While the importance of mental health toward overall well-being has become more commonplace in discussions around health, there is still a lot that can seem confusing. When it comes to practicing good physical health, the recommendations are often easy to understand: regular exercise, a healthy diet of fruits, veggies, and whole grains, and plenty of sleep.
But what exactly does it mean to practice good mental health? And why is it so important to do so?
The Facts Around Mental Health
It can be easy to think of mental health disorders as rare. After all, many of them do not exhibit symptoms that are easy to see, and we don’t get access to our coworkers’ or family members’ mental well-being in the same way that we can observe a physical condition.
In reality, about 1 in 4 American adults (ages 18 and older) suffers from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. Close to 1 in 10 will suffer from a depressive illness like clinical depression or bipolar disorder each year. In general, mental health disorders account for several of the top causes of disability in both the U.S. and worldwide economies, including:
- Clinical depression (also called major depression)
- Bipolar disorder (also called manic depression)
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
Women are nearly twice as likely to suffer from clinical depression than men. Most people who commit suicide have a diagnosable mental disorder, and suicide is one of the leading causes of death in adolescents and adults between ages 15 to 24.
Knowing the Symptoms of Common Disorders
If you’re familiar with how certain mental disorders “look,” it can be easier to seek help for yourself or a loved one who is exhibiting those symptoms. Your local physician or mental health professional can provide a diagnose and proceed with next steps to getting the right kind of care.
Depression is different than simply feeling sad. While all of us have experienced feelings of sadness--even deep sadness--at some point in our lives, depression is different in that it is caused by an imbalance of brain chemicals. This imbalance can be caused by life events or certain illnesses, but there is often not a “trigger” that causes depression.
Some common symptoms of depression include:
- Lasting sad, anxious or “empty” mood
- Loss of interest in almost all activities
- Appetite and weight changes
- Changes in sleep patterns, such as inability to sleep or sleeping too much
- Slowing of physical activity, speech, and thinking OR agitation, increased restlessness, and irritability
- Decreased energy, feeling tired or “slowed down” almost every day
- Ongoing feelings of worthlessness and/or feelings of undue guilt
- Trouble concentrating or making decisions
- Repeating thoughts of death or suicide, wishing to die, or attempting suicide
Fortunately, an early diagnosis and proper treatment is key to recovery from depression. If you are diagnosed by a healthcare professional, you will likely be prescribed some combination of medicine and therapy, which work together to treat the chemical imbalance in your brain. In severe, life-threatening cases of depression, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) may be used that can help restore the normal balance of chemicals in the brain and ease symptoms.
Download a free mental health app.
Generalized Anxiety Disorder
Generalized anxiety disorder (also called GAD) means that you are worrying constantly and can’t control the worrying. Common worries can include your health, finances, family, or work. It can also coincide with other mental health disorders like depression.
GAD can develop in numerous ways: it can run in families, it can happen as a side effect of a medicine or substance abuse, and it can be related to certain medical conditions that affect hormone levels, like hyperthyroidism. It can also develop when you’re having trouble coping with your internal stress.
The symptoms include:
- Trouble falling or staying asleep
- Tense muscles
- Hot flashes
- Trouble breathing
- Urinating often
- Lump in the throat
- Poor concentration
- Being easily startled
- Unable to relax
Typically, a healthcare professional will look to see whether these symptoms happen on most days and last six months or longer when making a diagnosis. Like depression, treatment often includes medicine and therapy, including working on relaxation techniques, boosting coping skills, and making lifestyle changes to reduce stress and avoid stimulating substances.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder (or OCD) is a common anxiety disorder. While the term “OCD” has often been used in media to talk about people who are tidy or particular about certain things, OCD does not necessarily affect one’s sense of tidiness or particularities.
In reality, OCD causes frequent disturbing thoughts or images in the sufferer, also called obsessions. A person with OCD will try to manage or control these thoughts through rituals, also called compulsions. Experts aren’t sure what causes OCD, but genetics, brain abnormalities, and the environment are thought to play a role. It often starts in the teens or early adulthood, but it can begin in childhood. It appears to run in families.
The obsessions that accompany OCD can vary greatly from person to person, but the most common obsessions include:
- A strong fixation with dirt or germs
- Repeated doubts (for example, about having turned off the stove)
- A need to have things in a very specific order
- Thoughts about violence or hurting someone
- Spending long periods of time touching things or counting
- Fixation with order or symmetry
- Persistent thoughts of awful sexual acts
- Troubled by thoughts that are against personal religious beliefs
Reasoning does not help control these obsessions. The sufferer themselves may be aware that these obsessions are unreasonable, but it’s not enough to make the unwanted thoughts go away.
