Everyone struggles in life at one time or another, and life’s journey has many ups and downs, twists and turns. Life is never a straight and even path and may require the occasional detour to get to where we want to be in life. Whether you have experienced traumatic events or not, and most of us have, we all experience times when we doubt ourselves, are fearful, uncertain and feel inadequate. This is part of being human.
Trauma can affect our mental health but it doesn’t mean we are crazy, sick or ill. Remember, trauma is an injury that happens to us.
Many people think mental health is simply the absence of a mental illness. Mental health and mental illness are however two very different things. Mental health is the sense of well-being that comes from knowing that you can cope with whatever life sends our way. Mental health is about a quality of life and finding balance between all aspects of our lives – social, physical, spiritual and emotional. The World Health Organization defines mental health as “a state of well being in which the individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his own community.” The Public Health Agency of Canada defines mental health as being “the capacity of each of us to feel, think and act in ways that enhance our ability to enjoy life, and deal with the challenges we face. It is a positive sense of emotional and spiritual well being that respects the importance of culture, equity, social justice, interconnections and personal dignity.
Good mental health can actually prevent mental illness. It is understandable and very normal that when we experience traumatic events we can feel less confident in our ability to cope with what life throws at us, you might feel more guarded, less trusting, less sure of yourself and of others. It can change the way you view and interact with the world around you. This can affect your mental health, disrupt your sense of life balance, your confidence, your connection with others and interfere with your quality of life. While it can feel crazy making but it doesn’t mean you are crazy. Your reactions and feelings are normal reactions to abnormal events.
You survived these traumatic events because of strengths you have and internal and external resources you could access. This also took courage. Recovering from the affects of trauma and enhancing your mental health is about understanding and knowing your strengths and knowing yourself. No one has perfect mental health and everyone can do things to improve their mental health. It’s a life long journey that gets easier as you travel down the road you have already started. You are actually farther down that road than what you might think.
So what defines and contributes to our mental health?
Dr. Corey Keyes described three types of well being; Emotional, Psychological and Social Well Being. We will also include spiritual well-being. All of these types of well being contribute to our mental health and recovery:
Emotional Well Being refers to the presence of positive feelings (i.e. happy or feeling interested in life, as well as a general satisfaction with life, being able to experience moments of joy.)
Psychological well being can be divided into six components:
As mentioned earlier a fourth type of well being is “Spiritual Well Being”. Spirituality is about a search for understanding essential core meanings of existence. It is the aspect of being human that refers to the way individuals seek and express meaning and purpose and the way they experience connectedness to the moment, to self, to others, to nature, the earth and to the significant or sacred.
There are many ways to express and experience spirituality and a connection to the world around you. For some it make be a matter of faith or belonging to a spiritual community, it might involve prayer, it could involve dancing, singing, chanting, meditation, yoga, hiking, mountain climbing, walking in a park or, staring at the stars. It is what every helps you feel connected with yourself, with others, the natural world around you and gives you feeling that life has hope, meaning and purpose. Whenever you strive to discover and nurture what gives your life meaning, purpose, hope and a greater connection with the world around you, you are striving to be spiritually healthy. One method, one way, and one size does not fit all.
When you think about the nature of traumatic experiences it is not surprising that some of these aspects of us and our mental health would be challenged. For example when people who were supposed to care for and look out for us instead hurt us it makes perfect sense that it might affect how we see and approach people and the world around us.
Enhancing your Mental Health
So how can you go about enhancing your emotional, psychological, social and spiritual well being? Perhaps consider some of these questions:
Thinking about your own mental health without judgment, and considering these questions can help you chart own path to recovery and enjoying life more. It can help you better understand yourself, your needs, your strengths and those areas that you might want to strengthen. It is not about finding fault, weaknesses or failings. Becoming aware of ourselves is not about tearing ourselves down or apart, rather it is about building ourselves up, knowing and honoring our strengths, knowing more about what we want, need or desire, the direction we want our lives to take Everyone has a right to be happy and enjoy good mental health and that includes you.
This journey is also about knowing and using our strengths. What are the things that give you strength and how are you using them. Strengths* can include such things as:
(* Source: Sources of Strength, www.sourcesofstrength.org)
Research in the United Kingdom has identified the five activities that make the biggest difference to our mental health and well, they are:
Connect with people. Invest time in building relationships at home, work, in your neighborhood.
Discover physical activities you enjoy and that suit your mobility and level of fitness.
Be curious. Savor the moment and be aware of the world around you. Practice mindfulness, being aware of sensations, thoughts and feelings without judgement.
Try something new or rediscover an old interest.
Be generous, do something nice for someone else. Thank someone. Smile. Volunteer. Get involved.
When your life has been affected by trauma doing some or all of these things can be difficult. It can be harder to connect with people, be active, learn, and give when people and the world doesn’t seem to be particularly safe or caring. You might find that you are always taking notice but you might be constantly taking notice of our potential threats to your safety or well being. Nurturing our mental health is a lifelong process. Take your time and with small steps. Celebrate the small accomplishments; they are bigger than you think.