition, significant social and political changes can affect a person’s ability to cope with stress.

According to the World Trade Center Health Registry, about 10% of the 70,000 enrollees affected by the 2001 terrorist attacks have continued to struggle with symptoms of PTSD decades later.

The rate among people who were directly affected by the attacks is higher (17–18%), and 8-10% of people who only witnessed the events on television also struggle with PTSD.

Still, a high percentage of people don’t develop a mental disorder after an adverse experience and may eventually recover. This demonstrates that some trauma survivors are resilient, which is especially true when they have appropriate support from family, friends, clergy, and mental health providers.

Experiences related to chronic medical conditions

When a person is sick or experiences physical pain, maintaining mental well-being can be a struggle. This is especially true in the case of a medical condition that has severe or lethal consequences or prevents people from living life as they want.

Although some people are more resilient to stress than others, or their diagnosis doesn’t appear to impact their quality of life, they may struggle with psychological health until they adapt to their new reality.

Biological factors

In some cases, mental health issues arise not because of environmental factors but because of what’s happening inside your body. Chemical imbalances in the brain can lead to mental disorders like bipolar disorder and depression. Fortunately, medication can help restore balance.

As you may already know, some people have a genetic predisposition to mental disorders. But a genetic predisposition doesn’t mean a disorder will definitely develop. For example, in the TV show Shameless, a parent may have passed on a familial genetic predisposition to only one child out of six.

Alcohol and drug abuse

It’s no secret that alcohol and drug abuse take a toll on our mental stability. In addition to harming physical health, abusing alcohol and drugs can trigger mental illness. For example, cannabis use has been associated with the onset of psychosis and schizophrenia in people with genetic predispositions and was linked to worsening the symptoms of these disorders.

Alcohol and drug abuse can diminish social and work-related skills. As a consequence, individuals who overindulge in these substances can experience increased isolation, loneliness, and financial difficulties, all of which intensify stress levels and negatively impact mental health.

Alcohol and drugs cause struggles, and people sometimes try to alleviate stress and drown their feelings by using even more of them, creating a vicious cycle. Actor Matthew Perry’s memoir and those of countless others who have suffered from addiction are testaments to these effects.

These factors and combinations thereof affect mental health. Resilience levels differ from person to person—some people can quickly return to a state of mental well-being, while others develop a mental disorder that requires long-term treatment. We’ll discuss some of these disorders next.

A girl proves that mental health is a key to happy life.

Types of mental health disorders

Mental health specialists distinguish many mental disorders, like personality, eating, and substance abuse, but I want to focus on these three groups:

Disorders in a group have common features but different clusters of symptoms.

Anxiety disorders

This group of disorders is characterized by severe fear or anxiety triggered by particular objects or situations. Among the most common conditions are:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
  • Panic disorder
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Selective mutism
  • Separation anxiety
  • Social anxiety
  • Specific phobias

Anxiety attacks are usually caused by specific triggers, and identifying them can help to tackle the intense feelings of fear and distress.

Mood disorders

Mood disorders are also often called depressive disorders, and they manifest in significant mood changes, such as bipolar disorder, which can have periods of mania (high energy and joy) and depression.

Examples of mood disorders are major depression, bipolar disorder, and seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

Schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders

Schizophrenia is a spectrum of disorders in which people interpret reality abnormally.

People with schizophrenia can experience psychotic symptoms, such as delusions, hallucinations, and disordered thinking. Other symptoms include loss of motivation, interest in daily activities, withdrawal from social life, and problems in attention, concentration, and memory.

Without treatment, people with schizophrenia can be dangerous to themselves and society. However, the stigma surrounding this disorder is not warranted. According to NIH: “Most people with schizophrenia are not violent. Overall, people with schizophrenia are more likely than those without the illness to be harmed by others”.

People with schizophrenia can be fully participating members of society and succeed in various occupational fields and social life, as shown in the film A Beautiful Mind, which is based on the life of John Forbes Nash, a winner of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences.

Society must work to overcome the stigma associated with all mental disorders and work toward providing services to improve their mental health.

But first, we need to know how to recognize when someone has poor mental health.

Signs of mental health issues

Sometimes, it’s hard to tell that a person is dealing with mental health challenges or developing mental illness. Very often, people try to hide their mental state, fearing stigma or worrying that asking for help will cause stress for others.

Still, if you see the following signs, you may need to pay more careful attention to their behavior and offer help:

  • Withdrawing from friends and family
  • Avoiding activities they usually enjoy
  • Consistently low energy
  • Sleeping too much or too little
  • Eating too much or too little
  • Feeling hopeless
  • Using alcohol, nicotine, or cannabis more frequently
  • Persistent thoughts or memories that surface regularly
  • Thoughts of harming themselves or others
  • Showing intense negative emotions consistently
  • Inability to complete daily tasks
  • Hearing voices or experiencing delusions

Moreover, sometimes, we have trouble recognizing the deterioration of mental health and accepting the possible emergence of a mental disorder, even in ourselves. As Margaret Robinson Rutherford, author of Perfectly Hidden Depression, notes: “If you experience perfectly hidden depression, you don’t recognize what’s going on as depression. The very idea of you being depressed may seem ludicrous to you.”

So, to monitor your own mental health, pay attention to the signs only you can feel and ask for help as needed:

Which of these is the biggest sign that someone might be dealing with a mental health challenge? There is no definite answer.

It’s okay to experience some of these symptoms, like anxiety or sadness, from time to time. Even bizarre thoughts can be understandable in some cases.

But if symptoms last for weeks, become more intense, or interfere with daily function, it’s time to seek the help of a healthcare specialist.

Even if you’re not too worried about anything, attending to your mental health, using a self-care app, and visiting a professional are always good ideas.

