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How mentally healthy are you? 6 signs of optimal mental health

You have probably thought about how physically healthy you are, but have you thought about your level of mental health??

We are constantly bombarded with messages about the importance of our physical health and what we can do to improve our physical health. We now understand that physical health is not just the absence of illness. We can pretty much all agree that there are steps we have to take to stay physically healthy, whether or not we have a physical illness. We accept that physical health is something that can constantly be improved through specific actions, and we have a general sense of signs that a person is physically healthy (e.g., fitness level, engagement in physical exercise, nutritional habits). 

In recent decades we have only just started understanding and attending to the importance of mental health. For many years, mental health was considered the absence of mental illness. Psychologists and other mental health providers helped people go from a level of suboptimal functioning (e.g., unable to work or engage in daily activities due to mental illness) to “normal”, “adequate”, “acceptable” functioning (e.g., able to hold down a job and get through the day) -- and then they were sent off to maintain that status quo.

But now, research in positive psychology (i.e., research of optimal human functioning and wellbeing) is showing us that, just as physical health is not the absence of illness, and can be continually improved through regular committed action, so it is with mental health.  As such, it is a very exciting time to be working in the mental health profession! Mark my words: In the near future, having a life coach for optimal mental health will be as ubiquitous and recognized as important as having a gym membership or regular fitness routine for physical health.

Here are 6 signs of optimal mental health.

You practice acceptance, rather than avoidance, of emotions. You allow yourself to experience the full range of emotions as they occur within you. You know there is no emotion you cannot handle. You understand that some emotions are positive and beneficial, and some are uncomfortable and unpleasant, but your actions do not have to be controlled by them. You are aware that a part of human nature is to avoid emotional pain and seek pleasure, and this is often done through unhelpful behaviors like overeating, overdrinking, staying overly busy with daily tasks so as not to fully experience uncomfortable emotions. You stay aware of your emotions and actions, and you observe when you are avoiding them or trying to push certain ones away.

You practice mind management. You understand that as a human, your brain generates thoughts without your direction, and you are able to consciously and regularly observe these thoughts and thinking patterns without judgment (e.g., through a daily mindfulness practice). You understand that over time you can decide which thoughts you want to relate to, and use, in order to create the life experience you want. For example, over time, you are able to identify less with unhelpful thoughts, such as self-limiting or self-critical beliefs, and instead identify with more helpful thoughts of empowerment and compassion that allow you to take action to create the life you want to live.

You are able to connect fully with the present moment. You regularly engage in mindfulness practice, wherein you are able to connect fully with whatever is happening in the moment, with full focus and engagement in action or experience, and without distraction from thoughts or feelings.

You have taken stock of your values (i.e., what is most important to you in life, what makes your life meaningful), you have set specific goals consistent with your values, and you are taking committed action on a regular basis in line with these goals and values. You organize your life by planning how you will spend your time and energy ahead of time. This creates a life with intention, rather than a life lived “by default” in which you are simply responding to stimuli in front of you. For example, when you plan your day and commit to doing things that are consistent with your values and move you closer to your goals, you engage in that activity rather than getting caught up in mindless scrolling of Instagram, deleting spam from your inbox, and replying to emails that really are not urgent.

You challenge yourself to grow through new experiences and working towards bigger goals that are not easily attainable. Rather than interpreting challenges and setbacks as indications of your lack of talent and ability, you embrace them as learning experiences that are necessary for unimaginable growth and self-improvement. In other words, you have a growth mindset (as defined by researcher Carol Dweck here) rather than a fixed mindset. You know that your capabilities and talents are not fixed or static, and instead can constantly increase and expand. As such, you seek out new experiences and “failures”, rather than avoid them, because you understand and experience the value within them. 

You practice self-compassion and unconditional self-love, accepting both of the frailties and beauty of the human condition. As you look over the list above, you may feel like your mental health is a little lacking, and you might immediately be a bit hard on yourself for that. (I know I personally am obsessed with these concepts, but I certainly don’t practice them as much as I could or as well as I want to...) We humans are wired to judge ourselves and others, it’s just the way it is. But we can start to reprogram and re-wire our brains by practicing compassion for ourselves and our human-ness. We can remind ourselves that we are a work in progress, and that no matter what we do, say or believe, we are worthy of love and compassion, including from ourselves. In this life, I will probably never align my actions 100% with my goals or values, but every step I get closer to that I know I experience a more fulfilled, meaningful and joyful life.


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