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Improving Mental and Emotional Health

The HelpGuide Way to Mental and Emotional Well-Being

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People who are emotionally healthy are in control of their emotions and their behavior. They are able to handle life’s challenges, build strong relationships, and recover from setbacks. But just as it requires effort to build or maintain physical health, so it is with mental and emotional health. Improving your emotional health can be a rewarding experience, benefiting all aspects of your life, including boosting your mood, building resilience, and adding to your overall enjoyment of life.

What is mental health or emotional health?

Mental or emotional health refers to your overall psychological well-being. It includes the way you feel about yourself, the quality of your relationships, your ability to manage feelings and deal with difficulties, and how much meaning and joy you derive from life.

Good mental health isn't just the absence of mental health problems such as depression or anxiety. Rather, it's the presence of positive characteristics, such as being able to cope with life's challenges, handle stress, build strong relationships, and recover from setbacks.

Mental and emotional health problems often arise when your nervous system has been compromised by overwhelming amounts of stress. Neuroscience shows that the body's natural and most efficient method for coping with stress is face-to-face social contact with a trusted person. This is why mental and emotional health is so closely linked with social health: helping yourself involves reaching out and connecting emotionally to others.

Why are we sometimes reluctant to address our mental health needs?

Anyone can suffer from mental or emotional health problems—and over a lifetime most of us will. This year alone, about one in five of us will suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder. And mood disorders, such as depression and bipolar disorder, are one of the most common causes of hospitalization in the U.S.

Despite how common mental health problems are, many of us make no effort to improve our situation. We ignore the emotional messages that tell us something is wrong and try toughing it out by distracting ourselves or self-medicating with alcohol, drugs, and other destructive behaviors. We bottle things up in the hope that others don't notice. But our emotional issues always affect those around us, especially when we erupt in rage or despair at the sense of hopelessness and helplessness we feel.

Our reluctance to address our mental health needs stems from a variety of reasons.

  • In some societies, mental and emotional issues are seen as less legitimate than physical issues. They're seen as a sign of weakness or somehow as being your own fault.
  • Some people mistakenly see mental health problems as something you should know how to “snap out of.” Men especially, would often rather bottle up their feelings than seek help.
  • Many people think that if they do seek help, the only treatment options available are medication (which comes with unwanted side effects) or therapy (which can be lengthy and expensive). The truth is that, whatever your issues, there are things you can do to improve the way you feel and experience greater mental and emotional well-being. And you can start doing them today!

The role of resilience in mental and emotional health

Being emotionally and mentally healthy doesn't mean never going through bad times or experiencing emotional problems. But just as physically healthy people are better able to bounce back from illness or injury, people with good emotional health are better able to bounce back from adversity, trauma, and stress. This ability is called resilience.

People who are emotionally and mentally resilient have the tools for coping with difficult situations and maintaining a positive outlook. They remain focused, flexible, and creative in bad times as well as good. While some people learn these skills in infancy, depending on the quality of the relationship with their primary caretaker, they can also be learned at any time later in life.

Improving mental and emotional health: 6 tips for better well-being

The HelpGuide Way to better mental and emotional health includes 6 tips for boosting your mood, building resilience, strengthening your relationships, and getting more enjoyment out of life:

  1. Connect face-to-face with others
  2. Get moving
  3. Manage stress
  4. Let your diet support your brain
  5. Find happiness through giving
  6. Invest in self-care

Improving mental and emotional health tip 1: Connect face-to-face with others

One of the key factors in improving mental and emotional health and building resilience is having supportive people around that you can talk to on a daily basis. Humans are social creatures with an overriding emotional need for relationships and positive connections to others. We're not meant to survive, let alone thrive, in isolation.

Face-to-face social interaction with someone who cares about you is the most effective way to calm your nervous system and relieve stress. Interacting with another person can quickly put the brakes on defensive stress responses like “fight-or-flight.” It also releases hormones that reduce stress, so you'll feel better even if you're unable to alter the stressful situation itself. The key is to interact with someone who is a “good listener”—someone you can regularly talk to in person, who will listen to you without a pre-existing agenda for how you should think or feel. A good listener will listen to the feelings behind your words, and won't interrupt, judge, or criticize you.

Reaching out is not a sign of weakness and it won't mean you're a burden to others. The truth is that most people are flattered if you trust them enough to confide in them. If you don't feel that you have anyone to turn to, there are good ways to build new friendships and improve your support network.

Strategies for connecting to others:

  • Get out from behind your TV or computer screen. Screens have their place but communication is a largely nonverbal experience that requires you to be in direct contact with other people, so don't neglect your real-world relationships in favor of virtual interaction.
  • Be a joiner. Join networking, social, or special interest groups that meet on a regular basis. These groups offer wonderful opportunities for meeting people with common interests.

