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Mental Health and Mental Attitude

Mental health is a general term that describes your state of emotional or psychological well-being. Lack of adequate emotional well-being presents a major challenge for societies throughout the world, including the United States. While many of the factors associated with mental health have a biological or genetic basis, many other important factors have an environmental or social basis, and each of us possesses a psychological outlook based on a combination of these internal and external forces. In addition, most of us possess the ability to improve our mental outlook by modifying our attitudes toward life and our current surroundings.

However, changing your attitude isn’t simply a matter of performing a series of random mental gymnastics. Researchers have uncovered a number of specific factors that directly impact your ability to improve your mental outlook, including participation in regular exercise, the ability to express your emotions, and an ongoing involvement in positive social relationships. The more factors you have in your favor, the greater the chance you’ll be able to build and sustain a life-supporting, positive attitude.

Mental Health Basics

Many people think of mental health as the absence of notable mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety disorders, dementia, and psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia. However, the absence of these obvious problems does not necessarily indicate the active presence of adequate mental health. According the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a mentally healthy individual has positive attributes that include:

  • The ability to deal successfully with the common stresses of everyday life
  • The ability to recognize and use your native talents and skills
  • And the ability to contribute to society through your work or your volunteer activities

Additional common attributes of mentally healthy people include:

  • The ability to adapt to new surroundings and situations
  • The ability to develop and sustain supportive social relationships
  • The ability to develop and sustain a strong sense of self-regard and confidence
  • The ability to balance work and other responsibilities with leisure activities and other forms of personal downtime
  • The ability to recover from personal setbacks
  • And the ability to develop and maintain a sense of purpose or “a place in the world”

When all of these factors are taken into account, less than 20 percent of adults in the U.S. have an excellent or ideal psychological outlook.

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Factors in Mental Health

The World Health Organization (WHO) identifies a variety of factors that influence your state of mental health. Some people have a genetic predisposition for mental problems such as depression, autism, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. However, even in these individuals, social or environmental factors tend to play a major role in the development of any noticeable symptoms. Biological factors that can degrade your mental health include a variety of chronic diseases, as well as habits that decrease your daily physical well-being. Chronic diseases that can trigger psychological problems — either on their own or during the normal course of treatment — include obesity, diabetes, asthma, heart disease, blood vessel disease, and cancer. Habits associated with poor mental health, as well as the onset of chronic illness, include alcohol abuse, lack of regular exercise, lack of adequate sleep and smoking.

Environmental and social factors that can increase your chances of developing poor mental health include poverty, racial discrimination, gender discrimination, poor access to education, and living in a setting with high levels of violence or various forms of ongoing human rights violations. In addition, your chances for psychological problems can increase if you’re exposed to toxins, work in an environment with high stress levels, or live in a society that’s experiencing accelerated amounts of widespread change. In addition, advancing age combined with certain biological or environmental factors can potentially lead to the onset of Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia.

Changing Your Mental Attitude

Some people try to talk themselves into feeling better, or participate in short-term programs that only elevate their mood for a limited period of time. With our love of quick fixes and miracle cures, we Americans are particularly prone to chasing after immediate results and, unfortunately, abandoning our efforts when those results fail to materialize. However, successful alteration of your mental attitude typically requires an ongoing, concerted effort that reaches across multiple areas of your life and lifestyle. Now, this may seem like (more) bad news, but the potential benefits are tremendous. In fact, even people with known genetic tendencies toward mental illness can potentially maintain or increase their mental health by taking the steps toward attitude improvement outlined below.

Developing Resilience

Mental health professionals sometimes refer to an important psychological characteristic called resilience. People with this characteristic have the ability to process their emotions, adjust to stress and trauma, and maintain a flexible, positive attitude during both good and bad times. For a variety of social and environmental reasons, some of us probably have higher levels of resilience than others. However, even those of us who are resilience-deficient can learn how to recognize this quality and build upon it over time. For instance, you can improve your ability to process your emotions by expressing them to people you trust, such as your friends or family or a mental health professional. You can decrease your stress levels by engaging in regular physical activity, pursuing your personal interests or hobbies, or learning formal stress reduction techniques in an organized setting. You can develop a more positive outlook by avoiding extended cycles of negative thinking that emphasize your problems and deemphasize your ability to deal with your circumstances successfully.

The Importance of Physical Factors

As indicated earlier, your physical well-being plays a major role in both your current attitude and your overall level of mental health. When you’re in good shape, your body works better and performs important tasks—such as delivering oxygen to your brain and maintaining a proper heart rate—much more efficiently. Regular exercise also increases your body’s supply of important mood-altering chemicals called endorphins, which reduce your stress levels and naturally increase your sense of psychological well-being. In addition, exercise can help you

  • Take your mind off your problems
  • Overcome the effects of mild cases of anxiety and depression
  • Improve your confidence and sense of physical mastery
  • And help you overcome sleep problems related to anxiety and/or stress

Additional body-related steps you can take to improve your attitude and mental health include eating a nutritionally well-balanced diet, getting small amounts (ten to fifteen minutes) of sun exposure each day, and limiting or eliminating your use of stimulating and/or mind-altering substances such as alcohol, illicit or illegal drugs, and tobacco.

The Importance of Social Contact

Humans naturally have varying levels of need for social interaction and communication. Some people, commonly known as extroverts, thrive on conversation and a wide range of social situations, while the more introverted of us have a greater tendency to seek solitude or limited amounts of social contact. Still, regardless of our specific tendencies, human are inherently social, and we all need some amount of regular contact with others of our kind. For this reason, social interaction plays a critical role in mental health and well-being.

However, quality of communication is just as important as quantity. Whether you talk to many people or just a few, your attitude and mental health will benefit if you can express yourself honestly and freely and also receive honest communication from others in return. In our technology-dominant age, we tend to substitute interaction between devices for interaction between individuals. Still, the main benefits of communication come from personal contact that relies as much on unspoken social cues as it does on actual printed or spoken words.

When Attitudinal Changes Don’t Work

Despite their best efforts, some people simply can’t improve their attitudes enough to improve their overall mental health. It’s important not to look at this as some form of failure. Remember, less than 20 percent of American adults operate at their peak psychological level. If your mood doesn’t improve over an extended period of time, don’t hesitate to seek help from a trained professional who can help you identify underlying causes for your circumstances. Seek help immediately if you or a loved one:

  • Has suicidal thoughts
  • Can’t maintain a normal routine at work or in the home
  • Can’t sleep
  • Uses alcohol or other substances to mask emotional pain
  • Or has ongoing feeling of worthlessness or helplessness

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