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Building Mental and Emotional Health

Improving Your Life by Increasing Your Mental, Emotional, and Social Well-Being

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Your mental and emotional health influences how you think, feel, and behave in daily life. It also affects your ability to cope with stress, overcome challenges, build relationships, and recover from life’s setbacks and hardships. Whether you’re looking to cope with a specific mental health problem, better deal with unpleasant emotions, or simply want to feel more hopeful, energetic, and balanced, there are plenty of things you can do to take control of your mental health. No matter how hopeless or helpless you currently feel, these strategies can help boost your mood, build resilience, and increase your overall enjoyment of life.

What you can do to improve your mental and emotional health

  1. Connect face-to-face with supportive people
  2. Get moving in fun ways - as much and as often as you are able
  3. Explore a variety of techniques for managing stress
  4. Choose a diet rich in omega-3 fats to support mental health
  5. Get enough quality sleep - 7 to 9 hours a night
  6. Invest in activities that give your life meaning and purpose

How does mental, emotional, and social health affect our lives?

Mental and emotional health affects the way you feel about yourself, the quality of your relationships, and your ability to manage feelings, handle stress, and deal with challenges, disappointments, and losses.

Your social health is essentially the other side of the same coin. Mental and emotional health problems—as well as many physical health problems—often arise when the nervous system has been overwhelmed by stress. Since the body's natural and most efficient method for coping with stress is face-to-face social contact with a trusted, understanding person, social health plays an important role in building mental and emotional health. Helping yourself involves reaching out and connecting to others.

The strength of your social and mental/emotional health directly relates to the level of happiness, satisfaction, and contentment you experience in life, as well as your overall health and well-being.

The role of resilience in mental and emotional health

Being mentally healthy doesn't mean never going through bad times or experiencing problems such as depression or anxiety. 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 productive in bad times as well as good. Their resilience also makes them less afraid of new things or an uncertain future. Even when they don’t immediately know how a problem will get resolved, they feel hope that a solution will eventually be found.

Depending on the quality of the relationship with your primary caretaker, in infancy you may have learned the skills that enable you to connect to others in ways that build resilience and emotional health. If you did not, it’s important to know that these skills can also be learned later in life. It’s never too late to build resilience and improve your emotional well-being.

Overcoming obstacles to mental and emotional health

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, or self-destructive behaviors. We bottle things up in the hope that others won'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.

Why are we often reluctant or unable to address our mental health needs?

Our inability 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 our own fault.
  • Some people mistakenly see mental health problems as something we should know how to “snap out of.” Men, especially, would often rather bottle up their feelings than seek help.
  • In the modern age, we’re obsessed by seeking simple answers to complex problems. We look for connection with others by compulsively checking social media instead of reaching out to people in the real world; to boost our mood and ease depression we take a pill, rather than address the underlying issues.
  • Just as it requires effort to maintain physical health, so it is with mental and emotional health. We have to work harder these days to ensure good mental health simply because we do so many things that can take a toll on our emotional well-being.
  • Many people think that if they do seek help for mental and emotional problems, 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 six keys to building mental and emotional health

The following tactics draw upon the latest brain-based research and have been specifically developed to help you address health challenges, boost your mood, build resilience, and strengthen your relationships. In many cases, you can start enacting these strategies immediately—and start to feel the benefits right away. Others require more preparation, but just as it requires effort to build or maintain physical health, so it is with mental and emotional health. And improving your emotional health can be a rewarding experience, empowering you to become happier, healthier, and more productive.

The important thing is to know that you have control over the way you think, feel, and act, and can use these self-help tools to make a positive and lasting difference to your health and well-being.

HelpGuide's six keys to improving mental and emotional health:

Emotional health keys

Key 1: Frequently connect face-to-face with friendly people

One of the key factors in improving mental and emotional health and building resilience is having supportive people you can talk to on a regular 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 damaging stress responses like “fight-or-flight.” It also releases stress-busting hormones, 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. 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. In the meantime, there is still a great benefit to interacting face-to-face with acquaintances or people you encounter during the day, such as neighbors, people in the checkout line or on the bus, or the person serving you your morning coffee. Make eye contact and exchange a smile, a friendly greeting, or small talk.

Tips for connecting to others

  • Call a friend or loved one now and arrange to meet up. If you both lead busy lives, offer to run errands or exercise together. Try to make it a regular get-together.
  • If you don’t feel that you have anyone to call, reach out to acquaintances. Lots of other people feel just as uncomfortable about making new friends as you do—so be the one to break the ice. Reconnect with an old friend, invite a coworker out for lunch, or ask a neighbor to join you for coffee.
  • 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.
  • Don’t be afraid to smile and say something pleasant to strangers you cross paths with. Making a connection is beneficial to both of you—and you never know where it may lead!

Key 2: Stay active

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. Physical activity also releases endorphins, powerful chemicals that lift your mood and provide added energy. Regular exercise or activity can have a major impact on mental and emotional health problems, relieve stress, improve memory, and help you to sleep better.

But what if I hate to exercise?

Well, you’re not alone. Pounding weights in a gym or jogging on a treadmill isn’t everyone’s idea of a great time. But you don't have to be a fitness fanatic to reap the benefits of being more active. Take a walk at lunchtime through a park, walk laps of an air-conditioned mall while window shopping, throw a Frisbee with a dog, dance to your favorite music, play activity-based video games with your kids, cycle or walk to an appointment rather than drive.