Tip 2: Get moving

Ladies working out

The mind and the body are intrinsically linked. When you improve your physical health, you'll automatically experience greater mental and emotional well-being. Exercise not only strengthens your heart and lungs, for example, it also releases endorphins, powerful chemicals that lift your mood and provide added energy.

Regular exercise can have a positive impact on mental and emotional health problems such as depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, trauma, and ADHD. It can also relieve stress, improve memory, and help you to sleep better. And the really good news is, you don't have to be a fitness fanatic to reap the benefits. Even modest amounts of exercise can make a big difference to your mental and emotional health—and it’s something you can engage in right now to boost your energy and outlook and help you regain a sense of control.

Tips for starting an exercise routine

Aim for 30 minutes of activity on most days or if it's easier, three 10-minute sessions can be just as, or even more effective.

Try rhythmic exercise that engages both your arms and legs, such as walking, running, swimming, weight training, martial arts, or dancing.

Add a mindfulness element to your workouts. Instead of focusing on your thoughts, focus on how your body feels as you move—how your feet hit the ground, for example, the rhythm of your breathing, or the feeling of wind on your skin.

Tip 3: Manage stress

Many of us spend so much of our daily lives feeling stressed, we're no longer even aware of it. Being stressed feels normal. But when stress becomes overwhelming, it can damage your mood, trigger or aggravate mental and physical health problems, and affect your quality of life.

While social interaction and exercise are excellent ways to relieve stress, it's not always realistic to have a friend close by to lean on when you feel stressed or to be able to go out for a run. These other stress management strategies can help you bring things back into balance:

  • Engage your senses. Does listening to an uplifting song make you feel calm? Or smelling ground coffee? Or maybe petting an animal works quickly to make you feel centered? Everyone responds to sensory input a little differently, so experiment to find what works best for you.
  • Use relaxation techniques to relieve stress. Techniques such as mindfulness meditation, deep breathing, or progressive muscle relaxation can put the brakes on stress and bring your mind and body back into a state of balance.
  • Manage your emotions. Understanding and accepting emotions—especially those unpleasant ones many of us try to ignore—can make a huge difference in your ability to manage stress and balance your moods. See HelpGuide's Emotional Intelligence Toolkit.

Tip 4: Let your diet support your brain

salmon and asparagus

What you eat—and even more importantly, what you don't eat—has a direct impact on the way you feel. Wholesome meals give you more energy and help you look better, resulting in a boost to your self-esteem, while unhealthy food can take a toll on your brain and mood.

Our bodies often respond differently to different foods, depending on genetics and other health factors, so experiment to learn how the food you include in—or cut from—your diet affects the way you feel. In general, instead of obsessing over specific foods or nutrients, focus more on your overall eating pattern.

Foods that Adversely Affect Mood
Trans fats or anything with “partially hydrogenated” oil
Foods with high levels of chemical preservatives or hormones
Sugary snacks
Refined carbs (such as white rice or white flour)
Fried food
Foods that Boost Mood
Fatty fish rich in Omega-3s such as salmon, herring, mackerel, anchovies, sardines, tuna
Nuts such as walnuts, almonds, cashews, peanuts
Leafy greens such as spinach, kale, Brussels sprouts
Fresh fruit such as blueberries

Tip 5: Find happiness through giving

As explained earlier, there is an undisputed connection between social relationships and greater mental and emotional health, including lower stress and improved resilience, mood, and self-esteem. Now researchers are discovering that the greatest benefit of social connection stems from the act of giving to others. By measuring hormones and brain activity when people are being helpful to others, researchers have discovered that being generous delivers immense pleasure. Just as we’re hard-wired to be social, we’re also hard-wired to give to others.

This indicates that you have more control over your emotional health and happiness than you may have imagined. Supporting others is a learned skill that, with practice, can develop over time. Helping others is something you can learn to take pleasure in doing:

Spend time with people who matter to you. Build relationships where you offer support to other people—and they’re able to offer support to you.

Volunteer. The meaning and purpose derived from helping others  can enrich and expand your life—and make you happier.

Give it time. For some, supporting others may not be instinctive and, at first, may even seem unrewarding. But like any learned behavior, it can be developed. Start small, dedicating only small amounts of time and energy to helping others. When your efforts are rewarded with pleasure, you’ll likely want to be more generous. 

Tip 6: Invest in self-care

The activities you engage in, and the daily choices you make, affect the way you feel and how much you're able to help yourself. These choices, in turn, affect those around you. Investing in self-care is as much about caring for others as it is for yourself. Only when you feel healthy and happy can you be your smartest, most creative, and most caring self.

