In the recent times due to the pandemic, stay at home orders, lock-down, quarantines and isolation, a lot has happened that has spiked depression, loneliness and other mental health disorders.
You might be wondering, But what exactly is mental health? You’ve heard of things like anxiety and depression, and you’re somewhat familiar with the negative effects stress can have on the body. But you don’t know about the nuances of these things, and why caring for our mental health is such a crucial part of living a happy, healthy and well-rounded life.
You’ve come to the right place. This guide will cover what mental health is and why it matters, while also exploring tangible steps you can take to improve yours today. Read on to get started.
What Is Mental Health?
Mental health refers to the state of our emotional, psychological and social well-being. A simple way to think about it is like this: Our mental health affects how we feel and think, as well as how we act in certain situations.
When people think of mental health, they often think of conditions someone might have—things like bipolar disorder, anxiety or loneliness. But being in good mental health doesn’t just mean you live without a diagnosable condition. It also means that you’re able to maneuver everyday life (and its potential problems and roadblocks) with grace and ease.
One of the most comprehensive and impactful definitions comes from the World Health Organization (WHO): “Mental health is defined 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.”
Taking care of our emotional well-being has always been important, but it’s imperative now more than ever. Generation Z, which comprises teens and young adults born between the mid-1990s and mid-2000s, are the most likely of all generations to have poor mental health, according to a 2018 survey conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA). Twenty-seven percent of Generation Zers report having fair or poor mental health, compared to 15% of millennials, 13% of Generation Xers, 7% of baby boomers and 5% of older adults.
Although these numbers are somewhat staggering, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel: The generation that struggles the most, Gen Z, is also the most likely to seek professional support for their mental health issues, according to the study.
Why Does Our Mental Health Matter?
The impact physical illnesses and diseases—such as cancer, high blood pressure and diabetes—have on one’s health is clear. We do everything we can to ameliorate physical ailments through things like diet, exercise, medication and visits to the doctor.
But unfortunately, many of us let our mental health fall by the wayside. We don’t think of it as being on the same level of importance as our physical health. But the reality is that it’s just as, if not more, important.
Take this example. Let’s say you’re pre-diabetic. You take every step you can to prevent becoming diabetic through exercise and diet. You eventually get your blood sugar down to an acceptable level so that you’re no longer pre-diabetic.
Let’s say you’re also an incredibly stressed person who works 60+ hours per week, leaving little time for socialization or hobbies. You might think, It’s just a busy time in my life. The stress will dissipate eventually. But you could be underestimating the impact stress is having on your body. After all, poorly managed stress can lead to everything from migraines, overeating, fatigue and an upset stomach to alcohol abuse, irritability and depression—not to mention diabetes.
This example should illustrate how caring for our mental health is just as crucial as caring for our physical health. Our mental health affects our everyday state of being, and not managing it can lead to a host of related medical problems.
Your mental health impacts every element of your life, from your performance at work to your relationships with your significant other, family members and friends. It can also impact your ability to sleep, as well as less tangible things, like the likelihood you’ll take risks, push yourself intellectually, and feel emotions like gratitude, happiness and fulfillment.
You might not know if you’re experiencing symptoms related to a mental health condition, as it’s possible to maneuver everyday life without even realizing you’re struggling. Some early warning signs you might be struggling, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), are:
Eating too much or too little
Sleeping too much or too little
Fighting with loved ones
Feeling confused, forgetful, on edge, angry or upset
Common Mental Health Conditions
When people think of mental health, they might think of disorders like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Although these are serious conditions that require treatment, they aren’t the most common in the mental health realm. Bipolar disorder only affects around 2.6% of Americans and schizophrenia only affects 1%, while depressive illnesses affect nearly 10% of Americans and anxiety disorders affect nearly 20%.
Because of the prevalence of anxiety and depression in the U.S., it’s important to be educated on the signs and symptoms of each. Below, we’ve taken a look at the most common mental health conditions people face today.
It’s normal to feel a twinge of nervousness or anxiety every so often. After all, some anxiety is a necessary part of life—thousands of years ago, our ancestors needed anxiety as a way to detect threats.
If you’re nervous before giving a presentation at work or zip lining for the first time, you’re likely experiencing a normal, healthy dose of anxiety. If your anxiety is present and all consuming, however, it could be problematic.
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) offers this guidance for determining when anxiety has become problematic: “For a person with an anxiety disorder, the anxiety does not go away and can get worse over time. The symptoms can interfere with daily activities, such as job performance, school work, and relationships.”
The various conditions that fall under the greater anxiety umbrella—including things like generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), phobias, social anxiety and panic attacks—affect nearly one in five adults in the U.S. GAD is one of the more prevalent anxiety conditions, affecting just under 3% of adults. (It’s more common in women than men.)
According to the NIMH, if you have excessive worry or anxiety on most days for more than six months, you might be experiencing GAD. These worries can be about anything from your job and your relationships to your physical health. You might have GAD if you feel on edge often, have trouble concentrating or find it difficult to get restful sleep.
As humans, the range of emotions we feel runs the gamut. Depending on what’s going on in our lives, we might feel excited and joyful one day but sad or angry the next.
Emotions like sadness, anger and fear are a normal part of human life. But when these emotions become intense and persistent, they can be a sign of clinical depression or another depressive disorder.
Clinical depression is defined as having some of the following symptoms on most days (for most of the day) for at least two weeks, according to the NIMH: persistent sadness or an “empty” feeling, hopelessness, irritability, feelings of guilt, fatigue, weight loss or gain, changes in appetite, and loss of interest in hobbies or things you used to love.
In addition to clinical depression, other conditions that fall under the depressive disorders umbrella include postpartum depression and seasonal affective disorder (SAD).
Other Mental Health Conditions
In addition to anxiety and depression and their associated conditions, there are various other types of mental illness. People can also be afflicted by personality disorders (such as borderline personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder), eating disorders (such as anorexia and bulimia), psychotic disorders (like schizophrenia), post-traumatic stress disorder, and substance abuse.
What About Stress?
Everyone experiences anxiety, whether it’s rattling nerves before buying a car or butterflies in one’s stomach before a first date. Everyone likely also experiences a form of depression at some point, such as the loss of a loved one.
Likewise, most of us experience stress at some point in our lives. Stress is a part of being human. It can manifest in the form of job-related stress, financial stress, stress related to a major life event (like divorce or illness), or general stress related to one’s daily tasks and responsibilities.
Some stress is OK and can even be a crucial element in keeping us motivated and on track toward achieving our goals. But too much stress, or stress that is poorly managed over a long period of time, can have a deleterious effect on our social, emotional and physical health.
Stress can manifest in myriad ways, according to the NIMH. Some people will experience physical symptoms, like headaches and stomachaches, while others will have more emotional symptoms, like anger and irritability.
Poorly managed stress over a long period of time can have a serious impact on our health. People who are chronically stressed are at higher risk of viral infections (such as the flu and the common cold), the NIMH notes. Plus, chronic unmanaged stress can lead to things like depression, anxiety, heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes.
If you feel like you’re more stressed than you should be, don’t be afraid to take a step back and reassess your priorities. Can you cut back on work? If not, what are some things you can do to better manage your stress (i.e. exercise, sleep, meditation)? Is seeing a therapist something you should consider at this point in your life?
Don’t just chalk up your stress to the status quo. Our society has an increasing focus on working the hardest, striving to be the best and aiming to achieve goals that seem unattainable. But if doing any of these things is jeopardizing your mental or physical health, they’re not worth it.