Compulsions—repetitive, ritualized acts—are meant to reduce the anxiety caused by the obsession(s). They can include:
- Repeated hand-washing (often 100+ times a day)
- Checking and rechecking to make sure that a door is locked or that the oven is turned off
- Following rigid rules of order, such as putting on clothes in the same order each day, or alphabetizing the spices and getting upset if the order becomes disrupted
In many cases, these compulsive acts become excessive, disruptive, and can interfere in daily life and relationships. Much like depression and GAD, a combination of therapy and medicine (typically an anti-anxiety or antidepressant) is used to treat OCD.
Participate in a guided relaxation session.
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, is commonly talked about in conjunction with military service. But PTSD can be caused by several triggers, whether those triggers happened to you, someone close to you, or merely something you witnessed. Examples include:
- Serious accidents, such as car or train wrecks
- Natural disasters, such as floods or earthquakes
- Manmade tragedies, such as bombings, a plane crash, shooting
- Violent personal attacks, such as a mugging, rape, torture, being held captive, or kidnapping
- Military combat
- Abuse in childhood
The symptoms of PTSD include:
- Unwanted or intense memories of a trauma
- Vivid memories or flashbacks that make you feel like you’re reliving the event
- Feeling worried, fearful, anxious, or suspicious
- Strong reactions when you’re reminded of the trauma (or sometimes for no obvious reason at all)
- Intrusive thoughts about combat, death, or killing
- Feeling disconnected or isolated, as if you’re “not yourself”
- Loss of interest in things you once enjoyed
- Feeling agitated, tense, on edge, or easily startled
- Bursts of anger or irritation
- Problems concentrating
- Trouble falling or staying asleep
The good news is that, like all of the mental disorders listed here, PTSD can be effectively treated with a combination of therapy—including cognitive processing therapy and prolonged exposure therapy—and medicine, when appropriate.
Learn to Treat Your Brain Right
Even if you do not suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder, you may still be experiencing bouts of poor mental health, whether it’s anxiety, irritability, trouble sleeping, or simply feeling overwhelmed. So, what can you do if you feel like your mental health needs a pick-me-up?
Regular physical activity—including walking or jogging, swimming, biking, yoga, lifting weights, or even dancing—releases feel-good endorphins. These endorphins can help to promote feelings of calmness and combat the mental fatigue or anxiety that you’re feeling. And what’s more: regular exercise supports your physical health as well!
Identify Your Triggers
Knowing exactly what is causing your anxiety, irritability, or feeling overwhelmed can play a huge role in managing it. Whether it is a relationship with a loved one, responsibilities at work, or stress from outside factors like the news or politics, try to determine exactly what is causing distress. Once you do this, you can ask for help from others in making practical steps to better manage those triggers. Sometimes it might be avoiding those triggers when you can; other times it might be adapting your approach to those triggers to make them less powerful.
As human beings, we are naturally social creatures. While some of us enjoy get-togethers, phone calls, and group dinners more than others, it’s important for all of us to have healthy, supportive relationships with like-minded people. Mental health disorders have a habit of making you feel isolated and misunderstood. But allowing that feeling of loneliness to become a reality in your life is likely to make your mental health even worse.
Even if you’re not able to meet in-person, a video call, online game, or even a text thread can help to bridge the gap and keep those communication channels open.
And remember: Always talk with your healthcare provider about your mental health concerns. Your provider may not have any idea that you’re feeling anxious, sad, or overwhelmed during a ten-minute check-up. And they won’t be able to help if they don’t know how you’ve been feeling.
Find Your “Pause” Button
In our modern world, technological connectivity is shorthand for admitting that we are always “on.” Between our smart phones, laptops, tablets, and app-enabled TVs, there is always something grabbing our attention and forcing us to interact—whether we realize it or not.
When it comes to caring for your mental health, remember that your brain often needs time for contemplation and reflection. This means being free of distractions or obligations for at least five minutes a day and simply observing and naming the thoughts, fears, and worries that enter your mind. This practice of mindfulness can be difficult at first but keep at it and you’ll find yourself getting better at it. And in turn, you may just find your mental health getting better as well.