Psychotherapists can help people achieve optimal mental, emotional and relationship health. Research links the health of our relationships, minds and bodies in inextricable ways. Optimal mental health allows you to be your best self, have great relationships and achieve the life of your dreams. With this simple guide, you can learn how to achieve optimal mental health by addressing these key aspects of growth.
We don’t like to talk about diseases of the mind, but the reality is that many people deal with mental health diseases that need appropriate treatment before their lives can feel in balance. Many people also don’t like to use diagnostic labels to describe mental issues, but sometimes, getting the right diagnosis can make a big difference. Diseases of the brain and mind are just as common as those of the body, yet we often think of mental diseases differently. While there are many ways to think about mental disease, including spiritual perspectives or the lens of past traumas, sometimes a disease is just that and needs to be treated as such.
Once you have disease out of the way, it is important to consider any addictions or substance abuse patterns you may have. Some substance abuse problems develop as attempts to cope with underlying mental disease. Some, like alcoholism, can be diseases in and of themselves. If an addiction helps one cope with an underlying problem like depression, anxiety, stress or a lack of resilience, the root issue needs to be addressed along with the substance problem. Sometimes, addictions help us cope emotionally. In those cases, emotional work to increase psychological and nervous system capacity can be very helpful.
Mental health issues don’t always rise to the level of a serious disease, but can still negatively restrict and impact your life. Such issues include social anxiety, depressive thinking, hopelessness, stress, sleep problems, shame, self-esteem, body-image issues, grief, relationship problems, identity exploration, trauma and more. Once you’ve handled any mental health disease and/or substance abuse problems, examining issues such as these is the next level to explore. Most of us have some mental issues of the variety described above that get in the way of living a full life, feeling great about ourselves and engaging in healthy relationships. Working on these issues is no different than having a coach or physical trainer help you improve the health and performance of your body.
Mental health is not just mental, it’s also physical. The brain is a physical organ, and your mind is based on many processes that happen throughout your body. To run optimally, the brain and mind rely on gut health, healthy organ function, hormonal output and more. The brain is sometimes considered the most complex entity in the universe due to the trillions of connections that happen between neurons per second. The complexity of that function relies on many physical processes supporting the machinery. By getting annual physicals, taking important vitals and optimizing your physical health, you can catch issues before they take you down.
At this level of optimization, it is important to honestly evaluate the quality and duration of your sleep, to engage in a regular and effective exercise regimen, to properly evaluate your stress levels, and to improve your diet so that you have a well-balanced approach to nutrition. It can help to know and avoid food sensitivities, minimize inflammation-causing foods and habits, and understand what macro and micro nutrients you may need to support your optimal health. While practices like fasting can be healthful, it can be important to consider whether the practice is supportive or degrading to any underlying mental health issues. The same is true with certain diets that eliminate macronutrients like carbs. Nutritional support can help to manage mental health imbalances. Exercise, sleep, stress and relationship satisfaction are also spokes of the wellness wheel.
Research has shown that the quality of our relationship lives is equal to diet and exercise in determining our health and lifespan. Mental health is not just about your own mind, it’s also about how you get along with others. In fact, learning how to develop better relationships — deeper, closer and more trustworthy bonds with others — can have a tremendous positive impact on your individual mental health. There are many things we learn only in relationships, certain ways relationships ask us to mature and certain childhood wounds and traumas that heal most efficiently in relationships. If you feel you are reasonably mentally healthy and looking for the next challenge, look no further than deepening your most personal relationships.
A broader sense of community, like a strong friend group, and consistency in your social sphere, has positive mental health effects. Feeling connected and appreciated by a larger group of people can help instill confidence, comfort, joy, a greater sense of security in the world, and gives you social options if close relationships end. A community of friends gives you more options for play, and surrounds you with a complexity of personalities and ideas, which is important for growth. Don’t neglect building a sense of community in your life beyond your immediate family. Your friends will help support you, make you smarter and you may need them for more primary support at a later time.
Our minds are more organized when we have a clear sense of purpose and meaning. Not everyone has a guiding light that can make sense of their life experience. For those who do, it sometimes comes from faith, spirituality, family, a social-good mission or a passionate hobby or talent. When we don’t have an overriding sense of purpose in life, we can sometimes confuse challenges or negative feelings with being on the wrong track in life and we have less resilience to navigate life’s ups and downs. It is important to get clear on your purpose for living. That strength of mind helps you develop a more even-keel through the turbulence of life’s emotions and gives you power to channel more specifically toward what matters the most to you.
Optimization requires paying attention and improving things over time. The most sustainable change is the change you work on incrementally, building a new normal and a solid foundation for a better life. Optimizing asks for above-average intention and effort to focus on an issue and go after it, but then also to keep after it all the way through the change process. The brain science of change suggests that we have an initial burst of energy to address an issue when we’re most in distress. Then, sometimes, when the distress eases, we lose our motivation to continue learning and growing in that area. To really optimize in a sustainable fashion, it is helpful to develop a culture of humility, curiosity and growth, and continue acting thirsty for positive change, even if you’re not in trouble. An example of that is to do a little couples therapy, even though your relationship is okay. You’ll find little (or not so little) things to work on that keep you ahead of chronic negative patterns.
We can always deepen, learn, grow and mature. Sometimes our blind spots for growth are invisible to us but readily visible to other people, like our partner, or kids. Once you have everything in a decent place, go back through and find a deeper layer to focus on. In that way you’re deepening and optimizing, not just maintaining. A lot of our issues, especially automatic habits, have their roots in our childhood and family of origin experiences. A good therapist can help you connect the dots between current struggles and patterns and beliefs that got set up a long time ago, but are still active. When you enter a personal growth setting, like a therapy session, we recommend trying to make yourself sound worse than you are. Rather than trying to impress the professionals on your care team, show them your weaknesses and maybe even exaggerate those challenges a little. In that way, it’s easier to get to the root of where your growth lies and your learning process tends to accelerate.
By following these steps, you can achieve optimal mental health. While this guide offers a useful framework, you don’t need to walk the journey alone. Talented care professionals are often a key part of any optimization process. They can keep you honest to the issues and what works in moving forward, and they have the experience and expertise to fine-tune your growth once the big boulders are out of the way. The purpose of optimal mental health is to thrive in life, achieve important goals and live your best life in relationships, with yourself and in all your endeavors. Use 2020 to focus on key areas of growth. Don’t sit on the sidelines and let chance play with weak areas. Take control and work with a team to reach that peak existence you know is possible!
*John Howard and Peter Craig are psychotherapists at PRESENCE, a wellness center supporting the integration of your mental, physical and relationship health so you can heal, grow and thrive in life through leading-edge, science-based psychotherapy and medicine.