How to Make Mental Wellness a Priority
Now that the holiday season has passed, many people may find themselves mired in its aftermath. They may experience an array of hardships—money, stress, relationships, or recovery. January is Mental Wellness Awareness Month a time to look inward and prioritize self-care.
What is Mental Wellness?
Mental wellness involves a person’s ability to reach a state of equilibrium, or balance. This state of balance comprises various components that help generate a sense of harmony within oneself.1 Mental wellness does not equate to the absence of hardship or negative emotions.1 Rather, it involves identifying and employing a wide range of resources to navigate life’s natural challenges to find balance in mind, body, and spirit.1
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines mental health as a “state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.”1 Mental wellness then is about how all aspects of a person’s life—the social, emotional, physical, spiritual, and intellectual—unite for an overall state of well-being.
Many factors play a role in achieving mental wellness, and the first step in attaining this goal is to identify them.
Factors that Affect Mental Wellness
So, what are the factors that contribute to mental wellness? As previously mentioned, these components are both internal and external. Factors that affect mental wellness include:2,3
- Genes/brain chemistry. Many people are genetically predisposed to mental health conditions. Recognizing that these conditions may be a part of one’s family history can be the first step in finding balance and taking preventive measures. Speaking to your doctor or therapist when symptoms flare up can be both validating and informative. Exercising self-compassion when distressed can reduce further suffering and negative thought patterns.
- Physical health. Physical health is another component of mental wellness, as the mind and body are interconnected. Staying active by taking a 30-minute walk, going for a swim, or even stretching can release brain chemicals that improve mood. A healthy diet and exercise can improve overall physical and mental wellness.
- Relationships. By nature, humans are social beings. Feeling connected to others is therefore essential to mental wellness. Developing and sustaining relationships with family members, friends, or members of a community can mitigate feelings of loneliness and isolation and increase a sense of belonging. Social support is a salient factor contributing to mental wellness.
- Life experiences. Everyone experiences life’s ebbs and flows, be it loss or gain, hope or disappointment, joy or pain. Many people experience hardship that can negatively affect their mental wellness. For instance, the ending of a relationship, loss of a loved one, or the onset of physical illness. Although these experiences can be challenging, they also can bring about opportunities to grow and develop resiliency in the face of adversity.
- Coping skills. How people cope with life’s challenges can be paramount in achieving mental wellness. Coping skills are a set of internal or external resources that can be employed during times of distress. Some people express themselves through creative mediums, like painting, writing, or dancing. Others immerse themselves in nature to experience a deeper, spiritual connection. Some exercise to relieve tension. Others find solace in family and friends, spiritual or religious communities, or support groups. Many seek out therapy to learn self-soothing or emotion-regulation techniques. Coping skills can improve mental wellness when practiced both consistently and mindfully.
Negative Factors That Affect Mental Wellness
There are also factors that negatively affect mental wellness. Factors like high stress and lack of sleep increase people’s vulnerabilities, leaving them more susceptible to unwanted mental states. Negative factors that may compromise a person’s mental wellness include:3,4,5
- High stress. Stress is a common aspect of life. Work, school, family obligations, finances, and household responsibilities can elicit stress for anyone. However, too much stress, which may develop into anxiety, can place significant pressure on the mind and body. Stress can cause a variety of adverse mental and physical symptoms, including anxiety, insomnia, high blood pressure, headaches, or body pain.
- Poor diet. A poor diet can influence one’s physical and mental wellness. For instance, eating fast food every day can lead to a deficiency in nutrients that may result in weight gain, feeling sluggish, or lacking energy. Maintaining a well-balanced diet comprising various food groups such as vegetables and fruits, protein, water, and fiber can lead to optimal functioning of the body and mind.
- Drinking, smoking, and taking drugs. Drinking, smoking, and taking drugs can be extremely dangerous to one’s mental wellness. All pose immediate and long-term health risks and can lead to dire health and mental health outcomes depending on the substance ingested. Avoiding mind-altering substances altogether can be a critical step when pursuing mental wellness.
- Trauma. Many people experience traumatic events, including an assault, disaster, accident, abuse, or neglect. If left untreated, trauma can have serious health and mental health outcomes. Posttraumatic stress disorder, which can occur in the aftermath of a traumatic event, may lead to hypervigilance, avoidance, or unhealthy behaviors that alleviate pain in the short term but sustain or worsen the trauma in the long term. Trauma symptoms can be managed with the support of a mental health professional trained in treating PTSD. It can be helpful to seek out psychotherapy and psychiatry when mental wellness is a goal.
- Lack of sleep. Sleep is the body’s natural way of regenerating itself. Lack of sleep can leave people vulnerable to altered mental states. Although many people experience sleep disturbance, maintaining healthy sleep hygiene can improve the likelihood of a healthy night’s rest. One may consider setting aside all electronic devices one hour before bed or avoiding caffeine in the evening. Listening to a guided meditation or mindfulness app may help lull a person to sleep. Staying consistent with bedtime each night also may promote proper sleep hygiene.3 About Self Care
How to Improve Mental Wellness
Addressing mental wellness is important at any age. Whether an adolescent or older adult, prioritizing mental wellness can yield positive outcomes and result in a more balanced life. A person can improve their mental wellness by engaging in the following activities:
- Eat healthy, exercise. Staying active and eating well-balanced meals can make a significant difference in how a person feels.3 Going on a 15-minute walk during lunch, eating some grapes or carrots instead of Doritos, or preparing a fresh meal can energize the mind and body and also lead to feelings of accomplishment.
- Schedule time to decompress. Balancing life’s stressors with self-care is critical to avoiding burnout – the opposite of mental wellness. Each day, take time for yourself. Read a book for 15 minutes, watch a beloved television show, listen to your favorite playlist or podcast, or take a hot shower after work. Whatever the practice is, make sure to carve out time each day to decompress.
- Talk to your doctor, and get regular checkups. Visiting a doctor regularly can be both helpful and informative. Not only will it keep a person apprised about their health needs, but it also can provide a supportive environment to disclose personal challenges. A doctor can equip a person with tools to achieve mental wellness, whether it be through dietary adjustments, lifestyle changes, or medication management.
- Maintain healthy friendships/relationships and ditch the toxic ones! Connection is the antithesis of isolation and therefore having a social support network is essential.3 Nurture healthy relationships with family members, friends, or members of a group or community. And remember, if the relationship is toxic, ditch it, as it may be jeopardizing mental wellness.
- Get professional help if needed. Seeking support such as individual or group therapy, peer support groups, and psychiatric services can promote mental wellness, especially if a person is struggling emotionally or psychologically. Sharing thoughts urges, and feelings with a trained mental health professional can be helpful, as they can guide a person on the journey to mental wellness.