How to improve mental health

The very desire to nurture your mental health is the first step to achieving well-being. Care methods depend on personal preferences, influencing factors, and current mental health status. Among them are:

  • Self-care
  • Therapy
  • Medication

Let’s look at them one by one.

Self-care

Self-care is essential for mental health, whether you’re struggling with challenges or just want to take good care of yourself. Self-care practices can include anything that you enjoy and is not harmful to your health:

  • Eat nutritious food, but do not limit yourself to only “healthy” bland meals. If you want that cake, eat it; just don’t have it at every meal.
  • Prioritize sleep. Finding time for eight to nine hours of sleep with work commitments, house chores, family responsibilities, and other errands is hard, but you’ll feel much better if you do. Yes, you can skip that date with a friend or yoga class to sleep a little longer. Your friend will be happier to see you well-rested instead of grumpy and distracted anyway.
  • Move more. Physical activity improves mental health: it lifts your mood, helps you sleep better, lowers alcohol consumption, and even lessens symptoms of mental health disorders.
  • Limit social media. How does social media affect mental health? In many ways, from lowering self-esteem when looking at the ‘perfect lives’ of ‘perfect people’ to making us addicted by providing easy dopamine hits. So, try to limit social media and avoid your smartphone for at least an hour after waking up and before sleeping. In a few days, you’ll feel much better physically and mentally.
  • Do things you enjoy—even little things. Not every move in your life must be productive: taking a break and enjoying little moments is as essential for your well-being as having purpose and achieving. Find an activity or ritual that you enjoy: take a bath, gossip with a friend, watch a movie, play a video game, have a spa day, draw, garden, read a book, knit, or do anything to just rest and unwind.
  • Set boundaries. Doing any of the things above requires time. To find time, you need to prioritize yourself. To prioritize yourself, you need to set boundaries. It’ll take practice, but eventually, you’ll learn how to say ‘no’ to an invitation or request, leave an event if you’re not enjoying it, or say you’re uncomfortable without feeling guilty. It’ll feel good—it is self-care.
  • Practice strengthening your four pillars of well-being. If, according to Davidson, well-being is a skill, then you can master it. Meditation and self-reflection exercises can increase your awareness and yield insights that create or reinforce a sense of purpose. In addition, volunteering or offering random acts of kindness improves your connections with others.

All these actions require effort and willpower to transform into habits, especially if you’re used to caring for others more than yourself. But eventually, you’ll find that it’s all worth the effort.

Therapy

Therapy isn’t a mandatory practice for everyone who wants to improve mental health, but it can be a powerful tool for many purposes. Therapy lets you:

  • Share your concerns, feelings, and emotions when you encounter stressors
  • Have the constant support of a professional while dealing with stressful situations
  • Learn about yourself under the guidance of a professional and avoid harmful self-reflection
  • Practice awareness using validated exercises appropriate for your needs
  • Learn additional mental health care practices

Therapy can help you figure out why you feel the way you do, explore the root causes of a mental illness, and work on creating healthy thought patterns.

Medication

Medications offer a helping hand for managing mental disorders. Depending on the type—antidepressants, antipsychotics, mood stabilizers, or anti-anxiety medications—they stimulate or suppress the production of different chemicals in the brain to restore balance.

Mental health disorders disrupt everyday activities, and medications may not cure mental disorders, but they can help manage symptoms that interfere with these.

For example, antidepressants can increase energy and appetite and improve mood, but you often need to pair them with other treatments. Significantly, they can alleviate the most severe symptoms so you can get back to your life and learn new coping mechanisms.

You need to keep a few things in mind when taking medication to improve your mental health:

  • Psychiatric meds aren’t harmful. They help your mind and body deal with challenges, like cough medicine or aspirin help your physical health.
  • It might take a few tries to find the proper medication for you. We’re all different, and our bodies can react differently to the same chemicals.
  • Some meds need time to build up in your system and have an effect. Be patient and follow the recommendations of your healthcare provider.
  • Some meds have side effects, but they’re usually mild and tend to ease after a few weeks. Your body needs to adjust, so give it some time. If the side effects still bother you after a few weeks, you can request to try a different medication or dosage.

Most importantly, be transparent with your healthcare provider about mental health issues,  medication side effects, and any concerns you may have. You should also discuss changes after starting treatment and be honest about whether you have felt improvements.

Conclusion

“Take care of your mental health.” You hear this from the news, friends, TikTok, and college professors. They say this with such ease like it’s as easy as brushing your teeth. But it’s not. Mental health is so complex that achieving well-being can be hard work. Even simple things such as sleeping more and stressing less are sometimes impossible: work, children, and other responsibilities can often interfere with calm, happy days.

But try. Try to be happy. Establish a simple routine, practice awareness of your environment and yourself, set boundaries, and always take a few moments for yourself.

Try Breeze and start your journey to a better life. If you can’t manage all the stress on your own, ask for the help of professionals.

Ultimately, the answer to the question, “Why is mental health important?” is pretty straightforward. Mental health determines whether you can enjoy life and use your time to benefit yourself and those around you. It’s worth taking care of.

Joy N. Ismail, Ph.D., commented on the importance of mental health: “There has been a boom in research on the various aspects of mental health and how these affect physiology, disease risk, and quality of life. Self-help techniques and healthy coping strategies — from meditation to exercise to coloring mandalas — have been shown to be effective at reducing negative emotions, anxiety, and depressive symptoms. Mental health is just as important as physical health, and the two are highly interconnected.”  

Joy Ismail, PhD photo

Reviewed by Joy Ismail, PhD

Joy is a neuroscientist, researcher, scientific consultant, and science writer. She holds a PhD in Biomedical Sciences (Neuroscien...