Activities to pursue

Get enough rest. To have good mental and emotional health, it's important to get enough sleep. Most people need seven to eight hours of sleep each night.

Get a dose of sunlight. Sunlight lifts your mood, so try to get at least 10 to 15 minutes per day, or use a lightbox in winter.

Enjoy the beauty of nature or art. Simply walking through a garden can lower blood pressure and reduce stress. The same goes for strolling through a park or an art gallery, hiking, or sitting on a beach.

Engage in meaningful work. Do things that challenge your creativity and make you feel productive, whether or not you get paid for it—things like gardening, drawing, playing an instrument, or building something.

Get a pet. Yes, pets are a responsibility, but caring for one makes you feel needed and loved. Animals can also get you out of the house for exercise and expose you to new people and places.

Have fun. Do things for no other reason than that it feels good to do them. Go to a funny movie, take a walk on the beach, read a good book, or talk to a friend. Fun and play is not an indulgence but a necessity for emotional and mental health.

Activities to limit or avoid

  • Avoid cigarettes and other drugs. These stimulants unnaturally make you feel good in the short term, but have long-term negative consequences for mood and emotional health.
  • Limit screen time. We all love our smartphones and devices but spending too much time staring at a screen denies you the face-to-face interactions that can meaningfully connect you to others.
  • Avoid isolation. Living alone or a limited social circle due to relocation, aging, or decreased mobility can lead to isolation and an increased risk of depression. Whatever your situation, try to schedule regular social activities with friends, neighbors, colleagues, or family members who are upbeat, positive, and interested in you.

Risk factors for mental and emotional problems

Your mental and emotional health is shaped by your experiences, especially those in early childhood. Genetic and biological factors also play a role, but these too can be changed by experience.

Risk factors that can compromise mental and emotional health:

Poor connection or attachment to your primary caretaker early in life. Feeling lonely, isolated, unsafe, confused, or abused as an infant or young child.

Traumas or serious losses, especially early in life. Death of a parent or other traumatic experiences such as war or hospitalization.

Learned helplessness. Negative experiences that lead to a belief that you're helpless and that you have little control over the situations in your life.

Illness, especially when it's chronic, disabling, or isolates you from others.

Side effects of medications, especially in older people who may be taking a variety of medications.

Substance abuse. Alcohol and drug abuse can both cause mental health problems and make preexisting mental or emotional problems worse.

Whatever factors have shaped your mental and emotional health, it's never too late to make changes that will counteract any risk factors and improve your psychological well-being.

When to seek professional help for mental and emotional problems

If you've made consistent efforts to improve your mental and emotional health and still don't feel good, then it's time to seek professional help. Input from a knowledgeable, caring professional can often motivate us to do things for ourselves that we're unable to do on our own.

Red flag feelings and behaviors that may require immediate attention

  • Inability to sleep
  • Feeling down, hopeless, or helpless most of the time
  • Concentration problems that interfere with work or home life
  • Using nicotine, food, drugs, or alcohol to cope with difficult emotions
  • Negative or self-destructive thoughts or fears that you can't control
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

If you identify with any of these red flag symptoms, make an appointment with a mental health professional.

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Resources and references

Mental and Emotional Well-being – Positive mental health allows people to realize their full potential, cope with the stresses of life, and work productively. (Surgeon General)

The Road to Resilience – Guide to resilience, including ten ways to build your resilience, how to learn from your past, and how to stay flexible. (American Psychological Association)

Mind/Body Connection: How Your Emotions Affect Your Health – Learn how emotions affect your health and what you can do to improve your emotional health. (American Academy of Family Physicians)

Mental Health: Keeping Your Emotional Health – Defines good emotional health, describes how stress affects emotions, and offers tips for avoiding problems. (American Academy of Family Physicians)

Making and Keeping Friends: A Self-Help Guide – Offers practical advice and tips on developing supportive friendships. (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services)

What Every Child Needs for Good Mental Health – Parenting advice on how to provide the love, security, and boundaries every child needs for mental and emotional health. (Mental Health America)

Download Meditations – Download or stream a dozen free meditation recordings to help you cope with life's inevitable hurdles. Comes with handouts. (Sitting Together)

Emotional Health – Written for college students, with special sections on adjusting to college life, how relationships factor in, and why it’s important to reduce stress. (Princeton University)

What is the Science of Happiness? Offers science-based practices for a meaningful, happy life. (Berkeley Wellness)

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Authors: Melinda Smith, M.A., Robert Segal, M.A., Lawrence Robinson and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D. Last updated: October 2016.