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Mental Health

Mental health is a measurement of a person’s psychological, social and emotional well-being. It affects the way people think, feel and act. Poor mental health may lead to mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression, but it may also affect physical health. People of every age can improve or maintain good mental health.

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Mental illness and poor mental health are not the same, though sometimes they may contribute to each other. But someone with poor mental health might not have a mental illness, and people with mental illness can still experience physical, social and mental well-being, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Improving and maintaining good mental health is important for everyone with or without mental illness.

“Good mental health is essential to creating the life you want.”

In the same way that people make healthy choices such as eating well or exercising to stay physically healthy, they can also take steps to promote their mental health. This allows people to be better equipped to deal with stress, have good relationships, contribute to the community, stay healthy and be productive.

People diagnosed with mental illness may have treatment plans that include medication and psychotherapy, but they also benefit from strategies to improve well-being and overall mental health.

COVID-19 Information
Meditating and keeping a journal are just two of the tips experts give for maintaining good mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic.
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Why Is Mental Health Important?

Maintaining good mental health isn’t just important for your mood or emotional well-being, it also affects your physical health. Researchers have proven that taking care of the mind also helps the body and many other aspects of life.

In a study by researchers Hsing-Yi Chang and colleagues in Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics, researchers studied the mental health of people caring for chronically ill family members. They found that low emotional support and poor mental health increased symptoms of illness and chronic disease in caregivers.

“Many causes of mental health problems also have physical consequences, and mental illness worsens the prognosis of a range of physical illnesses, especially heart disease, diabetes and cancer.”

Dr. Seena Fazel, psychiatrist and researcher at Oxford University

People with the highest levels of self-rated mental distress are 32 percent more likely to die from cancer, and heart disease risk is higher in people with depression, according to Mental Health Foundation.

In the most extreme cases, serious mental illness can reduce a person’s life expectancy by 10 to 20 years, according to a review by Oxford University psychiatrists Edward Chesney, Guy M. Goodwin and Seena Fazel published in World Psychiatry.

“Many causes of mental health problems also have physical consequences, and mental illness worsens the prognosis of a range of physical illnesses, especially heart disease, diabetes and cancer,” Fazel told Oxford University in 2014. “The stigma surrounding mental health may mean people aren’t treated as well for physical health problems when they do see a doctor.”

Poor mental health is also associated with unemployment, low income, deprivation and increased health-risk behavior, according to an article by researcher Marc Ashley Harris in Health Psychology Open.

Girl staring out window

How Stress Affects You

One of the main causes of poor mental health is stress, or what some people call “fight or flight” reactions.

Stress helps people survive in a dangerous situation or get them through a crisis. But now many people live in chronic fight or flight mode because of modern day stressors such as financial worries, friction in the workplace or difficult relationships.

The top three causes of stress in the United States are job pressure, money and health.

According to the American Institute of Stress, the top three causes of stress in the United States are job pressure, money and health. In 2017, 63 percent of Americans were stressed about the future of the nation.

About 77 percent of Americans regularly experience physical symptoms of stress and 73 percent regularly experience psychological symptoms.

Getting stress levels under control is a good start to improving mental health. When people are under stress, the heart beats faster, digestion slows down, the body releases more sugar into the blood and muscles tense, according to Mental Health America.

Stress can manifest as physical problems including body aches, high blood pressure, overeating, insomnia, vulnerability to infection, chronic headaches and more. It can also lead to more serious mental health problems such as anxiety or depression.

How Stress Affects Your Body
Chronic stress can affect your entire body and cause serious symptoms.
Source: Mental Health America
Woman stressed at work

Signs of Stress and Poor Mental Health

Signs of increased stress are also signs of poor mental health. People who suffer from these symptoms can take steps to improve their health. Sometimes, this means seeking professional help.

This list is only for reference. Only a qualified health professional can diagnose or treat a mental health condition. If you feel you need immediate help, reach out to a health care provider right away.

Signs of Unhealthy Stress Levels
  • You are you easily irritated.
  • You drink excessively or smoke to deal with stress even if you know it isn’t good for you.
  • You experience digestive problems, such as indigestion, ulcers or irritable bowel syndrome.
  • You feel fatigued at the end of the day.
  • You feel overwhelmed.
  • You find yourself “emotionally eating” — eating unhealthy foods or eating when you are not hungry in response to difficult feelings.
  • You forget to take care of yourself.
  • You have excessive abdominal fat or have trouble maintaining a healthy weight.
  • You have trouble sleeping.
  • You often have tension headaches.
  • You suffer from anxiety, burnout or depression.
  • You sweat excessively when not exercising.
  • You don’t want to be around people.
Woman and man sitting on top of mountain

Tools to Manage Stress and Improve Mental Health

The great thing about mental health is that people can improve it. Improving mental health can improve physical health. It may even prevent problems from turning into serious mental illness. Here are a few tips to help improve mood and empower people to take charge of their mental health.

Reach Out and Connect with People

Several studies have shown that positive social connections improve mental health. These connections can come from friends, family or support groups with like-minded people. In a meta-analysis of studies on mental health by Tayebeh Fasihi Harandi and colleagues, researchers state that social support gives people a feeling of being cared for, loved and respected. This leads to less anxiety, depression and other issues.

Keep a Positive Attitude

Negative thinking influences physical and mental health. Focusing on the positive as much as possible improves physical and mental health. The brain can actually be re-wired to think positive with more practice, according to Mental Health America. Keeping track of what you are thankful for at least once a week is a good start.

Make an Effort to Stay Active

Exercise has been shown to improve mental health by reducing depression, negative mood and anxiety. It also improves self-esteem and cognitive function. Being active for at least thirty minutes, three times a week is enough to get these benefits, according to a letter submitted to The Primary Care Companion to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry by Dr. Ashish Sharma and colleagues.

Increase Joy and Humor

Joy can boost your mood, fight stress and even help manage disease. Laughter is good medicine — studies show that it promotes relaxation, reduces anxiety and decreases pain, according to Mental Health America. Go to a comedy club, put together a collection of photos that make you smile or keep a list of your favorite jokes.

Support and Help Others

Helping others can boost positive feelings. Researchers studying neurobiology found that giving social support reduced stress-related activity in the brain, according to a study by Tristen K. Inagaki and colleagues in Psychosomatic Medicine. This can be something as simple as helping out an elderly neighbor, volunteering at an animal shelter or being a shoulder to cry on for a friend.

Please seek the advice of a medical professional before making health care decisions.

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Michelle Llamas, Senior Content Writer
Written By Michelle Llamas Senior Writer

Michelle Llamas has been writing articles and producing podcasts about drugs, medical devices and the FDA for nearly a decade. She focuses on various medical conditions, health policy, COVID-19, LGBTQ health, mental health and women’s health issues. Michelle collaborates with experts, including board-certified doctors, patients and advocates, to provide trusted health information to the public. Some of her qualifications include:

  • Member of American Medical Writers Association (AMWA) and former Engage Committee and Membership Committee member
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Health Literacy certificates
  • Original works published or cited in The Lancet, British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology and the Journal for Palliative Medicine
Edited By

49 Cited Research Articles writers follow rigorous sourcing guidelines and cite only trustworthy sources of information, including peer-reviewed journals, court records, academic organizations, highly regarded nonprofit organizations, government reports and interviews with qualified experts. Review our editorial policy to learn more about our process for producing accurate, current and balanced content.

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