Some mental health pontifications for early on a Wednesday morning 😊
I’ve spoken previously about what I think constitutes mental health: feeling good, functioning well, being socially connected, being able to manage symptoms of mental ill health, being resilient/ having good coping strategies, understanding yourself, having meaning and purpose, and making healthy lifestyle choices.
But what is it that gives rise to these things? And do we have any control over those?
There are many factors that contribute to our mental health. Many years back as a researcher, I tried to document them. Such documentation was useful for research purposes but wasn’t easy to wield at an individual level.
So is there an easier way to think about the conditions that give rise to our mental health? I’ve been contemplating, trying to find a more palatable way. I decided to share my thoughts in this blog post.
At an individual level, it seems to me there are 4 broad factors contributing to our mental health at any given point in time.
Our biology – namely the functioning of our physical body, from the DNA up, to cells, organs and the body as a whole. Our consciousness is (at least partly) dictated by the functioning of our mind/brain/nervous system and for the time being, the human brain only functions as part of a more complex biological organism – our entire body.
Our history – all of our experiences since birth as represented in knowledge, skills, thoughts, feelings, beliefs, sensations, memories, habits, personality and choices. Much of who we are today is a function of how our brain organises all those previous experiences.
Our present circumstances – namely our level of access and connection to the resources needed for survival and thriving: food, water, money, shelter, clothing, social supports, community supports, education, freedom from persecution. Do we have the resources necessary to set and pursue our goals and meet our needs?
Our present moment awareness – namely the capacity/ability to connect with the present moment and be witness to our thoughts, feelings, sensations, experiences in a more deliberate way, as opposed to being reactive and on auto-pilot.
These aren’t independent of course. They are in constant relationship with each other. Our present circumstances influence our biology. Our biology influences the choices we make. The choices we make dictate the experiences we have which will shape our history. I think you get the idea.
You might also notice that these aren’t all easily modifiable. You can’t change your past. It can be difficult to shift one’s personal circumstances. We can’t change our DNA (yet).
But there is more wiggle room here than you might initially think.
We might not be able to change our DNA, but we can shift our biology through nutrition, physical activity, sleep/deep rest, breathing practices and medications. There’s data to support all of these as potential modifiers of mental health.
We can’t change our past, but we can therapeutically alter the relationship we have with our personal history. We can process past traumas, heighten our connection to positive memories, reframe previous events and extract new meanings, reflect on our experiences and learn valuable lessons. Psychotherapies aren’t perfect but can help us make these changes and improve our mental health at the same time.
Whilst it is hard to shift current circumstances if they are imposed by a more powerful force (i.e. religious or cultural persecution), many of us have some autonomy at the level of our individual habits and choices. We can alter our routines, change our environments, educate ourselves, make different choices/decisions, set goals, change our minds, change our behaviour. We can do many of these with improved mental health in mind. We can connect with others and seek help if we aren’t able to shift our present circumstances.
Finally, we can train in mindfulness. We can develop, over time, the capacity to attend non-judgmentally and/or compassionately to the present moment. In the process we can often transform our experience of our thoughts, feelings, sensations and memories. Mindfulness training can be a gateway to the transformation of our past, but also create a sense of groundedness from which to take action to shift our circumstances. There is a growing literature showing mindfulness practices improving mental health. Testament to this, they are given primacy in the Be Well Plan.
We actually have some levers in all four areas that we can pull to modify the conditions of our life and give rise to improved mental health.
I’m not going to pretend it is easy to make meaningful shifts in all 4 areas, but most of us are probably able to get started with one thing:
- Improving your nutrition
- Getting some more physical activity
- Improving your sleep
- Training in yoga or other mindfulness practices
- Engaging with a counsellor or therapist
- Chatting to a GP about medications (if struggling with mental ill health)
- Doing 5 minutes of mindfulness per day using an app like Smiling Mind
- Developing some new healthy habits
Getting started on one thing, usually opens up pathways and opportunities for others. That is because these things are interconnected:
For example, I recently started using early morning sun exposure (to the eyes) to assist in setting my circadian rhythm (an investment in my biology). But that time is now additionally used for some light exercise (biology), garden modification (circumstance) and mindfulness (attending to the sounds of the birds).
A quick note on blogs like this one
I regularly write blog posts like this one where I reflect on, and try to summarise mental health concepts in different ways.
I do this for my own understanding, but also because I find it helpful to remix content like this in terms of finding a personal philosophy or mantra or model that I can use in my own life.
By sharing it, I am hoping that it might contribute to your working model of ‘mental health’ that you can use to guide your decisions and choices about how to live your life.
For example, I find it helpful to think of what I can do in the spaces of biology, history, circumstance and mindfulness to improve or sustain my mental health. I ask myself the question of “are you doing something in each of these areas?”.
The answer is:
Yes, no, yes, yes
- I do pay attention to my biology through nutrition and sleep and physical activity.
- I do try to structure my everyday life in a way that sets me up for good mental health (circumstance).
- I do learn and practice mindfulness.
- The one I haven’t explored anywhere near as much is reflecting back over my history to heal old emotional wounds or learn lessons from my past (history).
This simple analysis helps me realise that there may be value for me down that path and offers a possibility for me, should my mental health struggle.
That is all I have for today.
Take care 😊