You don’t have to exercise until you’re soaked in sweat or every muscle aches. Even modest amounts of physical activity 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. If it's easier, three 10-minute sessions can be just as effective. Start now by taking a walk or dancing to a favorite song.

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.

Key 3: Manage stress

When stress becomes overwhelming, it can damage your mood, trigger or aggravate mental and physical health problems, and affect your quality of life. As discussed above, face-to-face social interaction and physical activity are both instinctual ways to relieve stress. However, when stress hits, it's not always realistic to have a friend close by to lean on or to be able to go out for a walk or run. In these situations, you can rely on another evolutionary response to stress that’s hardwired into your DNA: engaging one or more of your senses—sight, sound, taste, smell, touch, or movement.

Does listening to an uplifting song make you feel calm? Or smelling ground coffee or a favorite scent? Or maybe squeezing a stress ball works quickly to make you feel centered? Everyone responds to sensory input a little differently, so start experimenting now to find what works best for you. Once you discover how your nervous system responds to sensory input, you’ll be able to quickly calm yourself no matter where or when stress hits.

Other ways to manage stress

While sensory input can relieve stress in the moment, relaxation techniques can help to reduce your overall levels of stress—although they’re likely to take more time to learn effectively. Yoga, 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 emotions to relieve stress

Understanding and accepting your 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. HelpGuide's free Emotional Intelligence Toolkit can show you how.

Key 4: Eat a brain-healthy diet

salmon and asparagus

Unless you’ve tried to change your diet in the past, you may not be aware of just how much what you eat—and don't eat—affects the way you think and feel. An unhealthy diet can take a toll on your brain and mood, disrupt your sleep, sap your energy, and weaken your immune system. Conversely, switching to a wholesome diet, low in sugar and rich in healthy fats, can give you more energy, improve your sleep and mood, and help you to look and feel your best.

People respond slightly 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 changes the way you feel. The best place to start is by cutting out the “bad fats” that can damage your mood and outlook, and replace them with “good fats” that support brain-health. See Choosing Healthy Fats to learn more.

Foods that Adversely Affect Mood
Caffeine
Alcohol
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
Avocados
Flaxseed
Beans
Leafy greens such as spinach, kale, Brussels sprouts
Fresh fruit such as blueberries

Key 5: Get enough quality sleep

If you lead a busy life, cutting back on sleep may seem like a smart move. But when it comes to your mental and emotional health, getting enough quality sleep is a necessity, not a luxury. Skipping even a few hours here and there can take a toll on your mood, energy, mental sharpness, and ability to handle stress. And over the long-term, chronic sleep loss can wreak havoc on your health and outlook

While adults should aim for seven to nine hours of quality sleep each night, it’s often unrealistic to expect sleep to come the moment you lay down and close your eyes. Your brain needs time to unwind at the end of the day. That means taking a break from the stimulation of screens—TV, phone, tablet, computer—in the two hours before bedtime, putting aside work, and postponing arguments, worrying, or brainstorming until the next day.

  • If anxiety or chronic worrying dominates your thoughts at night, there are steps you can take to learn how to stop worrying.
  • To wind down, calm the mind, and prepare for sleep, try taking a warm bath, reading by a soft light, listening to soothing music, or practicing a relaxation technique before bed.
  • To help set your body’s internal clock and optimize the quality of your sleep, stick to a regular sleep-wake schedule, even on weekends.
  • Make sure your bedroom is dark, cool, and quiet. Curtains, white noise machines, and fans can help.

Key 6: Find purpose and meaning in life

Everyone derives meaning and purpose in different ways that involve doing things that benefit others, as well as yourself. You may think of it as a way to feel needed, feel good about yourself, a purpose that drives you on, or simply a reason to get out of bed in the morning. In biological terms, finding meaning and purpose is essential to brain health as it can help generate new cells and create new neural pathways in the brain. It can also strengthen your immune system, alleviate pain, relieve stress, and keep you motivated to pursue the other steps to better mental and emotional health. However you derive meaning and purpose in life, it’s important to do those things every day.

What gives you meaning and purpose?

Engaging work that gives meaning to yourself and others. Do you have a role that challenges your creativity and makes you feel productive, whether or not you get paid for it? Maybe you create something of beauty for others to enjoy, such as painting, playing an instrument, or building something?

Volunteering. Just as we’re hard-wired to be social, we’re also hard-wired to give to others. The meaning and purpose derived from helping others or the community can enrich and expand your life—and make you happier.

Caregiving. Taking care of an aging parent, a handicapped spouse, or a child with a physical or mental illness is an act of kindness, love, and loyalty - and can be as rewarding and meaningful as it is challenging.

Owning a pet. Caring for a pet can make you feel needed and loved. A dog can also get you out of the house for exercise, expose you to new people and places, and keep you engaged with the world.

Relationships. Spending quality time where you give yourself to people who matter to you, whether they're friends, grandkids, or elderly relatives, can support your health and theirs - and provide a sense of purpose.

Risk factors for mental and emotional problems

Your mental and emotional health is shaped by genetic and biological factors as well as your experiences, especially those in early childhood. Risk factors that can compromise mental and emotional health include:

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

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

Learned helplessness. Negative experiences that lead to a belief that you're helpless and have little control over 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 multiple prescriptions

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

If you've made consistent efforts to improve your mental and emotional health and still aren’t functioning optimally at home, work, and in your relationships, it may be time to seek professional help. Following these self-help steps will still be beneficial, though. In fact, input from a caring professional can often help to motivate us to do more for ourselves than we’re able to do alone.


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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)

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: December 2016.