We can look in the mirror and see a radiant glow in our skin, shiny hair, firm muscle tone and a smile on our faces that reflect a healthy body. We can measure our blood pressure, lipid, thyroid and blood sugar levels (among many things) to confirm good physical health.
But how do we truly know what is, let alone measure, good mental health? Is it the absence of signs and symptoms? Is it a feeling of happiness or contentment, confidence and lack of fear, clear thinking, focused attention and satisfaction in our relationships?
Possibly. However, the reality is that all of these things ebb and flow on a day – to – day basis, which is normal. So, the bigger question is what is normal? The dictionary definition includes adjectives such as usual, occurring naturally, average, and healthy. Hmmm. Usual. Occurring naturally. Average. Healthy. Sounds boring doesn’t it? It is my opinion that what is normal for one is not necessarily normal for another but that does not mean one is healthy and the other is not.
For example, it is normal for my husband to sleep for six hours, wake in the morning without an alarm and jump out of bed ready to take on the day. On the other hand, it is normal for me to sleep six hours, hit snooze on the alarm for an hour and a half before I have to force myself out of bed and head straight for the coffee maker. There is nothing wrong with either. Maybe one scenario is more desirable than the other but both are normal. Hence, by definition both are usual, occurring naturally, average, and healthy.
Returning to the fact that day – to – day fluctuations in mood, energy, anxiety, concentration and satisfaction are normal, why is it that we tend to avoid this ebb and flow and judge these things as bad or even label them as disordered? Our great designer, whoever or whatever that might be, built us with the capacity to experience a wide range of emotions.
Yet, many of us try very hard to avoid those that make us uncomfortable, such as anxiety, anger, and sadness. We avoid these feelings because they are painful. However, they are necessary to our survival. Without pain, we die. Pain is protective. It tells us that something is wrong and we need to attend to whatever that thing is in order to avoid injury or death. What do you do when you touch the handle of a hot pot on the stove? You recoil to avoid getting burned. If you did not have nociceptors (pain receptors), you would grab that handle, not let go and severely damage your skin. It is also likely that the wound would not heal and become infected because you would continue to use your burnt hand since you do not feel any pain. Once the infection spreads, you might die. Pain protects us. It is usual, occurring naturally and is healthy. How do anxiety, anger and sadness protect us and keep us alive?
Let’s look at anxiety first. Anxiety is a primal emotion. It is tied to our fight/flight/ freeze system. When we perceive a threat or some kind of danger (and it does not have to be a bear in the woods while out hunting and gathering, it might be an exam or a deadline), our senses are heightened or activated in order to protect ourselves. We are naturally given the energy, strength and everything else that is needed to either fight, flee or stand very, very still until we are free from the original threat. In the case of an exam or deadline, this “energy” may be the motivation and stamina to study or prepare for the big event.
Anger is another emotion that is often avoided or denied. For some, anger is dangerous because it has led to past violence. This does not have to happen. Our feelings are valid AND we are responsible for how we manage them. When we have been slighted, it is normal (there’s that word again) to feel angry. What needs to happen is acknowledgement of our anger, a show of respect and compassion toward the feeling and a sensible response to it, which may be simply telling someone, “I’m angry.” In an ideal situation, change occurs. Anger protects us from insanity, doing the same thing over and over expecting a different result.
Sadness is a wonderful emotion that also gets a bad rap. Sadness keeps us real. Those who experience mild bouts of depression tend to be more realistic about the world. Too much optimism blinds us from the harshness of the world, of life itself. Too much pessimism cuts us off from the beauty and great wonders of being alive. But just a little of both keeps us grounded and gives of hope, a dream for the future. Sadness also builds within us compassion. Our moments of sorrow make it possible for us to relate to and empathize with others’ pain. With this comes connectedness.
Connectedness keeps us alive. I doubt that I have answered the original question, “how do you know when you are mentally healthy?” I also doubt that I could ever provide a fully satisfactory answer for each individual that reads this clip. For each individual, the answer is unique because what is normal for one is not always normal for another. The best I can say is that mental health involves balance and the day – to – day ebb and flow of human emotions.